Fannie Jackson Coppin
Junious Ricardo Stanton
As we celebrate Women’s History Month let us focus on the innumerable Black Sistahs who brilliantly blazed trails, pioneered and served their people in every conceivable way and in some that were truly original. To start I’d like to focus on Fannie Jackson Coppin who became an educator, principal, missionary and institution builder. Fannie Jackson Coppin has a Philadelphia connection having served a principal of the Institute for Colored Youth the forerunner of what is now Cheyney University.
Fannie Jackson was born into bondage on October 15, 1837 ironically the same year the Trustees of Richard Humphreys’ estate opened the school he provided for in his will; originally named the African Institute but later changed to the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY).
She was born in Washington D.C. According to Jackson’s memoirs her earliest responsibility was keeping her grandmother who they called “mammy” company in a one room cabin. Some of her aunts were purchased by her grandfather who refused to purchase the freedom of her mother because she had just given birth to Fannie.
An aunt purchased her freedom for one hundred and twenty-five dollars when she was twelve years old and sent her to live in New Bedford Massachusetts with another aunt. Her aunt helped her secure work but it interfered with her quest for schooling. Eventually Jackson was able to move to Newport Rhode Island with an aunt by marriage that helped her get into school.
Not wanting to be a burden on her family Jackson secured her own place and worked during the day and attended classes at night. She was afforded an opportunity to attend a normal school to train to be a teacher. “I thus prepared myself to enter the examination for the Rhode Island State Normal School, under Dana P. Colburn; the school was then located at Bristol, R. I. Here, my eyes were first opened on the subject of teaching. I said to myself, is it possible that teaching can be made so interesting as this! But, having finished the course of study there, I felt that I had just begun to learn; and, hearing of Oberlin College, I made up my mind to try and get there. I had learned a little music while at Newport, and had mastered the elementary studies of the piano and guitar. My aunt in Washington still helped me, and I was able to pay my way to Oberlin, the course of study there being the same as that at Harvard College. Oberlin was then the only College in the United States where colored students were permitted to study.” REMINISCENCES of School Life, and Hints on Teaching By Fanny Jackson-Coppin page 12.
Jackson enrolled at Oberlin in 1860 and she was allowed to register in the men’s course of studies. Jackson distinguished herself as an excellent student. When the War Between the States ended she established an evening school to teach former enslaved persons. “During my last year at the college, I formed an evening class for them, where they might be taught to read and write. It was deeply touching to me to see old men painfully following the simple words of spelling; so intensely eager to learn. I felt that for such people to have been kept in the darkness of ignorance was an unpardonable sin, and I rejoiced that even then I could enter measurably upon the course in life which I had long ago chosen.” Ibid page 18
Jackson was the second female of African descent to graduate from Oberlin. In 1865 she applied for and was accepted as a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth and within a year she became its principal of the ladies division. Eventually Jackson was appointed principal over the entire school beating out Octavius Valentine Catto for the position becoming the first woman to hold that position not only at ICY but in the nation!
At ICY she pursued the original vision of Richard Humphreys and established an industrial component to the curriculum. “Richard Humphreys, the Friend--Quaker--who gave the first endowment with which to found the school, stipulated that it should not only teach higher literary studies, but that a Mechanical and Industrial Department, including Agriculture, should come within the scope of its work. The wisdom of this thoughtful and far-seeing founder has since been amply demonstrated. At the Centennial Exhibition in 1876, the foreign exhibits of work done in trade schools opened the eyes of the directors of public education in America as to the great lack existing in our own system of education. If this deficiency was apparent as it related to the white youth of the country, it was far more so as it related to the colored. In Philadelphia, the only place at the time where a colored boy could learn a trade was in the House of Refuge, or the Penitentiary! And now began an eager and intensely earnest crusade to supply this deficiency in the work of the Institute for Colored Youth. The teachers of the Institute now vigorously applied their energies in collecting funds for the establishment of an Industrial Department, and in this work they had the encouragement of the managers of the school, who were as anxious as we that the greatly needed department should be established.” Ibid page 23-24
She remained at ICY for thirty seven years. She married the Rev. Levi Jenkins Coppin a minister in the AME Church on December 21, 1881. Rev Coppin was elected a Bishop in the AME Church and was assigned to Cape Town South Africa. His wife accompanied him and took on the task of founding missionary societies and the Bethel Institute a missionary school that taught academics and industrial self-help the exact same ideas and curricula Fannie Jackson Coppin championed at ICY.
Due to declining health Coppin returned to Philadelphia. Despite her health challenges, she continued to travel with her husband doing missionary work and even writing a book. Fannie Jackson Coppin was a pioneer educator, administrator and institution builder. She made transition on January 21, 1913 in Baltimore Maryland.