February is awesome. It’s the only month with a million holidays -Groundhog’s Day, Candlemas, The Lunar New Year, Presidents’ Day, Galentine’s Day*, etc- that manages to feel both exciting AND chill (which, after December and January, is a huge relief). It’s also Black History month! It’s also, as I just found out, the International Season for Nonviolence. In honor of the awesomeness that is this intersection, let’s talk about activist, teacher, and all-around bad-ass Septima Clark:
Septima Poinsette Clark was born in 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina. As one could imagine, growing up in the segregated, reconstruction-era South greatly affected Septima’s childhood and, really, her entire life. As the 2nd of eight children in a working class family, luxuries were few and far between. From the beginning both of her parents stressed the importance of an education. After graduating high school in 1916 -following the uphill battle that was getting a quality education for anyone who wasn’t white- Septima took and passed the state exam to become qualified to teach by the age of 18. Despite her credentials, however, she was banned from teaching in Charleston’s public schools, due to the fact that she was an African American woman. (cue deep sighing and *headdesk*ing)
Not being one to generally take ‘no’ as a reason to quit, Septima found a position at a rural school on the nearby John’s island. There, she spent her days teaching children and her nights informally teaching illiterate adults. Not only was she essentially working two jobs, but she was also apparently a kickass, brave and experimental teacher. During this time, she developed innovative methods to quickly teach adult literacy using everyday materials like the Sears catalog. During her time on John Island, she began to take notice of the inequalities between her school and the white school across the street- where teachers were paid much more and the class size was laughably small compared to Miss Clark’s. It was around this time, too, that she heard several preachers speak about the still fairly new NAACP. These experiences led her to become a champion for pay equalization. In 1919, when she returned to Charleston to each at the Avery Institute (a private school for black children), she joined the local NAACP chapter and wasted no time in marrying her teaching practice with her passion for social justice. During her first year there, she led her students door to door to get signatures for a petition which would allow African American teachers within the public school system. After 1 day, she had thousands of signatures and by 1920 African American teachers were permitted to teach in private and public schools.
After her husband’s death in 1925, Septima moved to Columbia South Carolina, where she continued to teach and to work with the local NAACP chapter, using her summers to take classes and workshops at Columbia University in New York and at Atlanta University. In 1942 she earned her bachelor’s degree from Benedict College, and obtained a master’s from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1945. That same year, she worked with none other than Thurgood Marshall himself to bring to court a case that sought to gain equal pay for black and white teachers. After 25 years in Columbia, Septima moved back to her hometown of Charleston, where once again she continued to learn, to teach (both children and adults) and to work with social justice groups like the YWCA, The Council of Negro Women and the NAACP and, generally, win at life.
In the mid-1950s (or as I like to think of them Ye Olde Madd Menn Daes), South Carolina passed an asinine law which made it illegal for public employees (including teachers) to join civil rights groups. Septima refused to quit or denounce the NAACP and was fired. But, rather than be the end of a 40 year long career, this turned out to be the biggest opportunity of her life. Now a free agent, Septima was hired by the progressive Tennessee Highlander Folk School. While there, Septima directed the Citizenship school program, which helped community members learn how to teach others math and literacy skills. This was particularly important because at the time many states used literacy tests to keep African American men and women from voting. This was the work for which Martin Luther King Jr. was to call her “the Mother of the Movement.” When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took over the project, Septima joined the SCLC as it’s director of education and teaching. Under her leadership, over 800 citizenship schools, where individuals learned how to teach their fellow citizens “self-pride, cultural-pride, literacy, and a sense of one’s citizenship rights,” were created. It’s estimated that by the early 1960s, the nearly 10,000 teachers trained at these workshops, which included Ella Baker, John Lewis and Rosa Parks. These teachers were then able to reach nearly 700,000 citizens who, as a result of Septima’s work, were able to have a voice and have a vote.
NOT ONLY was Septima a power house teacher and activist, she was also an outspoken feminist. As she rose through the ranks of the Civil Rights Movement, she was quick to point out the misogyny of it’s prominent members and didn’t hesitate to take even Martin Luther Kind Jr. to task about equality for all men and women. Whether it was threats from the KKK, getting arrested or just being discouraged by the voices of authority in her life, she was a woman who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. She peacefully (but not quietly), created not just change, but conditions in which other humans could be agents for change. Through it all, she never lost her common-sense or her humor:
How to Show the Badass Ladies in Your Life That You Care
This Galentine’s Day:
Speaking of holidays and Herstory, it’s time for the greatest holiday invented by a fictional character ever.
Even if you don’t have the Knopian levels of energy needed to create needlepoints of your lady-friends faces, you can still share and celebrate with your lady friends this February:
- Brunch! Breakfast foods (specifically: waffles) are the traditional Galentines meal. No need to get fancy- all you need is a box of waffles and lots of topping (You could even do it potluck style and have everyone bring a different topping to share. Just make sure that you have plenty of whipped cream and/or syrup.
- Galentines cards! Happily, commercial card-makers seem to still be caught up in “Valentine’s Day” and have largely ignored Galentines. This means it’s time to get crafty! I like to focus on a theme each year (“artists” or “saucy suffragettes“) and include heavy doses of puns and glitter, HOWEVER much like being a feminist, there’s no one right way to make a Galentine. Follow your bliss, ladydudes.
- Treat Yo Self…to Herstory! Whatever you do, don’t forget to celebrate your best lady-friend- the one inside you. Even if you don’t have time to make waffles or cards for yourself, there’s always a bit of time to feed yourself some braincandy. Personally, I’ve been obsessing over Rad American Women by Kate Schatz. Not only are the women profiled beautifully diverse (in all meanings of the word), but each one has a beautiful illustration by Miriam Klein Stahl and a little one-page history, making it perfect for for reading during your quick breaks from fighting the patriarchy.