Septima Poinsette Clark was born May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. She was the second of eight children born to a free mother and an enslaved father. Although her father was a slave, both of young Septima’s parents encouraged her to pursue an education.
While Clark attended public school, she worked in order to save enough money for admittance into the Avery Normal Institute. This was a well-known private school that was exclusively for Black students.
After completing her education, Clark pursued a career as an educator. Although she was qualified to teach, Charleston would not hire Black teachers to teach in their public schools. She then began teaching on Johns Island, South Carolina in 1916. By 1919, Clark had landed another teaching opportunity in Charleston with the Avery Institute.
Also in 1919, Clark had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She advocated with the organization in an attempt to get the city of Charleston to hire Black teachers. She gathered signatures of individuals who were in favor of having Black teachers in Charleston’s public schools on a petition that ensured their success.
Clark married in 1920. After her husband died of kidney failure in 1925, she moved to Columbia, South Carolina. There, she joined the local chapter of the NAACP and worked alongside Thurgood Marshall on a 1945 case that sought equal pay among Black and White teachers. Her salary increased significantly after they had won their case.
Soon after the court case for equal pay among teachers had been won, Clark began working for Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School. She began as the director of the Highlander’s Citizenship School program which enabled everyday people to instruct others in their communities on basic literacy and mathematics. Because of the increased literacy rate, more people were able to vote.
By 1961, the Highlander program had been taken over by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). After joining the SCLC, Clark was appointed as the program’s director of education and teaching. Over 800 citizenship schools were created while under her direction.
Clark wrote her first autobiography, ‘Echo in My Soul,’ in 1962 and she retired from the SCLC in 1970. By 1979, then-president, Jimmy Carter, honored her with the Living Legacy Award. She published her second autobiography, ‘Ready from Within: Septima Clark and Civil Rights’ in 1987. She died soon thereafter on December 15, 1987, on Johns Island. She was 89 years old.
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