Wednesday, March 26, 2014



One of the first colored women to graduate from a recognized
college in the United States was Fanny M. Jackson Coppin, the
wife of Bishop Levi J. Coppin, 30th bishop of the African
Methodist Episcopal Church. But this is her smallest claim to
distinction, for hers is excellence as educator, public speaker,
and for her notable achievements as a public-spirited citizen.

She was born a slave in the city of Washington, District of
Columbia, late in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century.
Her maternal grandfather was a Mr. Henry Orr, a free man
of color; but his wife was a slave, and according to the laws
of the times, their six children took the legal condition of
the mother, A few years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave
Law of 1850, Mrs. Sarah Clark, her aunt, discovering that
Fanny was a child of promise, saved up one hundred and
seventy-five dollars and secured the girl's freedom, according to
the forms of law, by paying this sum of money to the District of
Columbia slaveholders, so as to incur no risk, should it be neces-
sary to move to another community.

At fifteen she went to Newport. There began the struggle.
She was not willing to depend upon her aunt. Speaking of
this period she says:

**So I went to service. Oh, the hue and cry there was, when
I went out to live ! Even my aunt spoke of it ; she had a home
to offer me; but the 'slavish' element was so strong in me that
I must make myself a servant. Ah, how those things cut me
then! But I knew I was right, and I kept straight on. . . .

The lady with whom I lived allowed me one hour every other
afternoon to go and recite to a person whom I paid to teach
me. For this I was not allowed to go out at any other time. . . .
I remained there six years, using my seven dollars a month to
pay for my instruction."

She obtained employment as maid in a very distinguished
family — the Calverts of Baltimore, who were then living in
Rhode Island. The home of the Calverts was the resort of all
the literati of Boston — here she acquired or rather deepened that
craving for education that followed her all her life. Surrounded
constantly by the most refined culture, the young servant girl
sought for opportunities to study. One hour each week was given
her to use as she would, and it was during these driblets of
time that she studied vocal and instrumental music and that
she prepared herself to enter the State Normal School, then
under the principalship of Dana P. Colburn, author of the well-
known series of arithmetics. Mrs. Calvert had no children
and soon the ability, tact and graciousness of the young servant
commended her to the mistress. When she was about to leave
the Calvert service to enter the Normal School, Mrs. Calvert
said to Fanny: "Will money keep you?" "No," replied
Fanny, "I want to fit myself to help to educate my people."
This dedication to her people 's service became and remained the
one purpose of her life, giving it a singular coherence and
unity of aim.

It was a rare thing for a young colored woman to show such
an ambition to obtain an education and to demonstrate her
capacity for academic honors, as did Fanny Jackson. This was
in the dark days before the Civil War when Kansas was a
battle-ground between the friends of freedom and slavery, and
the land was echoing the dictum of the Dred Scott Decision, that
' ' A Negro had no right which a white man is bound to respect. ' '
It was then that Bishop Daniel A. Payne, whose zeal for educa-
tion was well known, heard of this ambitious girl and obtained

her a scholarship which enabled her to attend Oberlin College.
The young student did not rely on this aid entirely, for she
taught music to the children of the college professors and thus
helped to pay her way through college.

When a student at Oberlin she became more and more im-
pressed with the gravity of her chosen work. "Whenever I
stood up to recite," said she, "I felt the whole responsibility of
my people resting on my shoulders. My failure was my people's

It was customary at Oberlin to employ members of the ad-
vanced classes to teach students in the preparatory depart-
ment. While all, colored and white, were treated alike at Ober-
lin, yet never was a colored pupil-teacher sent to take charge
of classes where all were white. We must remember too that
many of the members of the classes in the preparatory depart-
ment were the children of slave holding parents. Fanny was
given a class as an experiment. Said President Finney to her:
' ' In giving you this class, Fanny, I do not hold myself responsi-
ble for the order, or that the pupils will sit under your instruc-
tion. I send you; you must make your own way." She made
her way. The class was a brilliant success. The success was
the more pronounced, because former white pupil-teachers had
signally failed in the management of this very class. Its num-
bers gradually increased to one hundred young white men and
women and consequently became too large for the young teacher.
When President Finney proposed to divide it the students re-
fused to leave. Visitors, those friendly as well as those op-
posed to the race, were in daily attendance to see this novel
sight. The London AthencBum of that time mentions the event
as a noteworthy fact.

