Clark, Septima 1898–1987
Septima Clark 1898–1987
Educator, civil rights activist
Little has been written about Septima Clark’s life, and many Americans have never heard of her; yet those who knew and worked with Clark remember her as one of the most influential women in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. A schoolteacher for most of her life, she came to activism through teaching and remained committed to the idea that education was the key to political empowerment. Her “citizenship schools,” which combined the teaching of literacy with voting rights organization, spread throughout the southeastern United States and were, in large part, responsible for the registration of thousands of African American southerners to vote.
Clark’s passion for racial equality stemmed from her experiences as a teacher and a mother in the segregated South; she wrote in her 1962 autobiography Echo in My Soul: “There is nothing worse” than having to teach a black child “that none of the pleasant things in life are for him … explaining why the native soil is such a hard place for the native to grow in.”
Septima Poinsette Clark was born on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father, Peter Poinsette, was born a slave; after being freed, he worked low-paying jobs as a cook, caterer, and custodian. Her mother, Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, had grown up free and financially comfortable in Haiti. All her married life, Victoria hated being poor and deeply resented having to take in washing to support the family. In a 1981 interview for Eliot Wigginton’s Refuse to Stand Silently By, Clark told Peter Wood that her mother used to get angry with her father “because he refused to condemn the whites who mistreated him.” Clark always believed that she had learned equally from her two very different parents: from her father, she learned nonviolence and patience; from her mother, she “got courage.” As she told Wood, her mother “wasn’t afraid of anyone, and so when I had to face the [Ku Klux] Klan [when working for the civil rights movement], I never felt afraid.”
Clark dedicated her life to the one thing her parents valued in common: education. “The only thing I remember that my father would whip you for was if you didn’t want to go school,” she told Wood. A study routine was strictly enforced; between homework and chores, the only time the Poinsette children were allowed to play was on Friday afternoon.
Born Septima Poinsette, May 3, 1898, in Charleston, SC; died December 15, 1987, in Charleston; daughter of Peter (a freed slave, cook, and custodial worker) and Victoria Warren Anderson (a laundress) Poinsette; married Nerie David Clark, May 5, 1920 (separated before his death in 1924); children: Victoria (died at three weeks of age), Nerie, Jr. Education: Studied under W. E. B. Du Bois at Atlanta University, 1937; Benedict College, B.A., 1942; Hampton Institute, M.A., 1946.
Promise Land School, Johns Island, SC, teacher, 1916-19 and 1926-29; Avery Institute, Charleston, SC, teacher, 1919-21; teacher in McClennanville, SC, 1921-22, Columbia Public School System, 1929-47, and Charleston Public School System, 1947-56. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), membership chair in Charleston office, 1947-56; fired by Charleston School Board for NAACP membership, 1956. Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), member of committee on race relations and first black member of central board, 1948. Began conducting workshops at Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, 1955; director of workshops at Highlander, 1956-61, and head of citizenship schools, beginning 1957; arrested in raid on Highlander, 1959. Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), director of education, 1961-70. Charleston School Board, first black female member, 1974-82.
Member: NAACP, SCLC.
Awards: Martin Luther King, Jr., Award from SCLC, 1970; National Education Association’s Race Relations Award, 1976; honorary doctorate, College of Charleston, 1978 Living Legacy Award from President Jimmy Carter, 1979; Order of the Palmetto, 1982; American Book Award, 1987, for Ready from Within.
In 1916, after Clark graduated from the Avery Institute, a private secondary school, she looked for a teaching job. At that time, people of color could not teach in the Charleston public schools. The Promise Land School on Johns Island, South Carolina, needed a teacher, so she moved there. Johns Island provided Clark’s first exposure to rural desperation. She told Wood: “The people there were virtual slaves. They had no choice but to work in the fields for the white people. That’s one of the reasons we had so many babies die. A mother was only allowed to stay two or three days in the house after giving birth, and then she had to be back in the fields.”
