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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Septima Poinsette Clark, July 25, 1976. Interview G-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Black students protest when Charleston school officials fired the white teachers to bring more black teachers

The teachers at Avery Normal School, a high school for black students, were all white women from New England. Clark considered them very good teachers who cared about the students' futures and disliked segregation. The city eventually had them fired to make way for black teachers, but the black students protested.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Septima Poinsette Clark, July 25, 1976. Interview G-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
Interesting. Well, let me get back to your schooling a little bit. You started the public and then were taken out and put in a little private school taught by a black teacher who had been educated during Reconstruction in the public schools?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Mm-hm.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And then you went on to Avery Normal School.
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
No, I went back to the public school in the fourth grade and stayed there till the sixth grade. We didn't have a high school in Charleston for black children, and in 1914 we got our first high school and it was really just a middle school, just that, the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. President Taft came down to the dedication of that school. This is Burke Industrial that we have today. And then I went there. And from the sixth grade I found out that I could take a test. I took a test and was able to go into the ninth grade at Avery, and that's what I did. I went into the ninth grade and started my high school work. Finished Avery in 1916. Before I finished I took a state department examination in the tenth grade, and I could teach if I wanted to from that. But my mother didn't want me to stop. She wanted me to get a high school certificate, so I went on. And Avery at that time gave something called a licentiate of instruction, which is equal to two years of college today, and I took that. I got that. And then I went over on John's Island in 1916 at the age of eighteen and started teaching.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was Avery like?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Avery was a high school that was founded by the missionary women out of Massachusetts. They came down right after the Civil War and started the school for the blacks. And for a long time we felt as if we couldn't go to it, because we didn't have any money to pay that tuition. And I told you how I paid mine. So there weren't too many people of my status going to Avery. They were mostly the doctors' daughters.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were the teachers mostly New England women when you went there?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
All the teachers were white New England women, or were there men?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
All were white until 1914, and in 1914 they got a few black people to come in. There was a Mrs. Clyde. And they were down in the sub-normal department. But in the high school, in 1914. But in 1916 some black women came from the north. There was a Mrs. Wing, and there was a Miss Hamilton who taught Greek and came in. So 1914 or '15 was the turning point.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was life like for these New England women living in Charleston, teaching at a black school?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
We had one teacher who never would attend a white church, Mrs. Tuttle, and she would take her children. . . . We had a theater downtown-we called it the Opera House-and when the Smart Set and the Black(those were old programs that came) she would take her children and sit up on the third floor with them. This is what they had to do. But she never would go otherwise. And she went to the Congregational church that was manned by a black preacher. And so she said she stayed in Charleston all of that time and never attended a white church. She did go to a Jewish synagogue, though, . She went there to find out about some customs that she wanted to teach us. But most of the time they never went to anything.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Because, since we were segregated against, she felt that she could not go to these places herself.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What did you think about the teachers? How did they treat you?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Wonderful. They came to your home, regardless of what kind of a house you had, and talked with your parents. And they wanted me to go to Fisk when I finished. They came home, and my mother was willing to do it, too, but I just couldn't see her doing it. I thought she would have washed herself to death. Because the board at that time was about nineteen dollars a month, and I don't see where she could have. . . . We couldn't get a dollar and a half a month; I'm sure she couldn't get nineteen dollars a month plus the clothes to go and the transportation and all. So I didn't feel as if I could go. But they wanted me to go to Fisk University, initially.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were these women teachers all unmarried? Were they all spinsters?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
All were, all that I knew. I didn't know of any one of them that was married. They were all unmarried, and they lived in the dormitory. Do you know where that Rice Business College is? Well, anyway, it's on BStreet. But there's a house right beside, and they all lived in that house together. Well, I guess there was a cook given by the American Missionary Association, and the school prepared the meals for them.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It's an interesting life that they lived, isn't it?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Mm-hm. And we would visit them, too, sometimes on Saturday and the like.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you think that they were good teachers?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
I thought they were excellent. I really enjoyed my schooling at Avery. It was great to me. When I was on that ABC gallery at public school, if you fell asleep they whipped you. And I never did know of any of these teachers striking at all. And it was a great thing to me to be able to . . .
JACQUELYN HALL:
Now around World War I when they brought black teachers in, then there was a situation in which the city of Charleston forced them to fire the white teachers?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What happened in that?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
It seems like all of the people who had finished Avery got up in arms against it and went down to City Hall to protest it. But it had to be done.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Protest what?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
The firing of the white teachers. And sending them away. They didn't want that to happen.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did the city pass an ordinance or something?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Yes, against them coming in and staying and working with the black children. Because they still had the feeling that, you know, blacks and whites could not be together in the city.
JACQUELYN HALL:
As long as all the teachers were white and were teaching black children, they left them alone.
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Yes. Because in all the public schools, you know, we had white teachers teaching black children.