Septima Poinsette Clark Exhibition Celebration

The CofC Commemoration Committee is hosting a celebration for the Septima P. Clark Exhibition Opening on February 23, from 5:00pm to 6:00pm in the Education Center

Septima P. Clark was called the “Mother of the Movement” and the epitome of a “community teacher, intuitive fighter for human rights and leader of her unlettered and disillusioned people”.

Many of the greatest achievements of Charleston native, educator, and activist Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) are associated with sites on and near the CofC campus. Thus, a tour in her honor has been created. The Sites of Inspiration: Septima Poinsette Clark & the Civil Rights Movement, Charleston, SC Tour augments an installation of interpretive panels in the Septima P. Clark Auditorium in the College of Charleston’s Education Center on St. Philip Street.

The entire Honors Community is invited to this celebration of Septima P. Clark’s activism and dedication to the Charleston Community!

Information Taken from the CofC Discovering Our Past Website 

Many of the greatest achievements of Charleston native, educator, and activist Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) are associated with sites on and near the C of C campus. Each story on this tour narrates an era in Clark’s remarkable life and identifies a location where Clark withstood and overcame societal, political, and personal challenges.

Living in a time and place that afforded few rights or opportunities to Black citizens, Clark worked tirelessly to educate Black students, to advocate for Black educators, and to teach adults how to read, write, and become active citizens. She developed a program of “citizenship schools” that enabled Lowcountry residents to vote despite state laws designed to prevent Blacks from voting. With Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, she established similar schools in communities all over the South, and was often referred to as “the mother of the civil rights movement.”

This tour augments an installation of interpretive panels in the Septima P. Clark Auditorium in the College of Charleston’s Education Center on St. Philip Street.

In 1988, the College named the Auditorium in her honor. A plaque was installed by the auditorium door, but there was no further information about her life and legacy. To fill in this gap, in 2023 the College’s Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes installed an exhibit of museum-style panels on the auditorium walls, where visitors can learn about ten eras in Clark’s long life. This tour contains additional information on each era, commemorating Clark’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

To explore places where Septima Clark lived and worked, visit the sites on this tour, virtually or in person. Some of the College’s properties and neighboring buildings look the same as they did in Septima Clark’s lifetime. We can tread the same streets where she walked with her family and her students. We can visit the Avery, where she learned and taught, or Old Bethel United Methodist, where she worshipped. We can pass the site of the Coming Street YWCA, where Black women and allies tackled community problems; we can see where protests occurred on King Street and Rutledge Avenue. We can visit City Hall and Cistern Yard, where Clark was eventually recognized for her leadership.

And in the atrium of the Education Center, beside the Septima Clark Auditorium, we can view a mural by portraitist Natalie Daise, installed in 2023. “Saint Septima with Jasmine” celebrates the power and wisdom of Septima Poinsette Clark and invites us to follow her example.

Wherever we go on this picturesque campus and adjoining neighborhoods, we’re walking in the footsteps of a visionary Black woman who changed her city and her country for the better.


Inheritance: Septima Poinsette Clark's Family, 1850s-1910s

Septima Poinsette was raised by parents who worked tirelessly to make sure their children were educated and successful, despite the obstacles facing Black citizens throughout their lifetimes.
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Education: Septima Poinsette Finds Her Calling, 1912-1919

At the Avery Normal Institute at 125 Bull Street (now called the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture), Ms. Septima Poinsette studied, taught, and began participating in activism.
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Overcoming: Septima Clark Meets Personal Challenges, 1920-47

Grieving the death of her infant daughter, a young Septima Poinsette Clark came to the Charleston Battery and almost succumbed to despair. Eventually she overcame her grief and weathered other personal challenges in the next two decades, growing more confident and determined.
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Activism : Pay Equalization and Septima Clark's Home, 1929-48

The Clark family lived on this block of Henrietta Street for decades before Clark could afford to buy a house. Living in Columbia, Ms. Clark developed skills as a teacher-activist and participated in the NAACP’s pay equalization campaign. As a result, her salary grew, enabling her to buy her family a home.
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Allies: Crossing the Color Line with Septima Clark, 1947-1956

