Koontz, Elizabeth (1919–1989)

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Koontz, Elizabeth (1919–1989)

American educator who was the first African-American to become president of the National Education Association . Born Elizabeth Duncan on June 3, 1919, in Salisbury, North Carolina; died on January 6, 1989, in Salisbury, North Carolina; youngest of seven children of Samuel E. Duncan and Lena Bell (Jordan) Duncan (both educators); graduated from Price High School, Salisbury; Livingstone College, B.A., 1938; Atlanta University, M.A., 1941; graduate work at Columbia University, Indiana University, and North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University); married Harry L. Koontz (an educator), on November 26, 1947; no children.

Born in 1919, Elizabeth Koontz, the youngest of seven children, followed in the footsteps of her parents who were both educators. The product of segregated schools in her hometown of Salisbury, North Carolina, Koontz credited her family and an elementary school history teacher with giving her a strong sense of identity. After graduating with honors from Livingstone College in 1938, she took a position at Harnett County Training School in Dunn, North Carolina, teaching special education classes. Fired in 1940 for protesting against the high rents teachers were forced to pay at a school-owned boarding house, she went on to receive a master's degree from Atlanta University. Afterwards, she returned to pursue her teaching career in North Carolina, working primarily in special needs education. In 1947, she married Harry Koontz, also an educator.

In 1952, when black teachers were first permitted entry into the National Education Association (NEA), Koontz joined the North Carolina chapter. During the 1950s and 1960s, she became an outspoken leader in the organization, working for improved teaching conditions and higher wages, and urging teachers to take responsibility for their own destinies by becoming more politically active. By 1965, Koontz was president of the NEA's Department of Classroom Teachers, and in 1967 she was elected president of the organization at its

106th national convention. Her election was not only historic with regard to her race and gender, but also marked a change in NEA's leadership, away from the domination of mostly male administrators to a broader choice that included classroom teachers. Koontz continued to call for "teacher power" and even supported a strike of teachers in some 400 localities in 1968, saying: "Teachers who walk off the job after they have exhausted every other method of bringing needed improvement show dedication and commitment."

Koontz's tenure as president of the NEA was cut short when President Richard Nixon appointed her head of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor (his first appointment of an African-American), a post she held until 1973, when Nixon resigned. She used this position to speak out for black women's rights, and was particularly instrumental in helping to improve working conditions for domestic workers. After leaving the Bureau, Koontz returned to North Carolina, where she held various high-level educational positions, including assistant state superintendent for teacher education in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. From 1977 to 1979, she was a member of the North Carolina Council on the Status of Women.

A soft-spoken woman of great charm, Koontz was the recipient of numerous awards, citations, and honors, including over 30 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the country. The educator retired in 1982, after which she and her husband made their home in Salisbury, North Carolina. Elizabeth Koontz died on June 6, 1989, following a heart attack.


Diamonstein, Barbaralee. Open Secrets: Ninety-four Women in Touch with Our Time. NY: Viking Press, 1972.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Koontz, Elizabeth (1919–1989)

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