In 1919 Clark went back to Charleston and taught at the Avery Institute. After two years, she moved to the town of McClellanville to teach in the public schools. There she met Nerie Clark, a Navy cook, and after a short courtship, he asked her to marry him. Years later, Clark admitted that she had consented because she hadn’t had much experience with men. She liked Nerie and was afraid that if she turned him down, she might never have another chance to marry and have children. Her mother bitterly opposed the match, mostly because Nerie was from North Carolina—“anyone from out of South Carolina was suspect,” Clark laughingly told Wood years later in Refuse to Stand Silently By.
The marriage was not a harmonious one. As Clark explained to Brian Lanker, photojournalist and author of the photo essay collection I Dream a World, Nerie “did not think that women had the right to do anything worthwhile.… He always felt that a woman should stay in her place, the house … so we could not agree.”
Their first baby, Victoria Clark, lived only a few weeks. Clark blamed herself; she told Wood, “I felt I was being punished for having disobeyed my mother.” Her husband abandoned her shortly after baby Victoria’s death—and before the birth of their second child, Nerie, Jr., Septima Clark lived for a while with her husband’s family, then went back to teaching on Johns Island. However, she found the health conditions on the island too dangerous for Nerie, Jr.—the child was frequently ill. She also found it nearly impossible to support her son on her meager teacher’s salary, so she sent him to live with his grandmother in Hickory, North Carolina, where he spent most of his childhood. The separation between mother and son was painful, but Clark knew he would be well cared for.
She stayed on Johns Island from 1926 to 1929, then settled in Columbia, South Carolina. There she taught elementary school and helped several other teachers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to prepare a 1945 court case that forced the Columbia Public School System to make black and white teachers’ salaries equal.
In 1947, after more than 17 years in Columbia, she moved back to Charleston to take care of her mother, where she continued her involvement with the NAACP, serving as the Charleston branch’s membership chairperson. She also worked with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in Charleston, first as part of a committee on race relations, then as the first black central board member. Through her YWCA work, she heard about Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, a center for civil rights organizing and dialogue that was run by activist/educator Myles Horton. Clark was intrigued by the school—a unusual place where blacks and whites could come together and talk about race relations and the growing civil rights movement. She visited the Highlander Folk School in the summer of 1954. “I was really surprised to find out that a white woman would sleep in the same room that I slept in, or eat at the same table,” she recollected in the interview with Wood. “We just didn’t do that in Charleston.” At that point in U.S. history, it took an enormous amount of courage for the school to go against the laws and social customs that prohibited blacks and whites from working together.
From meeting and talking to white people from different backgrounds at Highlander, Clark learned that there were many other forms of discrimination and oppression besides racism; she later told Cynthia Stokes Brown, coauthor of the biography Ready from Within, “I found out… the low income whites were considered dirt under the feet of the wealthy whites, just as the blacks were.”
In 1956 South Carolina passed a statute prohibiting city employees from joining civil rights organizations. The Charleston School Board then fired Clark because she refused to resign from the NAACP. Her efforts to mobilize other black teachers to strike against the statute were unsuccessful. Nearly 30 years later, Clark told Brown that she would always see these attempts as “one of the failures of my life, because I tried to push them into something they weren’t ready for.… That taught me a good lesson.” The experience led her to an ideal that served her well throughout her organizing and teaching career and would later title her biography: social change could not be dictated by an outside leader—a community must be ‘ready from within.”
Myles Horton immediately offered her a job at Highlander, where she began the “citizenship schools” program, which quickly spread throughout the southeastern United States. Dedicated to both literacy and political empowerment, these schools taught people to write their names, balance check books, fill out a voting ballot, and understand their rights and duties as U.S. citizens. At the heart of the citizenship schools was Clark’s belief that political rights are inseparable from education. As she explained in Ready from Within, “I just thought that you couldn’t get people to register and vote until you teach them to read and write … and I was so right.”
The Highlander Folk School was frequently raided and harassed by the local police. In one such raid, Clark—a well-known teetotaller—was arrested and charged with selling liquor. But, as she told historian John Egerton in Shades of Gray, “integration was what really worried them.” The school was frequently said to be a hotbed of communist activity. Clark observed in Ready from Within that “anyone who was against segregation was called a communist. White southerners couldn’t believe that a southerner could have the idea of racial equality; they thought it had to come from somewhere else.”
