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240 Septima Poinsette Clark The Evolution of an Educational Stateswoman Katherine Mellen Charron • • • Septima Clark (1898–1987) is most frequently remembered for her role in developing the Citizenship Schools, an adult education program that began on Johns Island, South Carolina, in 1957 and spread throughout the South after the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (sclc) adopted it in 1961. In these civil rights era classes, thousands of disfranchised African Americans learned to read and write so they might register to vote. Beyond that, students gained a better understanding of skills that ranged from managing a bank account and paying taxes to establishing local voting leagues and lobbying for improved municipal services. Linking the power of the ballot to concrete strategies for individual and communal empowerment, the Citizenship Schools provided a crucial , if underappreciated, tool for mobilizing local communities.1 Yet to evaluate Clark’s contribution to the African American freedom struggle—within the Palmetto State and beyond—by focusing solely on this program is to obscure both its historical significance and hers. Drawing on four decades of experience, Clark adapted an organizing tradition forged by earlier generations of black women activist educators, one premised on addressing a wide range of community needs, to meet the demands of the modern civil rights movement, thus contributing greatly to its success.2 Education was never a politically neutral issue in the Jim Crow South. Throughout the twentieth century, black and white South Carolinians were embattled over education precisely because they understood its centrality in either upholding or challenging the racial, economic, and social status quo. Septima Clark participated in these battles on several fronts, including the classroom, the community, the state legislature, and the courts. Her experiences illustrate how southern black women activist educators laid a foundation that made the civil Septima Poinsette Clark 241 rights movement possible. They also remind us that both African American militancy and the response of white officials changed over time. Clark gleaned valuable insights from victories and failures in each stage of the struggle, and she applied these in pursuit of racial, economic, and social justice. Born in Charleston, on May 3, 1898, Septima Earthaline Poinsette inherited a world shaped as African Americans gained and lost political power in the post–Civil War years. Freedom for most black South Carolinians, including her slave-born father, had arrived only three decades earlier, and the Lowcountry, with its black majority population, had served as an epicenter of black political activism. Former slaves and their allies prioritized education in the mighty effort to institutionalize their newfound liberty.3 The African American men who won seats in the state legislature established a free, state-supported school system ; at the grassroots, a determination to secure an education by any means necessary took root.4 Yet Septima Poinsette also spent her girlhood traversing a terrain scarred by the hatefulness of white supremacy. White elite Democrats, united by a passionate conviction that black political power was illegitimate and committed to regaining control over the state’s black agricultural labor force, led the counterrevolution that ultimately owed its victory to violence. Seizing control of the state government in 1876, they did not succeed completely until 1895 when, overriding the objections of six black delegates, members of the state constitutional convention wrote a new constitution that disfranchised thousands of poor South Carolinians, both black and white.5 Inevitably, black education remained secure only as long as African Americans retained a vestige of political power in state government. As one white state school official explained in 1911, “The objections to negro education arise chiefly from the feeling that it unfits the negro for the place he must fill in the state . . . and that the so-called educated negro too often becomes a loafer or a political agitator.”6 In practice, this hostility translated into miserly spending on facilities and equipment for black schools and on the salaries of those who taught within them. Overcrowded, dilapidated classrooms that lacked basic supplies with high teacher-to-pupil ratios and shorter terms became the norm. By 1916, South Carolina spent 9.4 times more money educating its white pupils. As late as 1949–1950, it spent 2.1 times more on whites.7 Such realities presented problems for Poinsette’s parents, Peter and Victoria, who remained committed to educating their children. In 1903 Septima Poinsette began attending Shaw Memorial School, a public school. She later claimed that one hundred black first graders sat on bleachers in what was called the “abc...


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