Black women were leaders at the Coming Street YWCA. After returning to Charleston, Clark tackled community problems, working with Black women’s clubs and white allies who opposed segregation. When fired from her Charleston teaching job for belonging to the NAACP, she became director of workshops for activists at Highlander Folk School in TN.
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Leadership : Septima Clark's Faith Helps Change the Lowcountry, 1954-1964

Inspired by her faith, Clark worked with Bernice Robinson and Esau Jenkins to develop a “citizenship school,” teaching Black adults on Johns Island to read, register to vote, and become active citizens. The program spread across the Lowcountry.
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Courage: Septima Clark Inspires Nonviolent Resistance, 1960-1965

The Kress store in Charleston was one of many sites across the South where activists risked their jobs and their safety by protesting against segregation and registering Black citizens to vote. Many participating in the civil rights movement were inspired by Septima Clark’s citizenship schools.
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Persistence: Septima Clark Combats Poverty and Injustice, 1965-1970

Black hospital workers and their supporters protested unequal treatment at the Medical College on Rutledge Avenue. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were great achievements, but other problems remained. As a staff member for the SCLC, Septima Clark continued to fight racial discrimination and economic inequities.
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Service: Septima Clark's Continuing Influence, 1970-1980s

At Charleston’s City Hall in 1980, Septima Clark, an acknowledged leader in Charleston, swore in Mayor Joseph P. Riley for his second term. Now famous, Septima Clark continued to question the status quo and work for justice, encouraging other activists, especially women and young people, to do likewise.
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Belonging: College of Charleston Honors Septima Clark, 1978-2020s

C of C, which once excluded Black citizens, awarded Clark an honorary doctorate in 1978. It now safeguards her papers at the Avery Research Center. Dr. Clark’s life provides lessons for the College and inspiration for all who work for justice and equity.
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Biography from The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

A pioneer in grassroots citizenship education, Septima Clark was called the “Mother of the Movement” and the epitome of a “community teacher, intuitive fighter for human rights and leader of her unlettered and disillusioned people” (McFadden, “Septima Clark,” 85; King, July 1962). 

The daughter of a laundrywoman and a former slave, Clark was born 3 May 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1916 she graduated from secondary school and, after passing her teacher’s exam, taught at a black school on Johns Island, just outside of Charleston. For more than 30 years, she taught throughout South Carolina, including 18 years in Columbia and 9 in Charleston. 

Clark pursued her education during summer breaks. In 1937 Clark studied under W. E. B. Du Bois at Atlanta University before eventually earning her BA (1942) from Benedict College in Columbia, and her MA (1946) from Virginia’s Hampton Institute. Clark also worked with the YWCA and participated in a class action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that led to pay equity for black and white teachers in South Carolina. In 1956 South Carolina passed a statute that prohibited city and state employees from belonging to civil rights organizations. After 40 years of teaching, Clark’s employment contract was not renewed when she refused to resign from the NAACP. 

By the time of her firing in 1956, Clark had already begun to conduct workshops during her summer vacations at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a grassroots education center dedicated to social justice. Rosa Parks participated in one of Clark’s workshops just months before she helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott. After losing her teaching position, Myles Horton hired Clark full time as Highlander’s director of workshops. Believing that literacy and political empowerment are inextricably linked, Clark taught people basic literacy skills, their rights and duties as U.S. citizens, and how to fill out voter registration forms. 

When the state of Tennessee forced Highlander to close in 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) established the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), modeled on Clark’s citizenship workshops. Clark became SCLC’s director of education and teaching, conducting teacher training and developing curricula. King appreciated Clark’s “expert direction” of the CEP, which he called “the bulwark of SCLC’s program department” (King, 11 August 1965). Although Clark found that most men at SCLC “didn’t respect women too much,” she thought that King “really felt that black women had a place in the movement” (Clark, 25 July 1976; McFadden, “Septima Clark,” 93). 

After retiring from SCLC in 1970, Clark conducted workshops for the American Field Service. In 1975 she was elected to the Charleston, South Carolina, School Board. The following year, the governor of South Carolina reinstated her teacher’s pension after declaring that she had been unjustly terminated in 1956. She was given a Living Legacy Award by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and published her second memoir, Ready from Within, in 1986.