“I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.”
Civil rights legend Septima Poinsette Clark (1898 – 1987) began as a teacher in a small African American school on Johns Island near Charleston, SC. Because she was black she was not allowed to teach in Charleston, but while teaching in Johns Island she developed ways of using everyday materials such as Sears catalogs to teach literacy.
Across from Clark's school was a white school, where only three students attended and the teacher made $85 per week. Meanwhile Clark was teaching principal for a school of 132 black students; she made $35 per week while the other two teachers made only $25. Galvanized by this discrimination she returned to Charleston to teach at the Avery Normal Institute, helping to win a legal victory for black people to have the right to become principals at Charleston's public schools in 1920. Clark continued to fight for equality for educators and was eventually fired because of her refusal to renounce membership with the NAACP, lost her pension and was black-balled from every school in the Charleston area. So threatened were other black educators with losing their jobs that they would not even be photographed with her.
After studying with W. E. B. du Bois Clark earned a bachelor's degree in 1945 and became involved with the Highlander Folk School in rural Monteagle, TN. There she put her innovative Johns Island teaching techniques to use conducting literacy workshops across the South. Because Jim Crow laws prevented illiterate citizens from voting, Clark's short 1- and 2-week courses were designed to be taught with minimal resources, often hidden in back rooms of shops because of the threat of racial violence, with the goal of passing voting literacy tests and setting foundations for communities to further their own learning. By 1969 Clark's program helped to register over 700,000 people to vote, including Rosa Parks just months before the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Clark became the first woman appointed a leadership position in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but she would struggle with sexism from within the civil rights movement, speaking out against it and retiring from the organization in 1970. She then sued for back payment and pensions from her job with the Charleston Public School System and won, going on to serve two terms on the Charleston County School Board. She was awarded a Living Legacy Award by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
|The Avery Normal Institute where Clark once taught, 19th century and today, 125 Bull Street, Charleston, near MUSC. The institute itself was a landmark historic Black learning institute and later a center of activism. Today the Avery Institute is owned by the College of Charleston and functions as a museum, archive and research center for African American history and culture. photo via.|
|The site of Clark's home, now demolished, on Henrietta Street in Downtown Charleston, SC., next to Francis Marion Square. Coincidentally, I park my car here in the vendor's lot for the Charleston Farmer's Market, which is where I drew the portrait of Clark and sell prints of it, and never noticed the placard until I saw it online researching this post. via perservationsociety.org.|
|Septima Clark, via Charron & Cline, Southern Cultures. [Image description: Black and white photo of an older-middle-aged Clark in three-quarter profile, her head bowed and looking out of frame.]|
|Septima Clark with students in a literacy / voting workshop, via The Self-Rescuing Princess Society. [Image description: black and white snapshot of a group of older Black men and women sitting at a table looking at booklets with Clark sitting in the center speaking. They're in a plain old-fashioned room.]|
|Civil Rights figures (from left to right): Ms. Towles (I Googled but could find no information on this person), Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Septima Poinsette Clark, and Annelle Ponder (a teacher at a Freedom School in Mississippi and local field secretary for the SCLC, via God's Long Summer by Charles Marsh). Photo from the Lowcountry Digital Library, via The Self-Rescuing Princess Society. [Image desciption: A black and white snapshot of the women described, all dressed in 1960s formal attire, standing in a line smiling.]|
|Portrait of Septima Clark, taken by Brian Lanker. The story of the photographer and this photo can be found via 37 Paddington. [Image description: Black and white artistic photo of Septima Clark's head and shoulders in profile. Her figure is lit brightly against a black background, her chin rests on the knuckle of the forefinger of her relaxed hand. She wears her white hair in three thin cornrow-type braids over her head stretching in U-shapes from ear to crown to ear, making for a clean-lined profile of her head. She appears serious with heavily lidded eyes peering down out of her upwardly tilted face, gazing straight ahead.]|
|A 2007 historical marker on Johns Island (a rural coastal island just outside Charleston, SC) about Clark and the Progressive Club, a civil rights era community center, via Gullah/Geechee Nation. Today you'll also see the Septima Clark Parkway running across Downtown Charleston from the bridge from West Ashley to the Ravenel Bridge to Mt. Pleasant. It's usually called "The Crosstown."|