Fanny Jackson Coppin was born into slavery in 1837 in Washington, D.C. When she was still a child, her aunt bought her freedom for $125 and sent her to live with another aunt, first in Massachusetts, then in Rhode Island. After attending Rhode Island State Normal School and taking instruction from a private tutor, Coppin enrolled in 1860 at Oberlin College in Ohio — one of the first white schools to accept black students — so she could become a teacher. Her aunt and her church helped pay for her tuition.

At school, Coppin volunteered to teach literacy classes for blacks newly freed from slavery. For her, this work took on a religious devotion.

“I felt that for such people to have been kept in the darkness of ignorance was an unpardonable sin,” she wrote.

When Coppin graduated in 1865, she was among the first wave of black women to obtain a college degree in the United States. (Mary Jane Patterson, a fellow Oberlin alum, is thought to have been the first, in 1862.)

Even as a student teacher, Coppin was renowned for her abilities, said Linda Perkins, an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University. Coppin was recruited before graduation to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth, a school run by Quakers in Philadelphia.

“She was able to make students feel that no matter what level they were, that they could learn,” Perkins said.

After just four years, Coppin was promoted to principal, a position she held for nearly 40 years. During that time, she eliminated tuition so poor students, rather than just children of Philadelphia’s wealthy families, could attend. When the Quakers wouldn’t approve construction of a dormitory, she used her own money to pay rent for students who had recently moved to the city from the South.

Read the full article on Fanny Jackson Coppin by Kate Stringer at The 74