Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

This idea was deep in my soul. Where it came from I cannot tell. It was in me to get an education and teach my people.” The sentiment was written nearly a century ago, in 1912, by Fanny M. Jackson Coppin (1837-1913), principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (ICY). All but forgotten today, Coppin and her distinguished career of nearly four decades at the Institute for Colored Youth established a benchmark in the education of African Americans, as well as example for black women school administrators. Her career also illustrates the problems of leading a segregated school in late nineteenth-century Pennsylvania.

Frances Marion Jackson – known to everyone simply as Fanny – was born a slave in Washington, D.C., on October 15, 1837. She took the name Coppin in 1887 when she, at the age of fifty, mar­ried the Reverend Levi Jenkins Coppin (1848-1923), later a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.ME.) Church. She apparently never knew her father or even his identity. Her maternal grandfa­ther Henry Orr, a former slave, assumed the role of father figure in her family. Orr had three daughters, Sarah, Rebecca, and Lucy, Fanny’s mother. He freed his first two daughters, but left Lucy in slavery. It fell to Sarah, working as a domestic for six dollars a month, to free her sister and niece. With her savings of one hundred and twenty-five dollars – a considerable sum of money at the time-Sarah purchased their freedom. In 1850, at the age of twelve, Fanny was free.

Young Fanny worked as a maid, first for her uncle John Orr in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and later for author and editor George Henry Calvert (1805-1854), a great-grandson of Charles Calvert Lord Baltimore V (1699-1751), and his wife Elizabeth Stuart Calvert, a descendant of Mary, Queen of Scotland, in Newport, Rhode Island. Calvert became mayor of Newport in 1853 and life with the Calverts exposed Coppin to their library and their literary salon.

In the 1850s, Coppin attended the segregated public schools of Newport and the Rhode Island Normal School (today Rhode Island College), a school for training teachers. It was in Rhode Island that she experienced her calling as a teacher. “Here, my eyes were first opened on the subject of teaching. I said to myself, is it possible that teaching can be made so interesting as this!” Coppin wrote years later. Her enthusiasm was rewarded by A.M.E. Bishop Daniel Payne, who came through with a partial scholarship for her and Aunt Sarah. Oberlin College in Ohio provided the rest. She was the first black student admitted to the teacher’s preparatory curriculum at Oberlin, and well on her way to realizing her dream.

Fanny Coppin began teaching earlier than even she had expected. Oberlin was home not only to Oberlin College, but also to a number of fugitive slaves who had been drawn by its reputation as an abolitionist stronghold. During the last years of the Civil War, she sympathized with the former slaves and “formed an evening class for them, where they might be taught to read and write,” she remembered in her memoirs. “It was deeply touching for me to see old men painfully following the simple words of spelling; so intensely eager to learn … I rejoiced …. ” She was still an undergraduate at Oberlin, but her curriculum was not the customary and genteel “ladies course.” Instead, she opted for a classical course emphasizing oratory, Greek, Latin, and mathematics. In the 1860s, the classical tradition in American education was the norm and mastery of the classics was the measure of intellectual excellence. Many nineteenth-century white educators, however, scorned the idea of African Americans studying the classics or, in fact, anything at all. Blacks who pursued an education believed they were representing their race, which Fanny Coppin affirmed. “I never rose to recite in my classes at Oberlin but I felt that I had the honor of the whole African race upon my shoulders,” she recalled. “I felt that, should I fail, it would be ascribed to the fact that I was colored.”

In Philadelphia, the Religious Society of Friends considered the education of African Americans to be of great import. With the support of fellow Friends, Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) operated a school for blacks in his home from the 1750s until 1784. One of the Quakers’ most notable educational institutions, the Institute for Colored Youth, was founded in 1837 with a bequest by Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys (1750-1832), who had died five years earlier. Humphreys specified his behest of ten thousand dollars, one-tenth of his estate, for the creation an “African Institute” to “instruct descendants of the African race in school learning, in the various branch­es of the mechanic arts, trades and agriculture, in order to prepare and fit and qualify them to act as teachers.” In 1839, the school purchased a one hundred and thirty-six acre farm on the Old York Road, seven miles outside of Philadel­phia. Financial and administrative trou­bles overwhelmed the school, and it closed in 1846. Several years later, African Americans in Philadelphia asked the Society of Friends to reopen the school within the city limits. The Quak­ers hired a black teacher for thirty students, and established the school, in 1852, at Sixth and Lombard Streets, the heart of Philadelphia’s black community. Although an elementary school, ambitious students could study for a high school diploma. The ICY was coed, with separate departments for boys and girls. Enrollment soared and by 1865, it was necessary to move to a larger building on Bainbridge Street. The new facility, capa­ble of accommodating four hundred stu­dents, contained an exercise room, library, laboratories, and classrooms.

