Early Life

A Sketch of the Avery Institute in Charleston, SC

A Sketch of the Avery Institute in Charleston, SC

Septima Poinsette Clark was born on May 3, 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina. Peter Poinsette, Clark’s father, was a former slave who learned how to read and write only in adulthood.   Her mother, Victoria Warren Anderson, grew up in Haiti as a free woman and refused to work as a servant for white women as an adult, so she took to washing and ironing at their home.  Anderson had received a basic education and instilled the importance of education in her children, making all eight of them complete school at least through the 8th grade. She recognized Septima’s potential, insisting that she continue her education through high school.  Since there were no public high schools for African Americans, Poinsette and Anderson sent her to the private Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, SC where she graduated in 1916. Septima was greatly influenced by her mother’s insurgent nature and educational encouragement during her childhood.1

Clark’s passion for education extended beyond high school, and she sought a teaching job after graduation.  Since Charleston did not allow African American teachers in public schools, Septima went to teach on Johns Island off the coast of South Carolina, as one of two teachers for 132 students in a poorly run, desolate school.  On Johns Island, she developed a passion for adult education. She began working for adult literacy, as grown men in local secret societies came to her for help with reading and writing speeches.2

In 1918, Clark returned to Charleston to teach at the Avery School, involving herself with activism to petition for the allowance of black teachers working in public schools.  She canvassed the town going door-to-door, and the campaign achieved success when the County Board allowed African Americans to teach starting in 1920.  In 1919 she married Nerie Clark, a man in the Navy who supported her continuing her education in college.  She subsequently began taking summer classes at North Carolina AT&T in 1920.2  The couple and their son, Nerie Jr., moved to Ohio, where Ella continued taking night classes and furthering her education. Nerie Sr. died of kidney disease in 1925.3

map_of_johns_island_scAfter her husband’s death, Septima returned to the Johns Island School and continued to work with illiterate adults.  Between 1926 and 1929, she worked at the Johns Island School during the year and took courses in Columbia, SC during the summer.4

Sources for this page:

1. “Clark’s mother criticized slavery.” Oral History Interview with Septima Poinsette Clark, July 25, 1976. Interview G-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
2. Sears Botsch, Carol. “Septima Poinsette Clark.” University of South Carolina – Aiken. 03 August 2000. usca.edu.
3. Clark, Septima. Ready From Within. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1990.
4. Allen-Taylor, J. Douglas. “Septima Clark: Teacher to a Movement.” Safero. <http://www.safero.org/articles/septima.html&gt;.
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