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In 1675, Sir Isaac Newton wrote these words to a fellow scientist – “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We have all seen further, learned more because of the teachers who have made our education possible. It’s impossible to imagine our lives without the contributions of these famous black teachers in history.
Without their influence, our country would not be the same today, nor would our education system.
Here are eight famous black teachers from history. Learn from their stories and be inspired by their accomplishments.
Fanny Coppin was an educator and a passionate, life-long supporter of women in higher educator. Coppin supported herself while attending college, first attending Rhode Island State Normal School, now known as Rhode Island College, and later attending Oberlin College.
Coppin’s passion for her education helped develop her interest in educating young women, explicitly developing a curriculum to prepare them for industrial work. Later, Coppin became the nation’s first black principal when she led the Institute of Colored Youth, a Quaker school in Philadelphia.
1839 – 1871
Octavius Catto was one of the most famed Black activists of the 19th century. One of the less reported details of his life is his dedication to education. As a child, he was a highly gifted student. Catto grew up in Philadelphia and attended the Institute of Colored Youth, from which he graduated Valedictorian. Later, he returned to teach mathematics and English at the Institute.
Catto fought against segregation within city schools and laws that prohibited the Black community from riding on the railways. One of the most significant issues that Catto fought for was the right to vote. After the passing of the 15th Amendment and Catto had cast his vote, he was murdered by Frank Kelly, the leader of a group of armed white men attacking African Americans on election day. The loss of Catto was profound – yet he will never stop inspiring future generations.
3. Kelly Miller
Kelly Miller pushed academic boundaries – he was the first Black man to attend John Hopkins University, studying mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Miller was also the first Black mathematics graduate student.
Later, Miller became a professor and taught mathematics at Howard University. In 1907, he transitioned to the role of Dean of Arts and Sciences at Howard College. During Miller’s tenure, he modernized the curriculum and tripled the number of students enrolled.
4. Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary Bethune is considered the most prominent Black educator. She was also a civil rights leader and political activist. Always committed to education, Bethune founded an all-girls boarding school in 1904. In 1929, the boarding school merged with an all-male school and became Bethune-Cookman College, as it’s known today.
Bethune was equally involved in politics. She worked tirelessly to ensure voter turn-out within the Black community. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Bethune to a government position, where she served as the head of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. For the last 15 years of her life, Betlthune worked as the vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
5. Nannie Helen Burroughs
Nannie Burroughs opened a school for young Black women in 1909. Unlike other school schools for women at the time, in addition to academics, it taught vocational skills. Upon graduation, women could enter the workforce and pursue a career beyond domestic. Throughout her life, Burroughs devoted herself to educating Black women and advocating for the greater civil rights of all African Americans.
6. Septima Clark
Septima Clark was an educator for more than 40 years in the south and advocated for voting rights, working with the NAACP. When the school district didn’t renew her teaching contract, Clark focused on teaching a new audience – adults. She developed literacy programs in workshops that taught adults basic skills that helped them learn how to read and write—learning these skills empowered adults to become more politically active and fit with Clark’s vision of empowering the Black community to register to vote.
7. Esau Jenkins
Esau Jenkins was a community activist and literary advocate. During the Civil Rights era, to be eligible to vote, residents of South Carolina had to quote an excerpt from the state charter. Jenkins created a group called the Progressive Club to help educate people in the community and register to vote. Eventually, Jenkin’s club was so successful, it became a permanent fixture within the community, encouraging similar Progressive Clubs to grow throughout the south.
8. Dr. Marcus Foster
Dr. Marcus Foster saw many accomplishments throughout his life. As an educator, he began teaching in public Philadelphia schools in 1943 and was promoted to principal of the Simon Gratz high school in 1966. During his time in Philadelphia, he worked to curb truancy and dropouts, improving graduation rates. Dr. Foster found success organizing school clubs and instituting vocational training programs.
Later in 1970, Dr. Foster moved to California and became the first Black superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District. Unfortunately, he faced resistance from the larger community. The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a militant group known for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, shot and killed Dr. Foster. While his life ended too soon, Dr. Foster’s legacy in education lives on.
When you reflect on the past, learning from the most seminal leaders in education, you can be inspired to take a path you wouldn’t have previously considered. Remember, you stand on the