October 15 – Happy Birthday, Fanny Jackson Coppin

Posted on October 15, 2015

When you are born an African-American female – in 1837, in the United States – and you are born into slavery! – well, your prospects are not good.

However, I am happy to report that Fanny Jackson had an aunt who purchased her freedom when she was 12 years old. 

Jackson then worked as a servant and studied every chance she could get; when she was 23 years old, Jackson enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio. (This was the first U.S. college to regularly admit female students, black students, and black female students!)

Fanny Jackson took the “gentleman's course” – which was harder that the lady's course, I gather, with Latin and Greek and loads of mathematics. Jackson must have done a great job, because, when she was junior, she was chosen as one of the 40 juniors and seniors annually hired to teach preparatory classes. However, the Faculty told Jackson that, if the students complained about having her as a teacher, “they did not intend to force it.”

In other words, if the students of Oberlin didn't want a young black woman as their teacher, Jackson would be out.

What do you suppose happened? I am again happy to report that, according to Jackson, “there was a little surprise on the faces of some when they came into the class, and saw the teacher...” but there was no rebellion. There were no petitions or protests; people didn't complain, or switch classes, or leave the school.

As a matter of fact, Jackson's class kept getting larger and larger, and she ended up teaching two divisions. She also took on teaching an evening course for free African Americans in reading and writing.

After graduating from college, Jackson taught in a variety of schools and became the first African American woman to ever become a school principal. She married a minister named Levi Coppin, and she was a lifelong advocate for higher education for women and for African-American “strength and dignity.”

Fanny Jackson Coppin is now long gone (she died in 1913, age 76), but we can and should still honor her contributions.

Oh! One more thing I am happy to report: one of Maryland's state universities is named for Coppin!

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