I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.Septima Poinsette was born on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father had been born a slave, and worked as a caterer after the Civil War. Her mother was born free in Charleston, but was taken to Haiti during the Civil War. After the war, she worked as a launderer, but did not work for whites, and refused to let her daughters work in white houses, for fear of sexual harassment.
Septima graduated from high school in 1916, but was unable to continue on to college. Instead, she took a position as a teacher on John's Island, one of the poor, rural communities in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. She taught school children during the day, and adults at night. In fact, it was during this time that she developed innovative techniques to quickly teach adults to read, using common household items like the Sears and Roebuck Catalog.
The black school where she taught had 132 students and only one teacher besides herself (she was the teaching principal), and she eared $35 a week, while the teacher earned $25. The white school, directly across the street, had only three students, and the teacher made $85 a week. This inequality grated on Septima, and it helped to form her beliefs about equality, and motivate her to join the civil rights movement.
Septima Poinsette Clark with President Jimmy Carter. Photo source: Lowcountry Digital Library
In 1919, she returned to Charleston to teach at an all black private academy, the Avery Normal Institute. This was also the time when she became active in the NAACP. She collected signatures on a petition to allow blacks to serve as principals in public schools, and in 1920, it succeeded.
Also in 1920, she married Nerie Clark, and they had two children, one daughter who died in infancy, and a son. The family moved to Dayton, Ohio, but sadly Nerie died from kidney failure in 1925. Septima stayed with her late-husbands family until she was able to support herself and her son, and in 1929 they moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where she worked as a teacher. Unfortunately, her salary was not enough for a single mother to raise her son, and in 1935 she made the decision to send him to live with his paternal grandparents.
She remained active in the civil rights movement, though. During the summer breaks from teaching, she studied with the legendary W.E.B. Dubois at Columbia University and Atlanta University. During the years of World War II, she earned a bachelor's degree from Benedict College, Columbia University, and then a master's from Hampton Virginia Institute.
Septima Poinsette Clark with Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Anelle Ponder, and Mrs. Towles. Photo source: Lowcountry Digital Library
In 1947, she returned to Charleston to care for her ailing mother, but remained quite active, teaching in the Charleston public schools, working with the YWCA, and serving as membership chairperson of the Charleston NAACP. In 1956, she was elected to serve as the vice president of the Charleston NAACP branch, which caused some problems. At that time time, the South Carolina legislature passed a law banning city or state employees from being involved with civil rights organizations. Septima refused to step down, and was summarily fired from the job she'd held for 40 years. Losing her pension, and finding herself ostracized by all other schools in Charleston, she reached out to other teachers and began looking for other opportunities to promote her vision of equality and education. While a black teachers' sorority held a fund-raiser on her behalf, none of the members would pose for a photograph with her, for fear of losing their own jobs.
I never felt that getting angry would do you any good other than hurt your own digestion, keep you from eating, which I liked to do.She had been attending workshops at the Highland Folk School in Tennessee for a couple of years, and eventually she began teaching literacy classes there, using the techniques she had developed on John's Island. She and her cousin, Bernice Robinson, expanded the seminars, teaching formerly uneducated blacks how to fill out driver's license exams, voter registration cards, mail-order forms, and sign checks. Septima also served as the director of workshops at the Highlander Folk School, and was responsible for recruiting teachers and students. One of the most famous and influential students to attend her workshops was Rosa Parks, who helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott months after participating in the workshops.
Septima Clark and Rosa Parks. Photo source: Highlander Research and Education Center
"At that time I was very nervous, very troubled in my mind about the events that were occurring in Montgomery. But then I had the chance to work with Septima. She was such a calm and dedicated person in the midst of all that danger. I thought, 'If I could only catch some of her spirit.' I wanted to have the courage to accomplish the kinds of things that she had been doing for years." - Rosa ParksSeptima built on the workshop format, and began establishing "Citizenship Schools" across the Deep South, ostensibly to teach adults to read, but they also provided an excellent opportunity to empower Black communities. Because of the deep-seated racist anger and the constant threat of violence of the time, these meetings were frequently held in back rooms. The teachers were often other adults who had learned to read later in life, and this gave them a sense of leadership in their community, which would help later in the civil rights movement. While the stated goal was to give the black adults a basic education to enable them to pass literacy tests mandated by many southern states in order to effectively ban illiterate blacks from voting, the secondary goal was to empower these small communities, teach them to act collectively, protest racism, and build momentum for the larger civil rights movement.
She retired from the SCLC in 1970, at the age of 72. She served on the Charleston County School Board, and won her appeal to have her pension reinstated. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter honored her with a Living Legacy Award. And in 1987, she published her second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, which won the American Book Award.
Known as the "Queen Mother" or "Grandmother of the American Civil Rights Movement" in the United States, she died on December 15, 1987, at the age of 89, and was honored by Reverend Joseph Lowery of the SCLC with the Drum Major for Justice Award for "her courageous and pioneering efforts in the area of citizenship education and interracial cooperation."
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