Fanny Jackson-Coppin: Excellence in Education

Coppin State University

In honor of Fanny Jackson-Coppin

If there were a few words that could sum up Mrs. Fanny Jackson-Coppin they would be, “excellence in education.”  Mrs. Jackson-Coppin spent decades as an educator and as a principal, at a time when women, especially women of color, weren’t given many opportunities to lead.  She stepped into leadership roles and was rarely challenged due to the remarkable commitment and professionalism she displayed. Fanny Jackson-Coppin had a philosophy about education that encouraged young people not to wait for someone to do things for them,

“I am always sorry to hear that such and such a person is going to school to be educated.  This is a great mistake.  If the person is to get the benefit of what we call education, he must educate himself, under the direction of the teacher.”

Frances (Fanny) Jackson-Coppin was born in 1837 in Washington, D.C.  She was enslaved, along with many other people in the nation’s capital.  As an example of the kind of industriousness that was in Fanny’s family her aunt, Sarah Orr Clark, worked for $6 a month to save up enough to buy Fanny for $125, when Fanny was 12 years old (it is horrible to think of someone having to buy a child’s freedom).

After obtaining her freedom, Fanny was sent to New Bedford, Massachusetts and then to Rhode Island.  In Rhode Island she did odd jobs to earn her keep and ended up attending the Rhode Island State Normal School.  At this school she fell in love with teaching.  She thought how wonderful it was to be able to teach somebody and developed a strong desire to teach African-American people.

At the age of 23, she went to Ohio, to Oberlin College.  Here she enrolled in the gentlemen’s course of study (the faculty did not forbid women from enrolling in gentlemen’s coursework).  The classes included subjects like mathematics, Latin, Greek, etc.  She said of her preparation, 

“…I took a long breath and prepared for a delightful contest.”

During her junior year she was asked, along with forty other students (as was the custom), to teach preparatory classes for the college.  This was the first time in Oberlin’s history that it had asked an African-American student to teach one of its college prep courses.  The faculty at Oberlin was not sure if the mostly white class would respond well to Fanny as their teacher or if they would reject her.  Fanny noted that she was so well prepared to teach her class that, when the class walked in, there was little rebellion to her presence and all they saw was the teacher.

In fact, her class became so popular that it had to be split into two classes.  As time went on, one of those classes also grew and was going to be spilt again, but the faculty did not think that Fanny should take on three classes while doing her own coursework in college.  Fanny Jackson-Coppin studied at Oberlin College from 1860 to 1865.  At one point she was teaching her college preparatory classes, teaching sixteen students privately in music and taking courses during her senior year in college.

She received support from the well-known African Methodist Episcopal bishop, Daniel A. Payne, and many others, while in college.

As the Civil War was coming to a close, newly freed men and women came to Ohio and some came to the area where Oberlin was located.  Fanny’s desire to see them receive an education (which she had in her heart since her childhood), led her to develop an evening class to teach those who wished to learn how to read and write.  She said it warmed her heart to see older men fulfill their desire to learn to read.

Toward the end of her time at Oberlin a message came to the college seeking an African-American woman to teach at an all-colored school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The school was the Institute for Colored Youth and it was founded decades earlier by a member of the Quaker religion and it continued to be supported by Quakers.

Her dream of educating black people was about to come true.

“…it was in me to get an education and to teach my people.  This idea was deep in my soul.  Where it came from I cannot tell, for I had never had any exhortations, nor any lectures which influenced me to take this course.  It must have been born in me.”

Fanny Jackson went to the school and quickly became an excellent teacher—teaching Greek, Latin and higher mathematics.  It was customary for schools to hold public examinations, once per year.  During those sessions teachers would examine and question their students in front of the audience, then invite members of the audience to come and ask questions of the students themselves.  On one such occasion, Fanny conducted her examination and tested her class, then asked a man of English title to come and ask questions of her class.  The man replied, “They are more capable of examining me, their proficiency is simply wonderful.” 

After only a few years at the Institute for Colored Youth, Fanny Jackson became the principal of the school.  This was a remarkable achievement because not many women held positions of leadership in educational institutions, especially at institutions where both males and females were a part of the faculty and the student body.

Under Fanny’s leadership the school expanded into industrial education.  Her desire to educate her people also grew into a desire to see them employed.  She noted how many buildings were being built in Philadelphia, but many of them did not employ black people in their construction.  She set out to raise funds to construct a facility that would serve as a space to teach carpentry, brick making, plastering, dress making, culinary art and more.

She gathered donations from many everyday citizens and set up “exchanges” in local churches and lecture halls.  She had her students make things that would be on display in the lecture halls and that could then be sold to interested buyers.  This way the community would know about her efforts and would also see how talented the students were.  She also lectured in various places to raise awareness about the lack of black employment in certain areas and to gain support for her cause.

After years of work, she and others raised thousands of dollars for the school and its new Industrial Department was opened.  Now the school began to train carpenters, bricklayers, seamstresses…in addition to teachers and in addition to teaching chemistry, mathematics, Greek, Latin, geography, and more.

Fanny became well-known for her philosophy on teaching and for her approach to classroom management.  She shared her philosophy in her autobiography, Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching.

Fanny Jackson-Coppin spent 37 years as an educator, a well-respected principal and a leader in educational advancements.

She retired in 1902 and began missionary work with her husband, L. J. Coppin, who was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The Institute for Colored Youth, through a series of events, became Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

Also, in remembrance of her dedication and achievements, a school in Baltimore was named in her honor, Coppin State University.

Her philosophy on elementary education is appropriate, I think, to share here:

“Now, when we consider how much is lost by those who lose the benefit of elementary development, and are therefore unable to pursue the higher branches with any degree of success or comfort to themselves or others, it is evident that this subject is worthy of a wise investigation…

My deep interest centers in elementary education for several reasons; first, because it is at this period of the child’s life that habits are formed and tastes cultivated which may guide him in the pursuit of knowledge and happiness in after life, and which by the alchemy of experience are to change the elements of what he has learned into wisdom for his highest happiness.  All higher learning is but a combination of a few simple elements, and when these are well taught, it clears away the difficulty of future acquisitions, and nature can spread her beauty before eyes that can see and teach the marvelous precision of her laws, to ears that can hear.

I fear that the reason that so many are unable to keep up when they begin the higher studies is because they never mastered the elementary principles.”

 

Copyright, Red and Black Ink, LLC, 2017.

References:

Jackson-Coppin, Fanny.  Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching.  (Philadelphia:  A.M.E. Book Concern, 1913)

Fanny Jackson Coppin, Class of 1865.  Oberlin College.  Accessed July 2016.  http://www.oberlin.edu/news-info/02jun/discover_fannieJCoppin.html

History of Cheyney University and Past Presidents.  Cheney University of Pennsylvania.  Accessed July 2016.  

Fanny Jackson Coppin.  Coppin State University.  Discover.  Accessed July 2016.  http://www.coppin.edu/fannyjacksoncoppin

Photos:

Campus, Red and Black Ink, LLC.

Danita Smith