Black History Month: Fanny Jackson Coppin, an Education Legacy

Our Commonwealth has been a home to many of history’s great activists and educators, too many of whom go without mention. This Black History Month, we are highlighting Black Pennsylvanians and Union Leaders who have worked to make the world better in the past, the present, and the future.

We’ve written about the necessity of education to empower people and build equality. We’ve recently published a feature on Jerry Jordan, the current President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. We would like to share another story of a Philadelphia educator who left a barrier-breaking legacy, Fanny Jackson Coppin.

Born into slavery, Coppin graduated from Oberlin College and came east to teach in the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth’s (ICY) high-school division; ICY later became Cheyney University, (the only HBCU in PASSHE). She was principal of the ICY from 1869-1902. She left the institution after the 1902 commencement ceremony to help establish Coppin State College in Maryland. 

Fanny Jackson Coppin, was the first woman, black or white, to head a coeducational institute of learning in the United States. During her long administration, Coppin abolished corporal punishment as degrading to the black students. She involved parents in their children’s education, sending them monthly report cards concerning both their academic progress and conduct. She sponsored get-togethers for students and teachers to meet community leaders.

But her greatest contribution was to democratize an institution that middle-class black families used to educate their children to become professionals and teachers. Following the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, and greatly impressed by the Moscow Imperial Technical School’s exhibit, she with difficulty persuaded the ICY’s managers to embrace the “necessity of industrial education.

Many of the leading families in Philadelphia who sent their children to the ICY had a tradition of classical education and affiliations with prestigious literary societies, and they were reluctant to embrace a form of education that appeared more practical in nature. Only in 1889 did the department finally open, and it did not teach the upper-level drafting and engineering curriculum Jackson had envisioned. Nevertheless, it was the only vocational school in Philadelphia for African Americans at the turn of the century.

We encourage you to learn more about her at the PA Historical Society.

Since 2018 there has been a movement to change the name of Andrew Jackson School in Philadelphia, to remove its association with an American president who led a genocide against Indigenous people. This week, the school was given permission to change its name. A new name on the top of the list to replace the 7th President for many people is Fanny Jackson Coppin.

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