Happy birthday Septima Clark!
On May 3rd 1898 Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father, born a slave, and mother, raised in Haiti, were both very encouraging when it came to Clark’s education.
She was able to attend public school and after saving money from work attended a private school for African-Americans, the Avery Normal Institute, where she received a teaching certificate in 1916. Since black teachers were banned from teaching in Charleston she ventured to John’s Island, South Carolina to teach for three years. In 1919 Clark was able to return to Charleston and lead a campaign in attempt to overturn the ban on black teachers. One year later she was teaching at Avery Normal Institute.
The following year Clark married Nerie Clark. They quickly had two children, one passed away shortly after birth and the other stayed with Clark’s mother. Her husband died five years after they were married of kidney failure.
After her husband’s passing Clark moved to Columbia, South Carolina. It was here she first joined a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter. During her work with the chapter she continued her education, receiving her BA from Benedict College in 1942 and her MA from the Hampton Institute in 1945.
In 1945 Clark worked with Thurgood Marshall on a case seeking equal pay for black and white teachers. Clark described it as her “first effort in a social action challenging the status quo.” Once the case was over her salary increased three times. She moved back to Charleston to teach again while also continuing her work with the NAACP. A few years later in 1956 South Carolina made it illegal for public employees to belong to civil rights groups. Refusing to stop her work with the NAACP she was fired.
Relocating again, this time to Monteagle, Tennessee, Clark began teaching interracial adult education at the Highlander Folk School. Alongside another woman she formed an adult literacy program. In the program they taught adults how to fill out voter registration forms, how to sign check, fill out papers for a driver’s license, etc.
“Guided by her belief that education and Black equality were integral subjects, when she became director Clark devised a curriculum that focused on promoting voter registration and empowering people to solve their issues through social activism. One of her students was Rosa Parks, who helped start the Montgomery Bus boycott”
In 1957 Clark founded the first “Citizenship School” on John’s Island. In 1961 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) took over the education project Clark started. She joined the SCLC as the director of education and teaching. During her time as director over 800 citizenship schools were started. Through these schools Clark was responsible for helping over 10,000 African-Americans “take control of their lives and discover their full rights as citizens.”
After retiring in 1970 from the SCLC it was clear Clark was not done making an impact. Jimmy Carter honored Clark with a Living Legacy Award in 1979. She published two autobiographies, the second, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and Civil Rights, won an American Book Award. At the first National Organization of Women (NOW) convention Clark was the keynote speaker, discussing, “The Need of Women Challenging Male Dominance.” Her radical thoughts and bravery to speak them are forever remembered.
Happy Birthday Septima!