(1898–1987). Educator, civil rights activist. Clark was born on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, the second of eight children born to the former slave Peter Poinsette and his freeborn wife, Victoria Anderson. Clark’s mother spent part of her early childhood in Haiti, which gave her a unique look at racism in the United States. The gentle and nonviolent composure of Peter Poinsette gave Septima the balance needed to withstand the difficulties she would later face as a human-rights advocate.
Clark attended Avery Institute, completing the teacher training program in 1916. Her parents sacrificed to pay the private school’s tuition because of its reputation for academic excellence. The Licentiate of Instruction allowed her to teach at Promise Land School, an overcrowded and underfunded rural school for African Americans on Johns Island (state law prohibited African Americans from teaching in Charleston’s public schools). After three years on the island, Clark was well versed in the economic, health, and educational deficiencies facing most southern black communities. In 1919 she took a teaching position at Avery, where she joined the artist Edwin Harleston and former congressman Thomas E. Miller in petitioning the state legislature to permit black employment in Charleston’s public schools. Their campaign succeeded the following year, which motivated Clark to further challenge the racial status quo in South Carolina. In May 1920 she married Nerie Clark. Her first child, a daughter, died shortly after birth, but her son, Nerie Jr., was a focal point of her life, especially after her husband’s untimely death from kidney failure in 1925.
A series of moves to Hickory, North Carolina; Dayton, Ohio; and back to Johns Island culminated with Septima Clark accepting a third-grade teaching position in Columbia. Her exposure to professional and civic organizations of the city, some of which were integrated, fortified her resolve to bring change to her state. In both Columbia and Charleston, where she returned in 1947, Clark was an active member of the Methodist Church, the Teachers’ Association of South Carolina, the black local affiliate of the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Federated Women’s Clubs of South Carolina, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Among her fellow activists were the businesswoman Modjeska Monteith Simkins, Booker T. Washington High School principal J. Andrew Simmons, the political organizer John McCray, and NAACP attorney Harold Boulware.
Back in Charleston, Clark acquired a radical reputation for insisting on “choosing her own friends,” both black and white, from whom she learned a great deal about the political process. Clark’s dismissal from the Charleston County School System in 1956, after she and two other teachers refused to disavow membership in the NAACP, was partially attributed to her public friendship with the controversial Judge J. Waties Waring and his wife. After nearly forty years in the state’s schools, Clark was without a job, and she was denied her small but hard-earned pension until 1976, when annual payments were finally reinstated.
In 1953 Clark visited the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, where she became well versed in the interracial community organizing work of the school. Clark became director of workshops and recruited South Carolinians such as Esau Jenkins, Mary Lee Davis, Herbert Fielding, and her cousin Bernice Robinson. Clark is credited with the creation in 1957 of the “citizenship school” model, which ultimately engaged thousands of ordinary people in literacy and political education throughout the South. The program was adopted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. By the early 1960s Clark earned a reputation as “Mother Conscience” to hundreds of youth workers and community organizers.
In 1975 Clark was elected to the Charleston School Board. She received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the College of Charleston in 1978 and received a Living Legacy Award from President Jimmy Carter in 1979. South Carolina’s highest award, the Order of the Palmetto, was given to her in 1982. Septima Poinsette Clark died on Johns Island on December 15, 1987, and was buried at her beloved Old Bethel United Methodist Church.
Brown, Millicent E. “Civil Rights Activism in Charleston, South Carolina, 1940–1970.” Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 1997.
Clark, Septima Poinsette. Echo in My Soul. New York: Dutton, 1962. ———. Papers. Robert Scott Small Library, College of Charleston, Charleston.
Gyant, LaVerne, and Deborah F. Atwater. “Septima Clark’s Rhetorical and Ethnic Legacy.” Journal of Black Studies 26 (May 1996): 577–92.
McFadden, Grace Jordan. “Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights.” In Women in the Civil Rights Movement, edited by Vicki Crawford, Jacqueline Ann Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1990.