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Black educators are largely under-represented in the American education system. The few who do manage to score a teaching position must fight for the respect they deserve. Many work in public schools, where a white majority often tries to silence their voice, and it seems history is only repeating itself. Sadly, many Black educators continue to leave schools — and even their profession — in droves.
Children of every race deserve to see themselves reflected in their educators and leaders. That’s why we must elevate Black voices and recognize those making a difference in our country — and the American education system.
Here are seven such Black educators. Whether they’re currently instructing or have already come and passed on, these teachers’ work is deserving of more recognition.
1. Septima Clark
Septima Clark was an African American educator and the epitome of a community teacher. Her own experience of racial inequality fueled her commitment to literacy for Black populations in the U.S. For years, she helped train teachers for citizenship schools and assisted in increasing voter registration among African Americans. Septima campaigned for a law to allow black teachers in public schools and taught at a number of schools throughout the South during her long and successful career.
2. Mary McLeod Bethune
Civil rights activist and Black educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, also deserves some more recognition. Always committed to education, Mary founded an all-girls boarding school in 1904, which eventually became Bethune-Cookman College, as it’s known today. She was also involved in literacy and citizenship programs to improve voter turnout within the Black community. Mary served as the president of the National Association of Colored Women for 15 years before passing away in 1955.
3. Angela Davis
Most people know Angela Davis as a radical African American civil rights activist, and that she is. However, Angela is also a Black educator and taught at various institutes and universities across California. She’s also earned the title of distinguished professor emerita and distinguished visiting professor at numerous universities. The California Institute of Integral Studies even awarded her an honorary doctorate of Human Letters in Healing and Social Justice in 2016.
4. Kathleen Cleaver
Kathleen Cleaver played a central part in the Black Panther Party. As the communications secretary, she was the first female member of the Party’s decision-making body. Later in life, she received a full scholarship from Yale University and went on to earn a bachelor’s in history and a J.D. degree from the prestigious institute. After more than a decade as a lawyer, Kathleen became a senior research associate and senior lecturer at her alma mater. Today, she’s a senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law.
5. John McWhorter
Born in 1965, John McWhorter is an African American linguist and professor with a specialty in creole language, sociolects, and Black English. He’s also authored a number of books on race relations and African American culture. John is very vocal about topics like racism, anti-racism, and cancel culture. Currently, he is a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute and a professor at Columbia University where he teaches American studies, linguistics, and music history.
6. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Perhaps you’ve seen Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the PBS series Finding Your Roots. Or maybe you’re familiar with one of his books on African American history or the invention of race. This man is a prestigious Black educator who’s made a name for himself but could use more recognition, nonetheless. The literary critic, historian, filmmaker and public intellect also serves as the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor at Harvard University.
7. Loretta Abbott
Harlem native Loretta Abbott may have passed away a few years ago, but her legacy still lives on. This African American dancer, choreographer, singer director, dance captain and educator was a pioneer of modern dance. After a short stint teaching kindergarten, she went on to pursue a career in dance and the performing arts. She studied and taught alongside many other prestigious dancers at numerous institutions in and around Harlem. She was still dancing and teaching when she passed away at 83.
Following in Their Footsteps
The Black educators listed above are just a few of the many African Americans who fought and succeeded in making a name for themselves here in the United States. Against all odds, they rose up and made a lasting difference. Perhaps their legacies will inspire the next generation to follow in their footsteps and lean into their bravery, leadership, and passion.