Fanny Jackson Coppin: Pioneering Educator and Missionary

Fanny Jackson Coppin, first African-American woman to serve as principal of a school. Public Domain

 Overview

When Fannie Jackson Coppin became an educator at the Institute for Colored Youth in Pennsylvania, she knew that she’d undertaken a serious task. As an educator and administrator who was not only committed to education, but also helping her students find employment, she once said, "We do not ask that any one of our people shall be put into a position because he is a colored person, but we do most emphatically ask that he shall not be kept out of a position because he is a colored person."  

Accomplishments

  • First African-American woman to serve as a school principal.
  • First African-American school superintendent
  • Second African-American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States.

Early Life and Education

Fanny Jackson Coppin was born a slave on January 8, 1837 in Washington DC. Very little is known about Coppin’s early life except that her aunt purchased her freedom at the age of 12. The rest of her childhood was spent working for the writer George Henry Calvert.

In 1860, Coppin travelled to Ohio to attend Oberlin College. For the next five years, Coppin attended classes during the day and taught evening classes for freed African-Americans. By 1865, Coppin was a college graduate and seeking work as an educator.

Life as an Educator

Coppin was hired as a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) in 1865. Serving as the principal of the Ladies’ Department, Coppin taught Greek, Latin and math.

 

Four years later, Coppin was appointed as the school’s principal. This appointment made Coppin the first African-American woman to become a school principal. For the next 37 years, Coppin helped to improve the educational standards for African-Americans in Philadelphia by expanding the school’s curriculum with an Industrial Department as well as a Women’s Industrial Exchange.

 In addition, Coppin was committed to community outreach. She established a Home for Girls and Young Women to provide housing for people not from Philadelphia. Coppin also connected students with industries that would employ them following graduation.

In a letter to Frederick Douglass in 1876, Coppin expressed her desire and commitment to educating African-American men and women by saying, “I feel sometimes like a person to whom in childhood was entrusted some sacred flame…This is the desire to see my race lifted out of the mire of ignorance, weakness and degradation; no longer to sit in obscure corners and devour the scraps of knowledge which his superiors flung at him. I want to see him crowned with strength and dignity; adorned with the enduring grace of intellectual attainments.”

As a result, she received an additional appointment as the superintendent, becoming the first African-American to hold such a position.

Missionary Work

After marrying African Methodist Episcopal minister, Reverend Levi Jenkins Coppin in 1881, Coppin became interested in missionary work. By 1902, the couple travelled to South Africa to serve as missionaries. While there, the couple established the Bethel Institute, a missionary school featuring self-help programs for South Africans.

In 1907, Coppin decided to return to Philadelphia as she battled several health complications. Coppin published an autobiography, Reminiscences of School Life.

Coppin and her husband worked in a variety of programs as missionaries. As Coppin’s health declined, she decided to return to Philadelphia where she died on January 21, 1913.

Legacy

On January 21, 1913, Coppin died at her home in Philadelphia.

Thirteen years after Coppin’s death, the Fanny Jackson Coppin Normal School opened in Baltimore as a teacher training school. Today, the school is known as Coppin State University.

The Fannie Jackson Coppin club, which was established in 1899 by a group of African-American women in California, is still in operation. Its motto, “Not failure, but low aim is the crime.”