Stephens, Charlotte Andrews 1854–1951
Charlotte Andrews Stephens 1854–1951
Educator, principal, librarian, reformer
Historical accounts of Charlotte Andrews Stephens’s life portray a strong, spirited, loving, and remarkable woman. Because of her father’s commitment to teaching blacks, Stephens was nurtured in and influenced by an environment rich in learning opportunities. Constantly battling racial prejudice and social inequity, Stephens fulfilled her dream of going to college and then became one of the most notable teachers in the South. Her seventy-year teaching career has been proclaimed the longest in the United States. According to Ebony, “For 70 years, from 1869 until retirement in 1939, she taught at every grade level in the schools of Little Rock, Arkansas.” Her dedication to education ultimately led to her being the first woman in Little Rock to have a school named for her.
The third child of Wallace and Caroline Andrews, Charlotte Andrews Stephens was born in 1854 in Little Rock. Caroline Andrews had previously given birth to two boys, but one of them died shortly after birth. Stephens was named after her mother’s best friend, known to the family as Aunt Charlotte, who lived across the street from them. Lottie was the nickname given to Charlotte by family and friends. Charlotte Stephens and her parents began the pioneer work of establishing a school to educate blacks in Little Rock as early as 1864. Her father’s small Methodist church became the site of the first black school in Arkansas, which created groundbreaking educational opportunities for slaves and free blacks.
Although Charlotte Stephens’s parents were slaves most of their lives, the two were uncommonly dynamic and enterprising. Caroline Andrews opened a home laundry business that supported the family. Stephens’s father did several odd jobs in addition to working for his master. Aunt Charlotte operated a “wash house.” Despite the hard work and conditions of slavery, Wallace and Caroline Andrews never lost an opportunity to teach lessons to Stephens and others in the community.
When Stephens was seven, she was taken away from her parents and enslaved as a housemaid on a plantation ten miles away from them. Two years later the fall of Little Rock to the federal army ended slavery in parts of the state, and Stephens was reunited with her parents. According to Adolphine Terry in her biography of Stephens, “Two days after the fall of Little Rock, an old friend of Wallace Andrews from the plantation where Lottie had been living for two years put the child on a horse behind him and started for town to restore her to her parents. She was riding uneasily holding on with both arms around the man’s waist, not able to see anything because of the broad back in front of her when her guardian suddenly reined in the horse exclaiming “Why there’s Brother Andrews himself.” Lottie peeped around his back to see her father and another friend driving toward them in a trim light wagon. They were coming to take her home.”
Armed with bits and pieces of knowledge she gained discreetly while living on the plantation, along with her
Born in 1854; daughter of Wallace and Caroline Andrews; married John Herbert Stephens, 1877; eight children; Education: Oberlin College.
Career: Pine Bluff, AR, teacher; Capitol Hill School, Little Rock, principal, 1877; librarian.
Awards: Charlotte Andrews Stephens School, Little Rock, named in her honor, 1909, larger school, 1950.
Member: Women’s Christian Temperance Union; Federated Women’s Club; Lotus; Bay View Reading Club; YWCA.
father’s lessons, Stephens trained to be a teacher. Stephens’s first assignment as a teacher came about as the result of her father’s missionary work. While traveling, Wallace Andrews discovered a large population of blacks in the Pine Bluff, Arkansas, area who were desperate for teachers. Stephens and her brothers journeyed 150 miles up the river to reach the school. According to Terry, “The school was opened with John as principal, Jimmy and Charlotte as staff.” Stephens later recalled that people from this area were so eager to learn that having two sixteen-year-old boys and twelve-year-old Charlotte as teachers did not reduce their fervor in the least. Countless adults and children poured into the small school for the opportunity to learn. Stephens and her brothers operated the school until their father died a few months later.
Charlotte Andrews Stephens returned home after her father’s death and resumed the lifestyle of a twelve-year-old, playing, doing chores, and studying. Three years later she had her second chance to be a school teacher. In 1869 free schools were opened to blacks. Stephens, being the brightest student in her class, had the opportunity to fill in when one of the regular teachers became ill. Stephens’s experience led to her entrance into the mainstream of the teaching profession.
While Stephens was successful as a teacher, she was dissatisfied with the limited preparation she had for her chosen career. Stephens made a major decision--to pursue a college education. Her efforts were not without the usual trials and tribulations faced by blacks seeking higher educations--financial woes, family separation, and racial prejudice. To give an example of the racial inequality existing at the time, Stephens’s only choice for college was Oberlin in Ohio, where black students had been accepted and black women had already graduated with bachelor’s degrees. Stephens paid her own way through college by saving money from her teaching job, and whenever her tuition money ran out, she went back to work again full time. College was a very enlightening experience for Stephens, both intellectually and socially.
As her level of social awareness rose, Stephens discovered that the blacks in Little Rock were starved for entertainment and recreation. She addressed this need by organizing in Little Rock activities similar to the ones she was introduced to at Oberlin, such as dramatic skits, musical concerts, and games designed for the entertainment of large groups. These programs were highly successful. Stephens was author, director, musical conductor, costume designer, and whatever else the occasion called for.
By 1877 Charlotte Stephens was principal of Capitol Hill School in Little Rock. That same year she married John Herbert Stephens on February 21. She continued to work as a reformer, challenging the educational and social traditions of her community. Her energy and popularity led to her participation in both local and national organizations. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Federated Women’s Club were two national organizations that Stephens joined as a charter member. She joined other groups as well, including Lotus, the Bay View Reading Club, and the YWCA. Stephens selected organizational affiliations based on their commitment to the enhancement of people’s lives. It was not long before Stephens took on another challenge--motherhood. As with many professional women, Stephens’s life became structured to accommodate both her family and her career.
Stephens had eight children, two of whom died shortly after birth. Since Stephens and her husband both worked away from home, her mother and friends of the family looked after the children, ensuring that they received love and proper care. All of Stephens’s children were intelligent. They were first in their classes and went on to make good lives for themselves.
Charlotte Andrews Stephens’s competence as a teacher and administrator, along with her high level of energy, led to offers from schools such as Philander Smith College in Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, but she was adamant about her preference for teaching younger students, whom she felt could best benefit from her knowledge and guidance. She preferred the third and eighth grades. Stephens also worked as a librarian for a time. In recognition of her significant accomplishments, in 1909 a black school in Little Rock was named in Stephens’s honor. A larger school built on the site and also named in her honor was dedicated on October 8, 1950.
Charlotte Andrews Stephens continued to work even after she retired, when, during the summer months, friends and neighbors sent their daughters over to her house for lessons. Stephens stayed alert and active by traveling with her youngest daughter and studying. At this stage in her life, Stephens was elated about traveling to various cities, historical landmarks, museums, and other cultural attractions, many of which she had only read about before. At various times throughout her remarkable career, Stephens had visions of writing a novel about the progress and achievements blacks had made since their emancipation, but instead of writing the novel, she lived the life of an extraordinary role model. Stephens’s tremendous influence on her students, and others with whom she came into contact, is documented in Terry’s Charlotte Stephens: Little Rock’s First Black Teacher, which also attests to Stephens’s importance in the educational history of this country.
Terry, Adolphine F. Charlotte Stephens: Little Rock’s First Black Teacher. Little Rock: Academic Press of Arkansas, 1973.
Negro Digest, May 1951, pp. 31-32.
Black Perspective in Music, Spring 1977, p. 33.
Ebony, January 1950, p. 5
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