Working on Avery’s Oral History Collection for the past few months has probably taught me more history about the Lowcountry region and the Civil Rights Movement than any other educational source. So today, I want to share with you a tiny part of an interview with Septima Poinsette Clark that was recorded in 1982, which struck me for various reasons. It is fascinating to hear this lady -– the Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement –- talk about her family history and her upbringing on Henrietta Street. (Did you know that Charleston is actually more residentially segregated today than it ever was?)
I’m sure most of you have heard of Ms. Clark, who is an alumna of the Avery Normal Institute, in the context of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and her alliance with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of you may also know that she actually got banned from teaching in Charleston in 1956 because she was a member of the NAACP — two years after the Supreme Court ruled Brown vs. the Board of Education unconstitutional!
But what really caught my attention in this oral history was Ms. Clark recounting her first teaching experience on John’s Island. Back in 1916, it actually took a nine-hour boat ride through the creeks, depending on the tide, to get to the island from Charleston since there were no bridges. Can you imagine?
As Ms. Clark recalls, two teachers taught 132 children in a log cabin school. There were no toilets. Ms. Clark’s teaching salary was $25 a month, out of which $8 were spent for room and board. She sent the rest of the money back to support her mother.
Ms. Clark boarded upstairs in one of the farmer’s homes, with a lantern in the ceiling for light, and a big chimney downstairs that send some heat up into her room. One lady fed them by cooking right in the can. Ms. Clark remembers, “water was very scarce on the island, although you have those creeks all around, but the wells were just little surface wells, and you washed yourself, your clothes, your hair, everything in that one bucket of water.”
Ms. Clark taught on John’s Island from 1916 to 1919. I was on John’s Island just last weekend and it took me 25 minutes to hop on the connector from downtown. As I was driving on Maybank Highway seeing everything blossoming and blooming, I was thinking of Septima Clark’s account of the living conditions on the island almost a 100 years ago…
Avery Research Center holds many resources related to Septima Clark, several of which will soon be accessible online:
- Septima Clark Papers, circa 1910-1990 [AMN 1000]
- Septima Clark Scrapbook, [AMN 1000A]
- Oral History Interview with Septima Clark, 1976 [AMN 500.014]
- Oral History Interviews with Septima Clark by Jean-Claude Bouffard, 1982 [AMN 500.009.001-500.009.003]
- Oral History Interview with Septima Clark by Dandria Mack, 1986 [AMN 500.013]
- Bernice Robinson Papers
Printed matter include:
- Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement edited by Cynthia Stokes Brown