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Fanny Jackson Coppin

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 7/1/2018

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Fanny Jackson Coppin would live a life dedicated to education, but her first day of teaching was a tenuous one. “The faculty did not forbid a woman to take the gentlemen’s course, but they did not advice it,” Coppin said of her years studying at Oberlin College in Ohio in the 1860s. (Oberlin holds the distinction of being the first university in the United States to accept both black and female students.) It was Oberlin’s custom for a few exceptional junior and senior students to take on the instruction of the preparatory courses. Coppin’s junior year had arrived and she found herself summoned by the faculty.

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“Ominous request,” she wrote in her autobiography Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching, “and I was not slow in obeying it. ... the Faculty informed me it was their purpose to give me a class, but I was to distinctly understand that if the pupils rebelled against my teaching, they did not intend to force it.” Coppin was the first black scholar ever to be chosen for this opportunity. The day came, the students entered the classroom, saw their teacher, and in turn, their teacher saw “no signs of rebellion.” Indeed, soon enough Coppin’s class was so popular it had to be divided into two sections. “One of my divisions ran up again, but the Faculty decided I had as much as I could do, and it would not allow me to take any more work,” she wrote.

This brilliant mind and gifted teacher began her life as a slave. She was freed at the age of 12 when an aunt was able to purchase her. She was raised by another aunt and was supporting herself with domestic work in Newport, Rhode Island, by the age of 14. School and teaching were in her heart from very young. “It was in me to get an education,” she wrote, “and to teach my people. This idea was deep in my soul.”

During her years studying at Oberlin, she organized evening courses to teach freed African- American men and women to read and write. She then graduated in 1865 and became an instructor at the Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth. She also served as the principal of the Ladies Department at the institute, and later became the principal of the entire school, the first African- American woman to ever serve as a school principal. During her tenure, she expanded both the women’s and industrial divisions, believing that both intellectual and vocational training was needed to end workplace racial discrimination. She established a Women’s Industrial Exchange as well and founding a Home for Girls and Young Women to provide boarding to workers from out of town. After 35 years at the institute, she would go on to become the first African-American superintendent of a school district, though she soon returned to her position as principal. In 1881, she married a man who shared her passions. Reverend Levi J. Coppin was a prominent African Methodist Episcopal Church minister, and when Fanny Coppin retired in 1902, the two left Pennsylvania for Cape Town, South Africa. There, she worked with the native black women as a missionary, promoting temperance and founding the Bethel Institute in Cape Town. After a decade, poor health forced her to return to Philadelphia.

In a letter to Frederick Douglass in 1876, Coppin wrote, “I feel sometimes like a person to whom in childhood was entrusted some sacred flame... This is the desire to see my race lifted out of the mire of ignorance, weakness, and degradation; no longer to sit in obscure corners and devour the scraps of knowledge which his superiors flung at him. I want to see him crowned with strength and dignity; adorned with the enduring grace of intellectual attainments.”

Fanny Jackson Coppin died Jan. 21, 1913. Coppin State University, a historically black college in Baltimore that focuses on the training of teachers, bears her name to this day.