Learn about the life and legacy of the great Fanny Jackson Coppin, and how she was able to overcome oppression and prosper as a teacher, principal and lecturer.
In honor of Black History Month, Sootchy is proud to highlight the great achievements of black Americans in education. These individuals have broken barriers, and paved the way for other black educators, students and academics. To black women seeking to improve their lives through education – and to anyone seeking the fruits of strength, intellect, and perseverance – Fanny Jackson Coppin offers a lesson, just as she did to classrooms full of students more than a hundred years ago. Here, we celebrate her life and legacy.
On an uncertain date in 1837, a girl named Frances Marion Jackson was born into slavery in Washington, D.C. For most of her childhood, Frances – who went by “Fanny” or “Fannie” – lived in bondage, until an aunt purchased her freedom at the age of 12. Once freed, Fanny went to live with another aunt, eventually ending up in Newport, Rhode Island. While there, she worked as a servant for George Henry Calvert, an author.
In spite of the meager earnings her position provided, Fanny managed to provide herself with the foundations of an education by hiring tutors when she could afford it and studying on her own when she could not. In time, her efforts paid off, and she was able to enroll in the Rhode Island State Normal School. (For those who don’t know, a “normal school” was the term for an institution focused on educating teachers.)
In 1860, after finishing normal school in Rhode Island, Fanny moved to Ohio to attend Oberlin College, which was the first in the country to accept black or female students. Despite her teachers’ recommendations that she stick to the coursework designated for women, Fanny chose to pursue men’s courses, which included an education in mathematics and classical languages.
Fanny so excelled that she was appointed by the college’s preparatory department to teach her own class, making her the first black student at Oberlin to do so. By the time she reached her senior year, the Civil War had ended, and there were many newly freed slaves looking to receive a basic education. To meet this need, Fanny began organizing night classes at Oberlin with the goal of teaching freedmen how to read and write.
After graduating from Oberlin College, Fanny Jackson – she had yet to meet her future husband, Reverend Levi Jenkins Coppin – was hired to teach high school students at the Institute for Colored Youth, a Quaker school in Philadelphia. After only a year, Fanny was promoted to the principal of the Ladies Department, at which point she was instructing students in Greek, Latin, and mathematics. Three years after being appointed the head of the Ladies Department, Fanny became head principal, making her the first black woman to hold such a position.
From a young age, Fanny Jackson Coppin felt a responsibility to impart her knowledge and love of learning to other African-Americans. “I feel sometimes like a person to whom in childhood was entrusted some sacred flame,” she wrote to Frederick Douglass in 1876, explaining that her desire was to see her race “lifted out of the mire of ignorance.”
“I want to see him crowned with strength and dignity; adorned with the enduring grace of intellectual attainments,” she wrote, and from her position at the Institute for Colored Youth, she did just that.
In 1871, two years into her tenure as head principal, Fannie Jackson Coppin established a normal school department at the Institute that eventually eclipsed the classics course in terms of enrollment. In 1878, she amended the program with a practice-teaching system, but it wasn’t until more than a decade later, in 1889, that she was able to create an industrial training department at the school – the achievement of a longtime goal. In Fanny’s eyes, vocational training – along with academic achievement – was essential to help nascent black communities gain equal economic and professional footing to that of their white peers.
Even outside the classroom, Fanny fought to further her student’s prospects. To help turn education into experience, she worked to convince employers in the area to hire graduates from her school, which proved difficult in late-1800s Philadelphia. Fanny even went so far as to host exhibitions to showcase her students’ work and abilities, including a Women’s Industrial Exchange.
In addition to her work in secular education, Fanny was heavily involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, even serving as president of the AME Women’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society. In 1881, Fanny Jackson married Rev. Coppin, and in 1902, she moved with him to Cape Town, South Africa, where she continued her work as an educator and missionary.
Today, the life of Fanny Jackson Coppin stands as a testament to the value of a hard-won education, and her work has not been forgotten. The Institute for Colored Youth, which she ran for 33 years, still exists, though it was moved from Philadelphia to Cheyney, PA, in 1904 and renamed Cheyney State College in 1951.
In 1926, 13 years after Fanny passed away at the age of 76, the High and Training School of Baltimore became the Fanny Jackson Coppin Normal School in her honor. Today, it’s known as Coppin State University and specializes in – among other liberal arts disciplines – teacher education.
Earning a college degree may not be as difficult today as it was for Fanny Jackson Coppin more than a century ago, but for many families, the price of higher education can seem almost insurmountable. With help from a 529 plan, you can start saving for your loved one’s education and earn thousands in tax-free investment returns along the way. Learn more about the power of 529 plans or open one today by visiting Sootchy online or downloading the free Sootchy app on your mobile device.