Ruby Ethel Middleton Forsythe

1905–1992

Known as “Miss Ruby,” she often educated students other schools thought uneducable. She insisted that they never say, “I can’t,” but always, “I’ll Try.”

Educator. Ruby Forsythe was born on June 27, 1905, in Charleston, SC. She was adopted by Lewis Burns Middleton, a brick mason and plasterer, and Marthenia Brown Middleton, a domestic who washed and ironed the local white nurses’ and doctors’ uniforms at her home. Forsythe earned her license of education instruction certificate from Avery Institute in 1921 and her BS from South Carolina State College in 1924. She taught in the Charleston area for the next fourteen years. In 1928, she married William Essex Forsythe, an Episcopalian minister at Faith Memorial Church and principal of the one-room church school on Pawleys Island. It was the only local school for African American children. After the death of her elderly parents, she joined William in 1938 and taught with him. He died in 1974 and she continued teaching until 1981. They had on son, Burns Forsythe.

She instilled in African American students a positive yet responsible view about one’s place in the world that allowed them to envision possibilities beyond the boundaries of the color line. Known as “Miss Ruby,” she often educated students other schools thought uneducable. She insisted that they never say, “I can’t,” but always, “I’ll Try.” Forsythe and other teachers countered white supremacist messages of black inferiority while working in overcrowded classrooms and within an oppressive Jim Crow system. They provided part of the foundation for a Modern Civil Rights Movement.

She received four honorary doctorates. She was the subject of a segment of 60 Minutes. Newsweek magazine declared her one of “America’s Unsung Heroes,” and George H.W. Bush labeled her one of the “Thousand Points of Light.” Forsythe was one of the subjects of the book I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. She died in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina on May 29, 1992.

Burns and Alfreda Forsythe, interview by author, September 8, 2017.

Lanker, Brian. “Ruby M. Forsythe,” I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989.

Spruill, Marjorie Julian, Valinda W. Littlefield, and Joan Maria Johnson. South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 3. (UGA Press, 2012).

“Ruby Forsythe,” SC AT&T African American History Calendar, 1991.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Ruby Ethel Middleton Forsythe
  • Coverage 1905–1992
  • Author
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date December 3, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 26, 2022
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