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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ericka Johnson-Allen

A Legend in Education: Fanny Jackson-Coppin, A Boss

A legend is someone who leaves behind an unforgettable impression on others. They touch lives, they're remembered, they're cherished. Becoming one means finding your particular role, your calling, following it, and touching others around you.

Let me introduce to some and reintroduce to others Mrs. Fanny Jackson-Coppin, a legend in education. A true boss. Fanny Jackson-Coppin was born in Washington D.C. as a slave in 1837. Mrs. Jackson-Coppin did not share much about her childhood. In fact, all we really know of her youth is that she was born to her mother Lucy Jackson, her father remains nameless. However, we do learn of her aunt, Sarah Orr Clark who saved money from her $6 a month salary to purchase Fanny from slavery at the age of 12 for $125. After her freedom was bought, she went on to live with another aunt. Feeling like a burden, she took it upon herself to move to Philadelphia at 14 to become a domestic servant for the author George Henry Calvert.

Fanny Jackson-Coppin, was only the second African American woman to earn her A.B. (Bachelor of Art) degree in the United States. In Fannie’s world, education trumped segregation so she attended Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college in the nation to accept both black and female students. While at Oberlin, she followed the male course of study, which was unheard of at that time. Fanny knew what she wanted and fought to pave her own way on her own terms. Not only did she do well on the “men’s track” she excelled, like a boss!

Fanny Jackson was the first Black student to be asked to join the College Preparatory Department at Oberlin. This meant she would be teaching and preparing black folks, white folks, women, and men to teach children. Yes, Mrs. Jackson-Coppin was no longer the slave in the field, she was the master teacher at the college. As you would expect, she rocked it! Her classes were the rave on campus. She received praise not pushback from students. Initially, administrators believed that white students would not respect her and complain about her class because she was black. To their surprise, the president of the college had no choice but to increase her offerings because there was so much demand for Ms. Jackson’s class.

But like a boss, not only did she excel at her day job as a college student and a student teacher, she started a night school for freed slaves. That’s how you leave a legacy and become legendary. Her life was dedicated to helping her community, by providing an excellent education rooted in love. Fanny believed in the power of education. She wanted other former slaves to learn to read and write. She understood that education was the key to transforming lives.

When you consider trailblazers in education, Fanny Jackson-Coppin meets all criteria. She was at the top of her game in the late 1800s. After her college graduation, Mrs. Jackson-Coppin went on to accept a job at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) in Philadelphia in 1865. The ICY sought to challenge the idea of African American inferiority, “whether or not the Negro was capable of acquiring any considerable degree of education". During this time Jackson-Copplin had an astonishing revelation. She realized that while teaching the great works of Cesar, Ciero, and New Testament Greek was valuable and impressive, it was not enough. She realized that these lessons did not adequately prepare new teachers so she added text on school management and methods of teaching to the curriculum. She created a viable curriculum based on the needs of her students, despite tradition. Four years later she became the principal of ICY. She was the first female African American principal in the United States.

As a student teacher, she created night classes for Black folks, but as a principal, she created an Industrial Department to train both black men and women vocational skills. She believed that Black people’s quality of life could improve if they had a trade. Fanny Jackson-Coppin says in her book Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching, “in Philadelphia, the only place at the time where a colored boy could learn a trade, was in the House of Refuge, or the Penitentiary!" Fanny Jackson-Coppin was a change agent. She made it possible for Black folks to learn a trade without having to go to jail! Coppin worked diligently to share the talents, skills, and accomplishments of her students with others in the nation. Her desire was to help them find work, not a handout. She says, "We do not ask that any one of our people shall be put into a position because he is a colored person, but we do most emphatically ask that he shall not be kept out of a position because he is a colored person". She was asking for access, and inclusion; equity.

While we hear of her great accomplishments as an educator in high school and college she had a profound regard for elementary education. She felt that elementary education was crucial in developing a child’s love for learning. Without question, Fanny Jackson-Coppin believed that if an individual received a solid elementary education he could be successful in all stages of learning. Here she gives her perspective:

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 afterlife, 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.”

After decades in education, the Philadelphia Board of Education promoted Mrs. Jackson-Coppin as the first African-American woman in the nation to be named a school superintendent. In 1881, she married Rev. L.J. Coppin a Bishop in the A.M.E. Church. She went on to travel with him to Cape Town, South Africa to help him with missionary work. There they started the Bethel Institute, a self-help school. During this time she fell ill and returned to Philadelphia where she died in January of 1913.

In writing this piece I discovered my new “shero”. A black woman that was on top of her game, unapologetically bold, and respected by many. FanniyJackson-Coppin was a highly educated, accomplished, change agent who spoke her truth about the possibilities of education. I stand on the shoulders of Fanny Jackson-Coppin, a giant, a legend, a phenomenal woman, a boss.

Dr. Ericka Johnson-Allen is renowned for her unparalleled work in leadership and school transformation. Known for her Imagine That School Transformation Model she consistently produces double-digit student growth in 1 year. Dr. EJA currently serves as a superintendent for ResponsiveEd where she oversees nearly 20 schools throughout Texas, and CEO and Founder of Imagine That Consulting. She is co-host of Vulnerable Voices, a weekly podcast where she has real conversations with real leaders, about issues in the Black community.

Comments or Questions? Want to share your educational experience with COVID? I cordially invited you to reach out! All respectful, on-topic comments are welcome.

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