By 1961 the citizenship schools had grown too big for Highlander to effectively administer on its own. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which, at that time, was the leading church-based civil rights organization, expressed a willingness to take over the program, so Clark went to work for the SCLC as director of education.
In Ready from Within, Clark explained that when she first joined the SCLC, she, like many of the other women in the group, “thought it was up to the men to do the talking. But later on, I found out that women had a lot to say, and what they had to say was really worthwhile.… So we started talking, and have been talking quite a bit since that time.” Clark believed that “the civil rights movement would never have taken off if some women hadn’t started to speak up.”
Clark felt that some of the men in the civil rights movement were, at best, slow to acknowledge the women’s contributions. She told Brown, “Those men didn’t have any faith in women, none whatsoever.” Though Clark had tremendous respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision and his nonviolent example, she “had a great feeling that [he] didn’t think too much of women, either.” She recalled that when she traveled with him, “he would say, ‘Anything I can’t answer, ask Mrs. Clark.’ But he didn’t mean it, because I never did get the chance to speak.”
After she retired from the SCLC in 1970, Clark continued to be actively involved in civil rights struggles, particularly surrounding education and day care. In 1974 she was elected to serve on the Charleston School Board—the same school board that had fired her nearly 20 years before. To Clark, that represented a real triumph in the civil rights movement. “It just goes to show,” she told Egerton, “that we can get something done nonviolently.”
However, Clark strongly believed that the civil rights struggle had not won complete equality for blacks. Segregation laws were defeated, but, as she observed in the interview with Wood, “more subtle things” remained. “What about your legislature? What about your city council?,” she asked. “I’m the only black on the school board, and when I get off … I wonder if there will be another one.”
In the interview with Lanker for I Dream a World, Clark looked back on her life’s work: “Dr. King had a dream that all people should be free … that they should be able to do all the things they want to do in America. I think we’re nearer. I want people to say, This is my dream and I want it carried forth.’ I want that dream enforced.”
Clark believed that struggle would always go on, and she spoke out against injustice up to the very end of her life—from environmental destruction to President Ronald Reagan’s education budget cuts. She saw such protest as a crucial part of being a U.S. citizen. As she put it in Ready from Within, “Idon’t ever expect to see a utopia.…I think there will always be something that you’re going to have to work on, always.”
Clark, Septima, Echo in My Soul, Dutton, 1962.
Clark, Septima, and Cynthia Stokes Brown, Ready from Within, Wild Trees Press, 1986.
Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, Touchstone, 1988.
Clark, Septima, Echo in My Soul, Dutton, 1962.
Clark, Septima, and Cynthia Stokes Brown, Ready from Within, Wild Trees Press, 1986.
Egerton, John, Shades of Gray: Dispatches from the Modern South, Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
Horton, Myles, and Herbert and Judith Kohl, The Long Haul: An Autobiography, Doubleday, 1990.
Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989, p. 164.
Wigginton, Eliot, Refuse to Stand Silently By: An Oral History of Grass Roots Social Activism in America, Doubleday, 1991, pp. 6-19 and 399.
Yarborough, Tinsley E., A Passion for Justice: J. Wattes Waring and Civil Rights, Oxford University Press, 1987.
Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1991.
Houston Chronicle, January 1, 1993.
New York Times, February 23, 1992.
Washington Post, February 12, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was taken from a United Press International wire report dated June 30, 1982; interviews with Clark are part of the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program Collection.
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Clark, Septima Poinsette (1898–1987)
CLARK, SEPTIMA POINSETTE (1898–1987)
An educator and civil rights activist, Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father was Peter Poinsette, a former slave, and her mother was Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, a free woman who had spent her early years in Haiti. Although better known for her civil rights activism, Clark used her experiences as an educator as the basis for much of her activism, especially issues dealing with equity in teaching salaries, literacy, and citizenship.
In 1916, Clark completed the twelfth grade at Charleston's Avery Institute, a liberal arts school founded in 1865 by Charles Avery and the American Missionary Association. After passing the state examination, Clark accepted her first teaching position at the age of eighteen on Johns Island, South Carolina. She taught on Johns Island from 1916 until 1919 when she accepted a position teaching the sixth grade at the Avery Institute. In May 1920, Septima Poinsette married Nerie Clark, and shortly after a son, Nerie Clark Jr., was born. When Clark's husband died in December 1925, Clark sent her son to live with his grandparents in Hickory, North Carolina, so she could teach. Teaching did not pay her enough money to support her son, and most boarding houses did not allow children.