The Civil War came on apace. For a time the outcome seemed
doubtful. When the tide of battle turned and freedom to the
bondman was seen to be inevitable, Fanny M. Jackson and Mary
M. Patterson were called to the Institute for Colored Youth,

an academy of almost college grade in the city of Philadelphia,
maintained by a legacy left more than a quarter of a century
previously by Richard Humphreys, a Quaker. ]\Iiss Jackson
received the appointment as principal of the female depart-
ment, and when, four years later, in March, 1869, President
Grant appointed its principal, Ebenezer D. Bassett, Minister to
Haiti, the vacancy in the Institute was filled by the promotion
to the head position of the once slave girl, who first saw the
light of day within the borders of the District of Columbia.

For thirty-five years her career in Philadelphia was one of
intense activity, acknowledged ability as educator, and distinc-
tion as a leader in every good cause for the promotion of the
betterment of the colored people of her city and the country
at large. No voice was more potent than hers outside of the
schoolroom ; no educator shaped to better advantage more youth-
ful minds.

Among some of the things accomplished by Mrs. Coppin, aside
from her class-room work as an educator, may be credited the
organization of the Colored Woman's Exchange, by means of
which opportunity was given for the first time, for the public
exhibition of specimens of the artistic and mechanical workman-
ship of the colored people of Philadelphia. Many orders for
supplies and work in all of the varied lines of skill exhibited
were received. The "Home for Girls and Young Women," a
house which gave to young women engaged in domestic service the
comforts of a home, maintained for a number of years largely
by her enterprise and energy, was another practical result of her
many-sided activities.

But the establishment of an Industrial School as a feature
of the Institute for Colored Youth, of which she was principal,
may be classed, possibly, as her most important work.

As an orator she is entitled to a very high place, indeed. A
contemporary, who had ample opportunity for gauging her
work in this respect, says : ' ' Her appeals in behalf of the

colored people of her city and country have been as direct, as
soul-stirring, as eloquent, as those by any man in the same be-
half." When it is remembered that she had frequently ap-
peared on the same platform with Isaiah C. Wears, John M.
Langston, Robert Purvis and Frederick Douglass, such a tribute
can be estimated at its true valuation. Her lectures and public
addresses delivered in principal cities were given, not for pe-
cuniary gain, but in response to a call to service. Her personality
would have won her high ci\ac recognition had she been of the
other sex and race.

At a political gathering in Philadelphia . . . the mayor of
the city was one of the speakers on the platform. She made
one of her soul-stirring, effective speeches that those who heard
her will long remember. The mayor was so touched by her
earnestness and cultured mind that he purposely sought some
means of showing his appreciation and appointed her — the first
instance of its kind — a member of a Board of City Examiners
for clerical officers.

She has acted as an interpreter of French in court, and was
for a time one of the directory of the "Old Folks' Home," lo-
cated in West Philadelphia.

In 1888 she visited England to attend the Missionary Con-
gress as a representative of the Sarah Allen Mission. So elo-
quently did she plead the cause that the Duke of Somerset arose
and commended her in glowing terms for her eloquence and the
cause that she so ably represented.

In 1881 at the height of her career, she was married to Rev,
Levi J. Coppin, formerly a student at the school. The service
was performed in Washington at the Nineteenth Street Baptist
Church, in which many of her girlish days were spent, and of
which Mrs. Clark, her aunt, then a resident of Washington, was
an influential member. Besides the reception tendered there by
friends and a host of former pupils identified with the life of
Washington, there were receptions held in Baltimore, in which

Rev. Coppin was a pastor, and in Philadelphia, the scene of and
center of the activities of the bride and groom for so many-

In 1900 her husband was elected bishop and assigned to work
in South Africa. There was no hesitation in her mind as to
her duty, although well-meaning friends doubted whether it was
wise for her to risk her health in journeying 11,000 miles to the
Dark Continent. But she resigned her connection with the
Institute at Philadelphia and began as ardently in South Africa
the work of laying the foundation of Bethel Institute at Cape-
town, as at the Institute in the * ' City of Brotherly Love ' ' thirty
years before.

As an evidence of the world-wide influence she wielded as
teacher in the Institute for Colored Youth, on her arrival in
South Africa, she, to her unbounded surprise, met those who had
been under her tutelage 11,000 miles away.

She did not write out her speeches and lectures, but it being
her purpose to publish a work on the Science of Teaching, for
which her ample notes made for her class-room work afforded a
basis unlike that of the average text-book in pedagogics. She
spent the last months of her life in preparing "Reminiscences
of School Life and Notes on Teaching. ' '

Certain it is that no career is more encouraging to the deserv-
ing colored woman than that of Fanny M. Jackson Coppin, so
basis unlike that of the average text-book in pedagogics, she
passed away January 21, 1913, at her home in Philadelphia.

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