Excerpt: Freedom’s Teacher, by Katherine Mellen Charron

In the mid-1950s, Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987), a former public school teacher, developed a citizenship training program that enabled thousands of African Americans to register to vote and then to link the power of the ballot to concrete strategies for individual and communal empowerment. In Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark, Katherine Mellen Charron demonstrates Clark’s crucial role—and the role of many black women teachers—in making education a cornerstone of the twentieth-century freedom struggle. Using Clark’s life as a lens, Charron sheds valuable new light on southern black women’s activism in national, state, and judicial politics, from the Progressive Era to the civil rights movement and beyond.

The paperback edition of Freedom’s Teacher has recently been released. In the following excerpt, Charron gives us a glimpse into Clark’s South Carolina childhood. (pp. 13-14):

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Mondays were the hardest. After getting her children off to school, Victoria Poinsette had to organize the giant piles of laundry she would wash and iron during the week. She loathed the work because it confirmed the gap between her idea of what her station in life should be and its reality. Despite the fact that her husband, Peter, worked steadily, their combined incomes barely covered expenses. The ruined smoothness of her hands betrayed the hours spent toiling over steaming tubs, scrubbing and wringing garments. But washing white people’s clothes was infinitely preferable to cleaning their houses or serving them tea. That she absolutely refused to do. A black woman in a southern city had few employment options. Taking in laundry meant that Victoria Poinsette controlled her time and could balance such onerous labor with the responsibilities of her household, which eventually included seven children crowded into a house with four rooms and a kitchen. For this, the family owed five dollars a week in rent; and every Monday, the white landlord came to collect. Victoria Poinsette knew that if she did not have the money, she would suffer the indignity of listening to his threats or suggestions about how to get it. “Put that boy to work,” the man once barked after seeing her son on his way to a violin lesson. Chances are he never really saw the young black girl sitting on the porch steps watching and listening. She, however, never forgot how he habitually insulted her mother.[1]

Septima Poinsette Clark used this memory from her childhood to explain her decision to become a teacher. With her salary, she planned to buy a house and thus spare her mother such humiliation. Her recollection underscores how public power arrangements in the Jim Crow South—which granted white men ultimate authority, limited black men and black women’s job opportunities, and rendered little black girls invisible—ordered the daily lives of African Americans. Yet it also hints at the private values of ordinary southern black families, and the possibilities afforded by urban living. The Poinsettes routinely sent one of their children to violin lessons, despite the fact that the family pinched pennies to pay rent. The money Victoria Poinsette earned also contributed to tuition for her children at private schools. If rent day made stark the limitations family members confronted, the rest of the week testified to their steadfast will to thrive.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 3, 1898, Septima Earthaline Poinsette entered a world that had been shaped as African Americans gained and lost political power after the Civil War. Freedom for most black Carolinians, including her slave-born father, had arrived only three decades earlier, and the Low Country, with its majority black population, had served as the epicenter of black militancy and political activism. Beginning in 1867, African American voters elected black congressmen, state legislators, and city councilmen who refashioned public policy and, with the aid of their constituents, changed the civic landscape. During Reconstruction, black politicians wielded power within the state’s Republican Party and attempted to establish an interracial democracy protected by law. They wrote a new state constitution in 1868 that, among other things, guaranteed universal male suffrage, expanded women’s legal contract and property rights, and created a state-supported free public school system with compulsory attendance. An 1867 sit-in to protest mistreatment on Charleston streetcars, combined with problems encountered by black legislators while traveling, soon led to laws barring racial discrimination in public transportation and accommodation.[2] African American community activists complemented such work by founding a plethora of institutions—militias, churches, schools, newspapers, mutual aid societies, and memorial celebrations—to defend their freedom, promote their autonomy, train future leaders, and bequeath a legacy of black pride to subsequent generations. Young Septima Poinsette could not walk the streets of her hometown without passing innumerable reminders of such recent history. The efforts of this Reconstruction generation endured every Sunday she sat in church and every weekday she attended school.

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From Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark, by Katherine Mellen Charron. Copyright © 2009 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Katherine Mellen Charron is associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. She is author of Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark and coeditor of William Henry Singleton’s Recollections of My Slavery Days. Upcoming author events are listed at her author page on the UNC Press website.

  1. [1]Septima P. Clark, interview by Peter H. Wood, Charleston, S.C., February 3, 1981, Southern Oral History Project, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Additional information here is drawn from Clark, Echo, 13-16; Clark, Ready from Within, 87-89. A note on naming: when referring to Clark in “real time” as a young girl, I call her Septima Poinsette; when referring to an older Clark remembering her childhood, I call her Septima Clark. On black washerwomen’s autonomy, see Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom, esp. chap. 4.
  2. [2]On South Carolina’s Reconstruction-era black leadership, see Holt, Black over White, esp. 9-22, 122-34. More broadly, see Foner, Reconstruction; Hahn, Nation, esp. pts. 1 and 2.