was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 3, 1898, and was the second
of eight children. In 1916 she finished 12th grade and, unable financially
to attend Fisk University as her teachers had hoped and, as an African
American, forbidden to teach in the Charleston public schools at that
time, Poinsette took the state examination that would permit her to teach
in rural areas. Her first job was on John's Island, South Carolina. The
racial inequity of teachers' salaries and facilities she experienced while
there motivated her to become an advocate for change.
left John's Island in 1919 in order to teach and to campaign for a law
allowing black teachers in the Charleston public schools. The same year
that the law was passed (1920), Septima Poinsette married Nerie Clark, a
navy cook. The marriage ended five years later when Nerie Clark died of
kidney failure. The couple had two children; one died in infancy. Clark
returned to teaching on John's Island until 1927, when she moved to
Columbia, South Carolina. There she continued to teach and to pursue her
own education, studying during summers at Columbia University in New York
City and with W.E.B. Du Bois at Atlanta University in Georgia. She
received a bachelor's degree from Benedict College in 1942 and a master's
degree from Hampton Institute in 1945. During this time she was also
active in several social and civic organizations, among them the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with whom she
campaigned, along with attorney Thurgood Marshall, for equal pay for black
teachers in Columbia. In an effort to diminish the effectiveness of the
NAACP, the South Carolina state legislature banned state employees from
being associated with civil rights organizations, and in 1956 Clark was
forced to leave South Carolina for a job in Tennessee when she refused to
withdraw her membership from the NAACP.
Tennessee she helped found citizenship schools that were designed to
achieve literacy and political empowerment within the black community.
Clark joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961
as director of education and teaching. In 1962 the SCLC joined with other
organizations to form the Voter Education Project, which served to train
teachers for citizenship schools and assisted in increased voter
registration among African Americans. A decade later the first African
Americans since Reconstruction were elected to the U.S. Congress.
After Clark retired from active SCLC work in 1970, she fought and won reinstatement of the teaching pension and back pay that had been canceled when she was dismissed in 1956. She later served two terms on the Charleston County School Board. In 1979 Clark received a Living Legacy Award from U.S. President Jimmy Carter. She died on John's Island, South Carolina, on December 15, 1987.
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