About 1864, Grace A. Mapps, head of the girls department and the first professional teacher hired, in 1852, by the school, resigned, and the school set about filling her position. Fanny Cop­pin’s reputation attracted the attention of the Institute’s administration. “When I was within a year of graduation, an application came [to Oberlin College] from a Friends’ school in Philadelphia for a colored woman who could teach Greek, Latin, and higher mathematics,” Coppin recalled. “The answer returned [by the college] was: ‘we have the woman, but you must wait a year for her [to graduate].'” In 1866, she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree, the second African American in the United States to do so. Her new job was to head the girls department at ICY.

The institute for Colored Youth claimed several noteworthy faculty members, among them Oberlin College alumna Mary J. Patterson (1840-1894), the first African American woman to graduate from a four-year college. The faculty included Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806-1882), principal Ebenezer D. Bas­sett (1833-1908), and Octavius V. Catto (1840-1871), head of the boys department. A popular teacher, Catto was active in politics with the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League and in recreation as a member of Philadelphia’s first black baseball team, the Pythians.

If Fanny Coppin had been pleased with herself while teaching the Oberlin freedmen, she was extremely proud for teaching her pupils at ICY. “Here I was given the delightful task of teaching my own people,” she wrote, “and how delighted I was to see them mastering Caesar, Virgil, Ocero, Horace, and Xenophon’s Anabasis. We also taught New Testament Greek. It was customary to have public examinations once a year, and when the teachers were through examining their classes, any interested person in the audience was requested to take it up, and ask questions. At one such examination, when I asked a titled Englishman to take the class and exam­ine it, he said: ‘They are more capable of examining me, their proficiency is simply wonderful.'”

In 1868, four years after Coppin joined the Institute, Bassett stepped down as principal. The Quaker board of directors of the school selected Coppin to succeed him. Historians believe it’s possible that Octavius Catto may have been passed over for promotion because of his fiery personality. The Quakers preached nonviolence and Catto’s militancy and temper made him an individual that the Quakers could not control. Coppin, on the other hand, was a much safer choice. She confided in the Quakers and because she was a black woman, she presented “less of a threat.” Catto protested. He believed his teaching seniority and popularity with students merited him the position. Catto may have envied Coppin because, unlike him, she was a college graduate. Coppin’s husband Levi contended that the reason Catto didn’t want Coppin as principal was because “he didn’t want to work under a woman.”

In order to appease Catto, the board of the Institute for Colored Youth made his salary equal to that of Coppin­ – twelve hundred dollars yearly – and reduced his teaching load. Yet Catto viewed Coppin with mistrust and the two disagreed frequently. They first clashed over the practice of corporeal punishment. Coppin wanted it abol­ished, believing it wiser for teachers to “spare the rod” and leave the punishment up to parents. Catto argued that to “spare the rod” is to “spoil the child.” Coppin’s retort was as compassionate as it was memorable. “Love wins when everything else will fail. You say that your child resists all your efforts to break him of his bad habits and make him become good. Have you tried kindness? Have you tried love?”

Not long afterwards, Catto began looking for work elsewhere and took a leave of absence in 1870 to help with freedmen’s schools in the South. He returned in 1871, a pivotal year in the history of the Keystone State. 1871 marked the first time blacks could vote since 1838, when the state constitution had disenfranchised blacks. The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution meant that African American men could once again vote. White Americans worried about the newly enfranchised blacks and fear escalated into racial unrest in Philadelphia during the fall 1871 elections. During a fracas, Catto and two other African Americans were murdered. The murder stunned the ICY’s board, faculty, students, and alumni. Coppin closed the school in bereavement for several weeks. Because Catto, a veteran of the Civil War, served as an officer in the Pennsylvania National Guard, he was given full military honors and burial. Newspaper correspondents reported it to be the largest public funeral gathering in Philadelphia since the death of President Abraham Lincoln.

