February is Black History Month, a time to honor and celebrate African American history and those who have contributed to it. We all know the accomplishments of Black heroes and pioneers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson, and George Washington Carver, just to name a few. Since Bridgeway Academy is a provider of education, we thought it would be appropriate to celebrate trailblazing educators in the field–the first Black teacher and the first Black principal in the United States–Susannah (“Susie”) Baker King Taylor and Fanny Jackson Coppin.
Susie King Taylor
The Early Years
Susie Baker was born into slavery near Savannah, Georgia, on August 6, 1848, and raised on the Valentine Grest Plantation in Midway by her mother and grandmother, who were also enslaved on the plantation, along with Susie’s five younger siblings. Growing up in slavery, Black children were denied any type of formal education by state law. However, Susie’s plantation mistress secretly taught her to read. When she eventually moved to Savannah with her grandmother, Susie attended secret underground schools instructed by Black women. At the age of 14, Susie was freed of slavery when her uncle and his family escaped by boat at Jones River before reaching the Atlantic Ocean, where they were rescued by Union forces and transported to St. Simons Island.
Her Role in the Civil War
Susie was one of thousands of Black refugees who sought safety behind Union lines. She soon found herself with the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first Black regiment in the United States Army. There, she served as a laundress and cook for the regiment, and she was the first Black Army nurse to serve in an all-Black regiment in the Civil War. But it was her literacy skills that proved most valuable in helping the group of former slaves learn how to read. Susie married unit Sgt. Edward King and, after the Civil War ended, moved to Savannah, where she hoped to continue teaching. In fact, she opened a fee-based private school for freedmen, women, and children.
The Significance of Her School
Tragically, Sgt. King passed away around the same time of Susie’s school opening. This event, along with the opening of a new public school nearby, resulted in the closing of her school. Although her school closed nearly as quickly as it opened, it was a landmark occasion.
Susie King Taylor was not the first African American teacher (after all, she was taught by freed slaves in secrecy). However, in 1866 she became the first Black teacher to ever teach students openly and legally–educating students during the day and adults at night. She was also the first federally funded teacher in the state of Georgia. In 1867, Susie opened her second school, this time in her hometown of Midway. After about a year of teaching, however, Susie couldn’t make ends meet while caring for herself and her new son, Edward Jr.
Susie left her son with her mother, had another educated woman run her school, and headed back to Savannah to open a night school for children and adults. Unfortunately, she closed the school by mid-1868, unable to earn enough income.
After finding various types of employment, Susie moved to Boston in 1872. She married Russell Taylor in 1879, and spent most of the remainder of her life working with the Woman’s Relief Corps, a national organization for female Civil War veterans. In 1902, Susie published her memoir of the Civil War, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops. All the while, Susie was an outspoken racial justice activist who pushed back against prejudice and discrimination. Susie King Taylor passed away in 1912 at the age of 64.
Though Susie King Taylor is remembered as a pioneer in education, her work in racial justice and equality is just as notable. She advocated for women, especially women of color, noting in her memoir, “There are many people who do not know what colored women did during the war.” She also wrote, “All we ask for is ‘equal justice,’ the same that is accorded to all other races who come to this country, of their free will (not forced to, as we were), and are allowed to enjoy every privilege, unrestricted, while we are denied what is rightfully our own in a country which the labor of our forefathers helped to make what it is.”
Fanny Jackson Coppin
The Early Years
Fanny Jackson was born in 1837 in Washington, D.C., and like Susie King Taylor, was born into slavery. At the age of 12, an aunt bought Fanny into freedom. By age 14, she was working as a domestic servant in Newport, Rhode Island, determined to seek education wherever she could find it. “It was in me,” she wrote many years later, “to get an education and to teach my people. This idea was deep in my soul.” Fanny eventually enrolled in the Rhode Island State Normal School before matriculating at Oberlin College (the first college in America to accept Black and female students) in 1860. Fanny performed so well at Oberlin that she was the first African American student-teacher at the school. By her senior year at Oberlin, Fanny was organizing and teaching evening classes to freedmen.
Dedication to Education
Upon graduating from Oberlin College in 1865, Fanny moved to Philadelphia. There she began teaching Latin, Greek, and mathematics at the Institute for Colored Youth, a Quaker school. She soon served as the principal of the girls’ high school department. By 1869 she was appointed head principal at the school. This made Fanny Jackson the first-ever Black principal in the United States. Only two years after her appointment as principal, Fanny opened a normal-school department. And in 1878, she implemented a practice-teaching system to focus on the training of teachers.
Fanny’s work emphasized supporting the higher education of young women, expanding the school’s curriculum to include an industrial department, creating a Women’s Industrial Exchange to display mechanical and artistic works of young women, and founding the Home for Girls and Young Women to house workers from outside Philadelphia. She also encouraged employers to hire her students in positions that would utilize their education. While serving as principal at the Institute for Colored Youth, she was promoted to superintendent by the board of education. This made her the first African American Superintendent of a school district in the United States.
A New Mission
In 1881, Fanny married Reverend Levi J. Coppin, a prominent minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who became a bishop in 1900. During this time, Fanny led her school and succeeded in establishing an industrial training department that offered instruction in 10 different trades. As an advocate of vocational education as a tool to end racial discrimination, this milestone was an important accomplishment for Fanny.
In 1902, Fanny retired from the school she loved so much and accompanied her husband to Cape Town, South Africa, to partake in missionary work counseling African women. While in Africa, the Institute for Colored Youth relocated to Cheyney, PA, in 1904, before becoming Cheyney State College in 1951. She returned to Philadelphia in 1907 to write her autobiography, Reminiscences of School Life, and spend her remaining years. Fanny Jackson Coppin passed away in 1913 at age 76, having left behind a legacy in education and an impression on generations of African American women. As one final remembrance of Fanny Jackson Coppin and what her accomplishments meant to this country, the High and Training School of Baltimore renamed itself Coppin State University in 1926. To this day, Coppin State remains a prominent Historically Black College and University (HBCU).
Black History Heroes
Susie King Taylor and Fanny Jackson Coppin are two of the most inspiring and unsung figures in not only Black history, but American history as a whole. The truth is, education in this country would not be the same–especially for African Americans and women–if not for the pioneering spirit and bravery of these two Black women who made it their mission to create opportunities not only for themselves, but for generations of African Americans to follow.
Interested in homeschooling? Call the experts at Bridgeway Academy at (800) 863-1474. We are here to discuss your options, tell you about our award-winning programs and curriculum, and help you enroll!