Koontz, Elizabeth Duncan ("Libby")

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KOONTZ, Elizabeth Duncan ("Libby")

(b. 3 June 1919 in Salisbury, North Carolina; d. 6 January 1989 in Salisbury, North Carolina), educator and first African-American president of the National Education Association.

Koontz was the youngest of Lena Bell (Jordan) Duncan and Samuel E. Duncan's seven children. Samuel Duncan was principal of Dunbar High School in East Spencer and also taught at Livingstone College. He died when Koontz was nine, leaving the large family in the hands of Lena Duncan, a teacher at Dunbar Elementary School. Already able to read and write, Koontz began elementary school at the age of four. As an elementary school student, Koontz excelled, even helping to check the lessons of illiterate adults whom her mother was teaching to read. Koontz graduated as class salutatorian from Salisbury's segregated Price High School (1935), then graduated with honors from Livingstone College, with a B.A. in English and elementary education (1938). She received her master's degree from Atlanta University in 1941. In 1947 she married Harry Koontz, a math instructor. They had no children.

"Teaching is the mother profession," Koontz said in a 1969 speech before the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. "Without teaching," she continued, "there would be no other professions." For thirty years Koontz dedicated herself to the profession, teaching in the following North Carolina schools: Harnett County Training School (1938–1940); Aggrey Memorial School, Landis (1940–1941); Fourteenth Street School, Winston-Salem (1941–1945); Price High School, Salisbury (1949–1965); and Price Junior-Senior High School, Salisbury (1965–1968).

Koontz became actively involved in local and state teachers' organizations for African Americans and in the North Carolina Teachers Association. From 1959 to 1963 she served as president of the North Carolina Association of Classroom Teachers (NCACT). Under her leadership NCACT boasted many accomplishments, including the publication of its first edition of Guidelines for Local Associations of Classroom Teachers (1961) and the passage of a resolution against segregated accommodations at the southeast regional meetings of the National Education Association's (NEA) Department of Classroom Teachers (DCT).

In 1960 Koontz was elected secretary of the NEA-DCT (becoming the first African American to serve in the office). After two years as secretary, followed by one year as vice president and one as president-elect, Koontz became the association's president. During her tenure as president (1965–1966), NEA-DCT represented 825,000 teachers nationwide. In 1962 the North Carolina governor, Terry Stanford, named Koontz to the Commission on the Status of Women. In 1964 Koontz was one of sixteen Americans selected to visit the Soviet Union to discuss ways to improve binational relations. In 1965 Koontz was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children.

Koontz's professional affiliations included life membership in the NEA, the NEA Council for Exceptional Children, the North Carolina Association of Educators, Phi Beta Kappa, the North Carolina Council on Human Relations, the National Academy of Public Administration, the National Black Child Development Institute, the North Carolina Negro Teachers Association (later "Negro" was dropped), the Women's Equity Action League, the National Commission on Working Women, and the National Organization of Women. She served on Education Digest's editorial board and on the Sex Information and Education Council's board of directors.

In Dallas, Texas, on 6 July 1968, Koontz became the first African-American president of the NEA. In her inaugural speech, "A Time for Educational Statesmanship," Koontz proclaimed, "The education profession has a date with reality, and I intend to see that we keep it." This reality included giving teachers certain benefits and freedoms, including the "time and freedom to practice this same democracy they teach." During her tenure as NEA president, Koontz unceasingly spoke out against teachers' oppression in the educational system. She also rallied to ease racial tensions in schools, worked to bring curricula up to date, and sought to increase school financing and teachers' salaries.

After a commanding year of leadership, Koontz resigned from the NEA to accept President Richard M. Nixon's request that she head the Women's Bureau of the United States Department of Labor. She was the bureau's first black director. In this position Koontz became a major force in the women's rights movement, especially for minority women. She fought for equal access to positions in all fields, higher salaries for women, and improved working conditions for domestic workers (a field that had been occupied traditionally by minority women). As director of the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau, and throughout her career, Koontz insisted that education was the key for both women and men in acquiring meaningful, productive employment. Koontz was rewarded with honorary degrees from approximately three dozen American colleges and universities, including an honorary doctor of humane letters from her alma mater, Livingstone College, in May 1967. In that same year, 18 April was officially designated "Libby Koontz Day" in Salisbury, North Carolina. She received honorary memberships from the American Home Economics Association, the Zeta Phi Beta Society, and the Altrusa Club. In 1968 the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History bequeathed Koontz its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. In 1969 Koontz received, at the NEA's Human Rights Awards Dinner, the H. Council Trenholm Memorial Award.

Beyond the 1960s Koontz received many more honors, including being one of five women honored by the American Newspapers Women's Club for distinguished service in international affairs (1975). The award was presented by President Gerald Ford. She also accepted a number of other appointments in the field of women's advocacy, such as her 1978 appointment by President Jimmy Carter to the National Advisory Committee for Women. Her last professional position, from which she retired in 1982, was as assistant superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction.

Koontz died of a heart attack and was buried at Union Hill Cemetery in her hometown of Salisbury. Koontz is remembered as a humanitarian and an advocate for youth, minorities, women, and teachers. "We were taught as early as I can recall to share and to help each other," Koontz, in 1968, recalled of her family life. This tradition was well instilled in Koontz, who dedicated her life to helping others.

Information about Koontz can be found in Current Biography Yearbook (1969 and 1989) and Percy E. Murray, "Elizabeth Duncan Koontz," in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. An obituary is in the Washington Post (7 Jan. 1989).

Candice Mancini-Knight

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