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Freedom's Teacher

Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Freedom's Teacher
    Book Description:

    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 this vibrantly written biography, Katherine 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0479-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  4. Introduction: Septima Clark’s Civil Rights Movement
    (pp. 1-12)

    It is night. A lone black woman walks through a cornfield in South Carolina. The stars wink above her. Crickets and cicadas grow quiet as she passes and then resume their orchestral humming, now punctuated by the sound of rustling leaves a little farther off. She moves toward an unpainted one-room building. When she gets there, she will have to rely on oil lamps for light. A group of African American adults will be waiting, eager to learn what she has come to teach them. It could be 1863 or 1916 or 1935. She could be a slave from the...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Home Lessons
    (pp. 13-49)

    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...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Taking Up the Work
    (pp. 50-80)

    The afternoon sun battled storm clouds to reach the Ashley River that Saturday, September 9, 1916. As the clock neared half past two, Septima Poinsette, her mother, and Ella Sanders, her neighbor and patron, made their way to the public wharf at the end of Tradd Street. The two older women had come to see the eighteen-year-old Septima embark on her new life as a teacher. For Victoria Poinsette, pride in her second child’s accomplishments mixed with relief that she had escaped the dreariness and the dangers of domestic service. Her daughter was leaving home for the first time, having...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Singing the Blues in the New Reconstruction
    (pp. 81-115)

    Home beckoned Septima Poinsette. Summers brought a return to the familial embrace of Henrietta Street, a chance to rekindle acquaintances with friends, and to participate once again in services at Old Bethel United Methodist Church. Nonetheless, the season itself rarely allowed a break from hard work. The family still struggled to make ends meet, and younger siblings’ tuition at Avery still had to be paid. Poinsette spent the summer of 1918 serving three meals a day in a boardinghouse. Though that meant long hours, from six o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock at night, sometimes seven days in a...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Political Training Grounds
    (pp. 116-148)

    Septima Clark noticed several improvements at the Promise Land School on Johns Island when she returned to teach there in the fall of 1927. Someone had begun mowing the grass around the school yard, and new outdoor privies stood nearby. Creosote-painted wood covered once gaping holes on the outside of the school building, which helped a newer stove more evenly heat the inside. The district trustees had even started supplying firewood. Better yet, the county had retained teaching and health supervisors to visit the island schools. On the downside, too many children still crowded into the classroom, and Clark and...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Battle Transformed
    (pp. 149-178)

    By the late 1930s, Septima Clark had reached a point where she had always wanted to be, professionally and socially. As she observed, “My days and nights in Columbia were very busy ones. Not only was I teaching a full schedule and attending teacher training courses and going to civic club meetings of one sort and another, but I was also going to bridge parties and taking part in other social activities. I was being accepted.”¹ That might have been enough for most people, but not for Clark. She knew how much further there was to go. And the activist...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Crossing Broad
    (pp. 179-215)

    Charleston had always been a mercurial mixture of hidebound traditions and fleeting moods, subject to sudden agues like the fever that seized the fire-eaters of 1860. World War II, nearly as revolutionary as the Civil War in its own way, altered Charleston forever. Septima Clark moved back to a city caught between African Americans’ pursuit of wartime civil rights promises and white people’s determination to safeguard power. This struggle became the central drama of the postwar years. Taking cues from shifting national and international trends, an interracial cast of characters performed their scenes in courtrooms, classrooms, churches, and community centers....

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Bridging Past and Future
    (pp. 216-263)

    From a distance, they appear silhouettes of reclining curvaceous women, most lovely at dusk, gathering shawls woven of the palest pink, burnt orange, and soft violet light around their shoulders and hips. Such unblushing topography defines the Appalachian Mountains that straddle the North Carolina–Tennessee state line. Septima Clark viewed this landscape as she traversed the winding roads of southeastern Tennessee’s Grundy County in June 1954 to attend a workshop on school integration at the Highlander Folk School (hfs). It was a hopeful moment for a veteran activist. The Supreme Court’s ruling inBrownstriking down “separate but equal” in...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT A Fight for Respect
    (pp. 264-301)

    In 1956, Ella Baker invited Septima Clark to attend a Sunday afternoon meeting at a church in Chattanooga that featured Coretta Scott King as the speaker. Clark, who had never met King, agreed to go and to stand in a receiving line with honored guest afterward. Just before the event, however, she unexpectedly greeted the wife of the church’s minister in Monteagle. “She made that trek, twelve miles up the mountain that Saturday night, to see if I had something that I could wear to stand in line with Mrs. King,” Clark recalled. The minister’s wife had previously been to...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Similar and Yet Different
    (pp. 302-344)

    A teacher writes “Citizen” on a blackboard. Beside it, she adds “Constitution” and “Amendment.” Then she asks her thirty adult students what the words mean. After the class establishes the link between constitutionally defined and protected citizenship, discussion will turn to what citizens do. In the course of a week, the African American adults in this Citizenship School teacher training class will learn how to tackle registration and voting in their communities by fostering practical, political, and economic literacy. They will also learn how to become “action-research minded” so that they can “discover how to make decisions about changes in...

  14. Epilogue: A Right to the Tree of Life
    (pp. 345-356)

    It was an appetizing menu. Diners sipped “nonviolent vegetable juice” before munching on “community green salad” with “educated Thousand Island dressing.” “Registered rice” and “stuffing with voting giblet gravy” accompanied half of a “citizenship roast chicken” as the entrée. Of course there were “equality and peace rolls with butter.” “Love lemon pie” left only a hint of tartness on the sweet finish and complemented the “black and white coffee and tea.”¹ Always one to enjoy a hearty meal, Septima Clark savored such tasty fare at her Southern Christian Leadership Conference (sclc) retirement dinner in Charleston on June 19, 1970. Clark...

  15. Appendix: South Carolina Educational Statistics
    (pp. 357-360)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 361-426)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 427-452)
  18. Index
    (pp. 453-462)