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How Four Great Educators Leveled the Playing Field for African-American Students

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Teacher speaks with studentsBy Marcus A. Hennessy, CEA (ret.)

As we acknowledge the outstanding contributions of educators during African American History Month, it’s important to highlight the courageous work of early pioneers in the struggle to level the educational playing field.

These four renowned black educators overcame racism and discrimination in their quest to ensure an equal and fair education for all students. Their diverse accomplishments have earned them high honors in the pantheon of great American teachers.

Charlotte Forten, 1837-1914

“The long, dark night of the Past, with all its sorrows and its fears, was forgotten; and for the Future — the eyes of these freed children see no clouds in it. It is full of sunlight, they think, and they trust in it, perfectly.” — “Life on the Sea Islands,” an autobiography

Charlotte Forten was the first African-American teacher ever hired in Massachusetts, and during the Civil War she traveled south to St. Helena Island near Charleston, S.C., to join Laura Towne’s project to teach the children of freed slaves. This effort led to the establishment of the Penn Center, the first freedmen school in the United States. Forten worked arduously to instill in her students a commitment to learn, but poor health forced her to return to Washington, D.C., after only two years.

Forten made America aware of the plight facing newly freed blacks with her memoir, “Life on the Sea Islands,” published in 1864 in The Atlantic Monthly, and also with her prolific personal diaries, which described in poetic detail her struggle to liberate African-Americans through education and literacy.

Booker T. Washington, 1856-1915

“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed.” — Booker T. Washington

After enduring childhood slavery and walking 500 miles to attend Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia, Booker T. Washington graduated with high marks and was recommended by his white mentor, a former general in the Union Army, to run Alabama’s new Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for blacks (now known as Tuskegee University) in 1881.

As classes were held in a ramshackle church, Washington traveled throughout the region to promote the institute and raise money. Over time, Tuskegee became the top school for African-Americans in the U.S. with 1,500 students, more than 200 faculty members teaching 38 trades and professions, and nearly $2 million in endowments.

Washington emphasized patience, enterprise, thrift and social responsibility among his students. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House in 1901 and consulted with him on racial matters thereafter, as did President William Howard Taft, until Washington’s health declined.

Septima Poinsette Clark, 1898-1987

Becoming a teacher at an early age, Septima Poinsette Clark taught young students in North and South Carolina under stark conditions, often with no supplies. After enduring some tragic events in her family life, Clark found teaching positions in Charleston and Columbia, S.C., where she taught for 18 years. When the South Carolina Legislature made it illegal for city and state workers to belong to civil rights organizations, Clark refused to give up her membership in the NAACP, so she was fired from a teaching job in Charleston. This created a new opportunity for Clark when activist Myles Horton invited her to teach and organize literacy workshops at Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School in 1954.

Earlier in her career she had cultivated a teaching method that related math and English subjects to problems of everyday life, and this became a popular approach at Highlander. Clark’s work in the NAACP inspired civil rights activist Rosa Parks, who attended Highlander just a few months before she ignited the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955. The Highlander Folk School also motivated its graduates to open “citizenship schools” in their own communities, creating a ripple effect of literacy education across the South.

Clark’s work in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the early 1960s led to the formation of the Voter Education Project, which trained over 10,000 teachers for citizenship schools and resulted in close to 700,000 African Americans registering to vote.

Dr. Martin Luther King considered Clark a major influence on his civil rights philosophy and insisted that she go with him to Oslo, Norway, in 1964 to participate in his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.

John Wesley Gilbert, 1864-1923

Leading as much by example as through activism, John W. Gilbert showed the African-American community that with talent and hard work, blacks could achieve status in modern society regardless of race. Born into a farming family in Georgia, Gilbert had an aptitude for learning at a young age, especially languages, and eventually graduated from Brown University in Rhode Island with a classics degree in Greek. He won the school’s prestigious Athens scholarship and became the first African-American student at the American School in Greece, where he studied archeology in the early 1890s.

Gilbert published scholarly articles for the New York Independent and other journals, and much of his work focused on how blacks could improve the training they receive to succeed in their chosen businesses and professions. He also questioned the value of using textbooks written by whites for whites, and encouraged blacks to promote their own historical and scholarly work, especially at conventions and national congresses.

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