Written by Cassidy Connell
Edited by Steven Spear, Jr.
Black History Month is an opportunity; a chance to recognize the black Americans who have come before us and achieved excellence, despite the difficulties and prejudice they faced. In that spirit of inspiration and gratitude, who better to honor than the black educators from generations past and present? Teachers, principals, professors, ministers; these men and women push others to excellence. They run the race of scholarship and double-back to guide those who come behind them. Joe Louis Clark, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Patrick Francis Healy, Daniel Payne, Roland Fryer; names that each carry a unique legacy of leadership.
Joe Louis Clark (b. 1938) carries a reputation for tough love; his work as the principal of Eastside High in Paterson, New Jersey is often held in high esteem as an example of such. Clark rejuvenated the inner-city school with no-nonsense tactics that increased the graduation rate and created opportunities for students. His anti-drug policies and disciplinary action of both students and staff shifted the entire structure of the institute. He gained much attention for this transformation; President Ronald Reagan praised his progress and television shows such as “60 Minutes” secured interviews. The movie Lean on Me is based on his endeavor with Morgan Freeman portraying the principal on the big screen. Clark brought a new focus on inner-city schools by demonstrating that management of the educators directly correlates to an impact on the students. Even after his career at Eastside, Clark continues to speak on the importance of school administration and education reform.
Fanny Jackson Coppin (1837-1913) was the first black woman to become a principal in 1869, barely five years after the end of the Civil War. She attended Oberlin University and upon graduation constructed a night school to educate freed slaves. Coppin also campaigned for rights for women and black Americans through several of her writings; she utilized her education as a tool for others. Her interests and support for the black community leapt beyond national borders when, in 1902, she founded the Bethel Institute in South Africa. The Bethel Institute was a missionary organization that promoted self-help programs to bolster the black community.
Patrick Francis Healy (1830-1910) was the first black Jesuit priest as well as the first president of a major white university. In 1830, Healy was born into the complicated situation of a planter father and enslaved mother. To avoid the racism rampant in the American South, Healy’s father sent his children to the Northern states and Europe for their education. Healy’s ancestry was obscured from the public throughout his entire professional life. Even during his term as the twenty-ninth president of Georgetown University, Healy’s pale complexion allowed his race to go unquestioned. While president, Healy updated the curriculum and improved the quality of law and science programs. His racial background was eventually revealed in the 1960s, and racial tensions spilled over into discriminatory vandalism and racist rhetoric from Georgetown students.
Daniel Payne (1811-1893) stepped onto the education scene when he established a school for black children at the prime age of nineteen. In 1835, South Carolina passed a bill that placed stringent restrictions on the education of black people (freed and enslaved) that forced the school to close. Payne did not let the bill hold him back; he became the first black minister of the Lutheran in 1839, and he became the president of Wilberforce University in 1856. Payne fervently supported the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee (a group that helped to secure the freedom of escaped slaves) and aided the transportation of slaves across the Canadian border into freedom. His abolitionist influence generated advocacy, assistance and awareness for anti-slavery movements.
Roland Fryer (b. 1977) is the example of success within the modern education system. His childhood lacked security and stability but he overcame his surroundings. Fryer completed his education and is the youngest black person to earn tenure at Harvard University. Amidst this achievement, Fryer was named a MacArthur Fellow and has won the John Bates Clark Medal, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and the Calvó-Armengol Prize. Fryer has been introduced into the media for his studies on racial differences with the variable of police use of force. He continues to investigate this issue while urging education reform.
These men and women dedicated their lives to gaining knowledge and sharing it with the world; a few paragraphs fail to convey the magnitude of their accomplishments. Institutions and students were changed through the actions of those who did not let society define their capabilities. Black History Month highlights those who triumphed over stereotypes and serves as a reminder that America’s past of racism will not be her future.