Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Fanny Jackson Coppin
Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching
Philadelphia, Pa.: A.M.E. Book Concern, 1913.


Fanny Jackson 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. Coppin moved first to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and then to Newport, Rhode Island, where she worked as a domestic. She secured private tutoring in Newport and eventually entered the Rhode Island State Normal School, where she became interested in teaching. She obtained admission to Oberlin, "then the only College in the United States where colored students were permitted to study" (p. 12). She graduated in 1865, and, as Linda M. Perkins notes in American National Biography, she was only the second African American woman in the nation to earn her A.B. degree. Following graduation, Coppin took a position with the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a school established in 1837 by the Society of Friends. Coppin became the principal of the school in 1869. As principal, she worked hard to expand the school, adding teacher training and an Industrial Department. Active in the A.M.E. Church, Coppin held several important positions. She married Reverend L.J. Coppin in 1881 and traveled with him to South Africa to aid his missionary work. Coppin's first-person narrative ends in Africa, but sources indicate that she returned to the U.S. in 1904 and died in Philadelphia in 1905.

Coppin begins her narrative with a few brief sketches of her childhood in the District of Columbia, but quickly turns her focus to her life as a free woman. Evident in these brief sketches are Coppin's work ethic and the value she places on education. She works as a domestic to avoid being a "burden" on her family, and she attends schools and takes private lessons whenever possible (p. 11). She eventually finishes the coursework at the Rhode Island State Normal School, where she learns that teaching "can be made so interesting" and decides to further her education (p. 11). At Oberlin Coppin decides to follow 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 is chosen to teach a preparatory course at Oberlin, a standard assignment for many juniors and seniors, Coppin is told that "if the pupils rebelled against [her] teaching" because of her race, "they did not intend to force it" (p. 12). Not only do her students not rebel, but her course becomes so popular that it has to be divided until the faculty refuses to let her take on any additional students. In addition to her official duties, Coppin establishes a night class in reading and writing for local freedmen.

Upon graduation, Coppin accepts a position at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The school seeks 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 teaches her students "Caesar, Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Xenophon's Anabasis," as well as New Testament Greek (p. 20). She quickly finds that such an education, while impressive, does not always adequately prepare new teachers; therefore, she adds "some text books on school management, and methods of teaching" to the curriculum (p. 22).

In 1869, Coppin begins serving as the school's principal, in which capacity she focuses 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 begins a speaking tour to raise the awareness and funds necessary for such an expansion at the ICY. After establishing the Industrial Department, she sets out to "find work" for the newly trained individuals, "which proved to be no easy task" (p. 25). She institutes exhibitions both on and off the school grounds to showcase the work of the students. Her hopes and demands are 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 emphasizes the importance of elementary education, as well as strategies for teaching. She offers clear instruction on how to teach reading, spelling, grammar, geography, and math. She believes strongly in demonstrating respect for students, instructing new teachers to "[n]ever let the word 'dumb' be used in your class" (p. 41). She urges teachers not to use corporal punishment, deprive students of their lunches or forgo recess. Punishment, she argues, "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 works with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, serving as President of the Women's Home and Foreign Missionary Society. In 1881, she marries Reverend L.J. Coppin, a Bishop in the A.M.E. Church; in 1900, she travels with him to Cape Town to help with his missionary work. She offers temperance education to the women in the surrounding area. During her travels, she experiences a fainting spell that seems 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.

A note from William C. Bolivar, one of Coppin's friends, begins "Part II" of the narrative. Bolivar notes that Coppin "crossed the bar in January" before finishing her book (p. 137). Through talks with Coppin days before her death, Bolivar claims that he is able to finish the narrative on her behalf. Bolivar's contributions to "Part II" include lists and descriptions of many of Coppin's exceptional colleagues and students at the Institute for Colored Youth.

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

Document menu