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Fanny Jackson Coppin

Documenting the American South's second Black History Month Highlight focuses on the life and accomplishments of Fanny Jackson Coppin. Coppin was born into slavery in Washington, D.C., in 1837. Her freedom was purchased for $125 by her aunt, but sources differ on the exact date of her manumission. In 1865 she became only the second African American woman in the nation to earn her A.B. degree.

The title of Coppin's autobiography, Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching, communicates the focus of her narrative. Coppin relates a few brief sketches of her childhood in the District of Columbia but concentrates on her pursuit of education and her desire to train other educators. As a young woman, Coppin attended schools and took private lessons whenever possible. She eventually finished the coursework at the Rhode Island State Normal School, where she learned that teaching "can be made so interesting" and decided to further her education (p. 11). At Oberlin, Coppin followed a "gentleman's course" of study, including Latin, Greek and "as much mathematics as one could shoulder" (p. 12). Although the faculty "did not advise" such a choice, Coppin nonetheless "took a long breath and prepared for a delightful contest" (p. 12). When she was chosen to teach a preparatory course at Oberlin, a standard assignment for many juniors and seniors, Coppin was told that "if the pupils rebelled against [her] teaching" because of her race, "they did not intend to force it" (p. 12). Not only did her students not rebel, but her course became so popular that it had to be divided until the faculty refused to let her take on any additional students. In addition to her official duties, Coppin established a night class in reading and writing for local freedmen.

After graduating in 1865, Coppin accepted a position at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The school sought to challenge notions of African-American inferiority by testing "whether or not the Negro was capable of acquiring any considerable degree of education" (p. 19). Coppin successfully taught her students "Caesar, Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Xenophon's Anabasis," as well as New Testament Greek (p. 20). She quickly found that such an education, while impressive, did not always adequately prepare new teachers; she therefore added "some text books on school management, and methods of teaching" to the curriculum (p. 22).

In 1869, Coppin became the school's principal, in which capacity she focused on the pressing need for industrial education for African Americans. Much of Coppin's narrative focuses on her desire to add an Industrial Department to the ICY in the hopes of teaching vocational skills to both young men and women. She notes that "[i]n Philadelphia, the only place at the time where a colored boy could learn a trade, was in the House of Refuge, or the Penitentiary!" (p. 23). Coppin began a speaking tour to raise the awareness and funds necessary for such an expansion at the ICY. After establishing the Industrial Department, she set out to "find work" for the newly trained individuals, "which proved to be no easy task" (p. 25). She instituted exhibitions both on and off the school grounds to showcase the work of the students. Her hopes and demands were clear: "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" (p. 37).

Coppin also emphasized the importance of elementary education, as well as strategies for teaching. She offered clear instruction on how to teach reading, spelling, grammar, geography, and math. She believed strongly in demonstrating respect for students, instructing new teachers to "[n]ever let the word 'dumb' be used in your class" (p. 41). She urged teachers not to use corporal punishment, deprive students of their lunches or forgo recess. Punishment, she argued, "should always be administered in a kind spirit" and should be "reasonable" so that "a child's sense of justice would agree with it" (p. 54).

In addition to teaching, Coppin worked with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, serving as President of the Women's Home and Foreign Missionary Society. In 1881, she married Reverend L.J. Coppin, a Bishop in the A.M.E. Church; in 1900, she traveled with him to Cape Town to help with his missionary work. She offered temperance education to the women in the surrounding area. During her travels, she experienced a fainting spell that seemed to mark the start of a long illness. Her narrative includes a few more comments on her work in South Africa before ending abruptly. Biographers note that Coppin returned home due to her failing health and that she probably died in Philadelphia.

Works Consulted: Carter, Linda M., "Coppin, Fanny Jackson," The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds., New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 174-175; Perkins, Linda M., "Coppin, Fanny Jackson," American National Biography Online, 16 May 2008.

Meredith Malburne