Septima Clark


Biography of Septima Clark

Septima Poinsette Clark (May 3, 1898–December 15, 1987) was an American educator and civil rights activist. Clark developed the literacy and citizenship workshops that played an important role in the drive for voting rights and civil rights for African Americans in the American Civil Rights Movement." She became known as the "Queen mother" or "Grandmother of the American Civil Rights Movement" in the United States.

Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1898. Her father, Peter Poinsette, was born a slave on the Joel Poinsette farm between the Waccamaw River and Georgetown. After the Civil War, he got a job as a caterer. Her mother, Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, was born in Charleston but raised in Haiti by her uncle, who took her and her two sisters there in 1864. Victoria Poinsette had never been a slave. She returned to Charleston after the Civil War and worked as a launderer. Clark's mother did not work directly for whites, and refused to allow their daughters to work in white houses in order to protect them from sexual harassment.

Clark graduated from high school in 1916. Due to financial constraints, she was not able to attend college, but began work as a school teacher. As an African American, she was barred from teaching in the Charleston, South Carolina public schools, but was able to find a position teaching in a rural school district, on John's Island, the largest of the Sea Islands. During this time, she taught children during the day and illiterate adults on her own time at night. During this period she developed innovative methods to rapidly teach adults to read and write, based on everyday materials like the Sears catalog.

Clark recalls the gross discrepancies that existed between her school and the white school across the street. Clark's school had 132 students and only one other teacher. As the teaching principal, Clark made $35 per week, while the other teacher made $25. Meanwhile, the white school across the street had only three students, and the teacher who worked there received $85 per week. It was her first-hand experience with these inequalities that led Clark to become an active proponent for pay equalization for teachers. It was in 1919 that her pay equalization work brought her into the movement for civil rights.

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