Even before Catto’s death, new educational challenges had begun surfacing for Fanny Coppin. One major adversary proved to be her very own board of directors, which had grown increasingly conservative. Music, the board advised her, was not a proper school subject and students must learn. the spiritual value of silence. She proposed to offer extracurricular music classes after school hours, but the board emphatically refused to grant her permission. Undaunted, she made a strong case for teaching rhyme and verse in everything from Bible study to grammar. The board reluctantly agreed. Another battle ensued over Coppin’s introduction of a teachers’ training program. Only after considerable debate with the board, did she prevail and implement the program in 1870.

Coppin next turned her attention to industrial education. She appeared before Philadel­phia’s public school board to register her complaint that the only place a young African American male could learn a trade in Philadelphia was in the House of Refuge or in the penitentiary. Not only was this outrageous, she argued, but also it was despicable that blacks were not employed in the skilled trades. “I saw building after building going up in this city, and not a single colored hand employed in the constructions,” Coppin reported. In 1882, the board of the ICY gave Coppin permission to introduce an “industrial department.” The boys were offered training in bricklaying, plaster­ing, carpentry, shoemaking, printing, and tailoring, while the girls learned dressmaking and millinery. All students could enroll in classes in typing, stenography, and cooking. The industrial department was popular not only with students, but also with benefactors, and both enrollment and endowments grew. In her memoirs, Coppin wrote that no other event in recent Philadelphia history was hailed “with so much joy as the opening of the industrial school at ICY.”

Coppin’s joy soon soured, her optimism turning to heartbreak, as ICY graduates began to fail finding work in the closing years of the nineteen century. It was 1896, the year that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson sanctioned racial segregation in the country. Ninety students graduated from ICY’s industrial program that year, but only one had found work. With employers declining to hire minorities in light of Plessy v. Ferguson, black voca­tional school graduates faced an uncertain future. Coppin was aware of the dilemma and she spoke out in favor of equal opportunity in employment practices. In fall 1897, in a Christian Recorder article supporting a “colored industrial fair” in Philadel­phia, Coppin asked employers to employ African Americans. “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 not be kept out of a position because he is a colored person. ‘An open field and no favor’ is all that is requested.”

Coppin’s plea went ignored, and the plight of her gradu­ates most likely made her final years at the Institute bittersweet. She resigned in 1901. Two years later, ICY’s board of directors moved the school to George Cheyney’s farm in Delaware County. In 1914, the name was changed to Cheyney Training School for Teachers, and in 1921 to the State Normal School at Cheyney. The year 1951 brought yet another name change, this time to the Teachers College at Cheyney, and less than a decade later, in 1960, it was christened Cheyney State College. In 1983, Cheyney joined the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and emerged as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

Fanny M. Jackson Coppin died at home in Philadelphia at the age of seven­ty-six on January 21, 1913. Three-quarters of a century later, in 1986, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) dedicated a state historical mark­er honoring her at Cheyney University. The PHMC recognized her roles as educa­tor, humanist, missionary, pioneer in industrial arts, and proponent of teacher education. A former slave, fortified with the common sense morality of the Quak­ers and armed with a liberal arts education, she gave back to her community as best she could. For it was in her “to get an education and to teach my people.”


For Further Reading

Conyers, Charline Howard. A Living Legend: The History of Cheyney University, 1837-1951. Cheyney, Pa.: Cheyney Universi­ty Press, 1990.

Coppin, Fanny Jackson. Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Franklin, Vincent P. The Education of Black Philadelphia: The Social and Educational History of a Minority Community, 1900-1950. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1979.

Harrison, Eliza Cope, ed. For Emancipa­tion and Education: Some Black and Quaker Efforts, 1680-1900. Philadelphia: Awbury Arboretum Association, 1997.

Lane, Roger, and William Dorsey. Philadel­phia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Perkins, Linda. Fanny Jackson Coppin and the Institute for Colored Youth, 1865-1902. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1997.

Trotter, Joe William Jr., and Eric Ledell Smith, eds. African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspec­tives. Harrisburg and University Park: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.


Eric Ledell Smith, formerly director of collections at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, has been a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) for nine years. He is the author of Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian and Blacks in Opera: An Encyclopedia of People and Companies, 1873-1993. With Joe William Trotter Jr., he edited African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives (1997), an anthology co­-published by the PHMC and Pennsylvania State University Press.