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Clark, Septima

Clark, Septima

May 3, 1898
December 15, 1987

Educator and civil rights activist Septima Poinsette was born and reared in Charleston, South Carolina. Her mother, Victoria Warren Anderson, was of Haitian descent and worked as a laundress, and her father, Peter Porcher Poinsette, was a former slave who worked as a cook and a caterer. Her parents deeply influenced Poinsette and instilled in her a willingness to share her gifts and a belief that there was something redeeming about everyone. In addition, Poinsette's early education, which brought her into contact with demanding black teachers who insisted that students have pride and work hard, left a positive and lasting impression on her. Partly as a result of these influences, Poinsette pursued a career in education. In 1916 she received her teaching certificate from Avery Normal Institute, a private school for black teachers founded after the end of the Civil War by the American Missionary Association in Charleston.

Poinsette's first teaching position was on John's Island, South Carolina, from 1916 to 1919, because African Americans were barred from teaching in the Charleston public schools. She tried to address the vast educational, political, and economic inequities that faced John's Island blacks by instituting adult literacy classes and health education and by working with the NAACP. In 1919 she returned to Charleston to work at Avery and spearheaded a campaign against Charleston's exclusionary education system that resulted, one year later, in the overturning of the law barring black teachers from teaching in public schools. In May 1920 Poinsette married Nerie Clark, a back navy cook. She had two children, one of whom died at birth. After her husband died in 1924, Clark sent her other child, Nerie, Jr., to live with his paternal grandmother because she could not support him financially.

Shortly thereafter, Clark returned to Columbia, South Carolina, became active in various civic organizations, and continued her education, receiving a B.A. from Benedict College (1942) and an M.A. from Hampton Institute (1945). She led the fight for equal pay for black teachers in South Carolina. Her efforts attracted the attention of the NAACP, which initiated litigation and won a 1945 ruling mandating equal pay for black teachers in South Carolina. In 1947 Clark returned to Charleston to teach in public schools and continued her civic activities until she was fired in 1956 because of her membership in the NAACP. Unable to find another position in South Carolina, Clark moved to the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, an interracial adult education center founded by Myles Horton in 1932 to foster social activism and promote racial equality. There Clark became director of education. Together with Horton and South Carolina black activists such as Esau Jenkins from John's Island, she devised educational strategies to challenge black illiteracy and encourage black voter registration. Clark, guided by the belief that literacy was integral to black equality, instituted the citizenship school program, an adult literacy program that focused on promoting voter registration and empowering people to solve their own problems through social activism.

The first citizenship school, founded on John's Island in 1957, was a success, and Clark traveled throughout the Deep South, trying to make links with other local activists to foster the expansion of the schools. In 1961 the citizenship school program was transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) after the Tennessee legislature's persistent efforts to disrupt Highlander activities resulted in the school's charter being revoked and its property being confiscated. Clark joined the SCLC to oversee the newly renamed Citizen Education Project, and by 1970 over eight hundred citizenship schools had been formed that graduated over 100,000 African Americans who served as a key grass-roots base for the civil rights movement throughout the Deep South. In 1971, however, she retired from SCLC because long-term commitment to the schools had faded.

Clark remained an outspoken spokesperson for racial, as well as gender, equality. She chronicled her life of activism in her autobiography, Echo in My Soul, in 1962. In 1966 she spoke at the first national meeting of the National Organization of Women (NOW) about the necessity of women challenging male dominance. In 1976 she was elected to the Charleston, South Carolina, school board. Three years later, she was awarded the Living Legacy award from President Jimmy Carter in honor of her continuing dedication to black empowerment through education. In 1987 she received an American Book Award for her second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement (1986). Later that year, Septima Clark died in Charleston.

See also National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)


Clark, Septima. Echo in My Soul. New York: Dutton, 1962.

Clark, Septima, with Cynthia Stokes Brown. Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement. Navarro, Calif.: Wild Trees Press, 1986.

Crawford, Vicki, Jacqueline Rouse, and Barbara Woods, eds. Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 19411965. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1990.

chana kai lee (1996)

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