February 1, 2022

Five Black Educators that Changed History

Happy Black History Month — this February, we would like to shine a spotlight on black educators that left a lasting impact on their profession. These African American academics have earned their place in history, changing countless lives through their work and influencing culture for years to come.

Although these figures are educators by vocation, they were much more than that — the following were not only teachers but also activists, organizers, and intellectuals.

Fanny Jackson CoppinFanny Jackson Coppin

Fanny Jackson Coppin was born a slave in Washington D.C. — her early life was extremely difficult, but she was resolute in her desire to obtain an education. In her youth, she worked as a servant to earn money and hire a tutor. From there, she was able to earn a scholarship from the African Methodist church, which allowed her to attend Oberlin College, the first university in the United States to accept both black and female students.

After graduating, Jackson Coppin worked at the Institute for Colored Youth, where she worked as a teacher for four years before becoming the first African American principal. She stayed at the school for 37 years, eventually being promoted by the Board of Education, making her the first African American superintendent.

Septima Poinsette Clark

Septima Poinsette Clark

Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina around the time of the Reconstruction. The importance of education was stressed at a young age — her father only punished her when she did not want to go to school. Because of her family’s financial status, Clark worked to earn enough money to send herself to a private school.

Clark passed her teacher qualification exam but, at the time, Charleston did not permit African Americans to teach in public schools. She moved to John’s Island and found work teaching in a rural school district there. During this time, she developed her own teaching methods, pioneering adult education using easily accessible materials like catalogs or magazines.

Clark moved back to Charleston and became an activist with the NAACP, where she worked on a variety of cases, including allowing black people to be principals and securing equal pay for white and black teachers.

Kelly MillerKelly Miller

Kelly Miller was born into a large family in Winnsboro, South Carolina, where he attended a local primary and grade school. From there, Miller attended Howard University on scholarship. He was able to complete the three-year Latin, Greek, and mathematics program in two years. Because of this, he was extended the offer to work with Captain Edgar Frisby at the US Naval Observatory. Miller’s talent with mathematics was evident to his colleagues at the Observatory, who suggested he continue his education at Johns Hopkins University. Miller studied mathematics, physics, and astronomy at Johns Hopkins, making him the first African American to attend the university and the first black man to work on graduate-level mathematics.

After financial limitations put a halt to his studies, Kelly Miller began teaching mathematics at a high school in Washington, D.C. This didn’t last long, however, Miller was offered a position teaching mathematics at his alma mater, Howard University. While there, he obtained a law degree and was eventually appointed as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. His modernization of the curriculum resulted in an enrollment number that tripled. Because of this, Miller was able to make higher education accessible for more Black Americans.

Rita Pierson

Rita Pierson

Rita Pierson was born in Houston, Texas, where she attended and graduated from Booker T. Washington high school. From there, she attended Elmhurst College in Chicago, Illinois, where she graduated at the top of her class. She began teaching soon thereafter but decided to continue working towards more education. She obtained a Masters and Doctorate of Education from Texas Southern University.

Pierson was a world-renowned educator, mostly known for her TED Talk entitled “Every Kid Needs a Champion.” In this presentation, she talks about the importance of getting to know your students better. She also taught many professional development courses for educators, focusing on the students who slip through the cracks. She was a lifelong advocate for better education for black children.

Nathan HareNathan Hare

Nathan Hare was born in Slick, Oklahoma during the time of segregation. He excelled in school and was even chosen to represent his high school class in the statewide “interscholastic meet” of black students. From here, Hare enrolled in Langston University and graduated.

After graduation, Hare went on to teach at San Francisco University, where he conceptualized the first Black Studies program. After his unjust firing, Hare went on to found a journal focused on black studies called “The Black Scholar.” It made waves and was used to promote black thinkers. He continues to write about black issues and supports Pan African Culture.