Clark's experience as a teacher provided firsthand knowledge of an oppressive system as well as possible solutions to problems of inequality, illiteracy, and poverty. Clark, like most African-American teachers in the South, faced inadequate schoolhouses, lack of transportation for students, short school terms, and overcrowded classrooms, as well as low wages. For the school year of 1915–1916, the value of schoolhouses in South Carolina for whites was more than $5 million compared to a little over $600,000 for blacks. The average expenditure according to enrollment was $17.02 per white child and $1.90 per black child (1916 State Superintendent Report, pp. 140, 146). Out of 1,176 school buildings for African Americans, most were made of logs and only two were brick buildings; 778 were in churches or lodge halls. In 1916, Clark received $35 per month as principal and teacher and her associate received $25 for teaching a class of more than sixty students each. In comparison, white teachers taught classes with no more than eighteen students. One teacher taught only three students. They were paid $85 per month.
Clark became an advocate for a teachers' salary equalization campaign as early as 1928. Later she worked on the issue with principal J. Andrew Simmons of Booker T. Washington High School (Columbia), NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, and Harold R. Boulware, a South Carolina civil rights lawyer. Clark spent long nights convincing white and black teachers to show records of their pay. In 1945, Federal District Judge J. Waties Waring of South Carolina ruled that black teachers with equal education should receive pay equal to their white counterparts.
In 1935, Clark helped Wil Lou Gray, head of the South Carolina Adult Education Program, establish a program to help educate illiterate soldiers at Fort Jackson. Her experiences training soldiers to sign their checks, to read bus routes, and to learn to count were inspired in part by the citizenship schools Clark had designed at the Highlander Folk School and later Southern Christian Leadership Council. At Highlander in Monteagle, Tennessee, in 1956, Clark accepted a position of liaison between Highlander and Johns Islands residents to combat illiteracy and to teach skills necessary for true citizenship. Clark worked with Esau Jenkins, a Johns Island native, and community activist Bernice Robinson, of Charleston, South Carolina, to develop plans for the citizenship school classes. The Highlander loaned funding for the purchase of a building. Setting the front of the building up as a cooperative store, they used the back room of the building for Robinson to teach classes so as not to risk attracting attention from whites. In 1961, Clark accepted a position with the Southern Christian Leadership Council as director of education and teaching, focusing her attention on citizenship training, voting, and literacy. The program reached eleven states in the Deep South.
In 1956, forty years after her first teaching assignment, the South Carolina legislature passed a law that barred city and state employees from affiliating themselves with any civil rights organization. Clark was fired; she had openly confronted an unequal system, becoming an agitator for civil rights, requesting equal salaries for black teachers, and refusing to dissociate herself from the NAACP. When Clark lost her job at 58 years of age, she also lost her state retirement benefits. She spent two decades fighting for her benefits, which she finally received in 1976.
As an educator within an oppressive Jim Crow system, Clark's understanding of the connections among illiteracy, poverty, and power allowed her to link social reform and educational advancement. These were issues she spent her entire life addressing both as a teacher and a private citizen. In her autobiography, Echo in My Soul, Clark wrote: "In teaching [the poor and underprivileged] and thereby helping them raise themselves to a better status in life, I felt then that I would [also] be serving my state and nation, too, all of the people, affluent and poor, white and black. For in my later years I am more convinced than ever that in lifting the lowly we lift likewise the entire citizenship" (p. 51).
See also Education Reform; Multicultural Education.
Clark, Septima Poinsette, and LeGette, Blythe. 1962. Echo in My Soul. New York: Dutton.
Forty-Eighth Annual Report of the State Superintendent of Education of the State of South Carolina, 1916. 1917. Columbia, SC: Gonzales and Bryan.
McFadden, Grace Jordan. 1990. "Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights." In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965, ed. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson.
"Clark, Septima Poinsette (1898–1987)." Encyclopedia of Education. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/clark-septima-poinsette-1898-1987
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