Handwritten note by Septima Clark and letter to Carolyn Collins regarding law discriminating against members of the NAACP, 1956
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Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1898 to Peter Poinsette, a former slave, and his wife Victoria Anderson, a freeborn black. Septima, the second of eight children, attended the Avery Institute and completed the teacher training program in 1916. Because South Carolina state law prevented African Americans from teaching in the Charleston public school system, Clark took a teaching position at an all black rural school on Johns Island; Her salary was $35 a month.
In 1919 she returned to Charleston and joined the teaching staff at the Avery Institute. Shortly thereafter, she began her participation in civil rights activity by responding to a call for volunteers from the NAACP. The organization was petitioning the state legislature to allow blacks to be employed in Charleston schools. Clark’s persistent volunteer efforts enabled her to collect over 10,000 signatures for the cause. The campaign succeeded the following year and inspired the young school teacher to continue participation in the movement for racial equality.
After teaching in North Carolina, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina, Clark returned to Charleston in 1947. She became an avid participant in local civic organizations, especially those that were integrated, most notably the local chapter of the NAACP. In 1953 she began attending classes at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, where she was educated in community organizing and peaceful models of social change, many of the same ideas that inspired the protest strategies of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Her organizational involvements and controversial acquaintances, among them the outspoken Judge J. Waties Waring and his wife Elizabeth, of Charleston, contributed to her reputation as a racial radical.
In 1956, amidst the fears inspired by the Brown decision, South Carolina’s General Assembly passed a law declaring it illegal for public employees to belong to the NAACP. Clark was fired from her teaching position after she and two other teachers refused to renounce their membership in the organization. The state refused Clark her pension, despite her nearly forty years of service to the educational system. Clark, then in her 50s, began voluntarily conducting citizenship schools and other public service programs on Johns Island. Until her death in 1987 she continued to participate in, and organize, initiatives for civil rights.
These documents relate Clark’s own account of the events that led to her dismissal and the State of South Carolina’s refusal to fulfill their commitment of matching funds towards her retirement. The first document, an undated handwritten note, provides a general description of legal action taken by Clark and others following their firings. In the second document, a letter written to the President of the North Charleston Chapter of the NAACP in 1985, Clark related that the state still owed her approximately $72,000 in retirement funds; she was eighty-seven years old and still waiting on the state to correct past wrongs.
“Information—Mr. Burkey.” Undated. Septima Poinsette Clark Papers. Avery Research Center, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina.
"Letter to Carolyn Collins." 1985. Septima Poinsette Clark Papers. Avery Research Center, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina.
1956—S.C. passed a law that no city or state employer could be a member of the N.A.A.C.P.
Teachers were polled. A letter went out over my name. 726 were sent, 26 answered, 11 planned to talk to superintendent but only 5 went down. We were dismissed in June 1956. A three judge court heard the verdict and decided to dismiss for a later date. The legislature met immediately after the court trial and the wording was changed to list your affiliations. That wording was tested the next year. The teacher was dismissed but did not push for justice. At the time of dismissal, I had taught 40 yrs. In South Carolina. Out of my earnings $1500 was put aside for retirement and was to be matched by the state. I was able to get the money I put in but the State refused to give the matching sum. This was in December 1956.
To this day the State has not made good its promise to me and others. Henry Hutchinson now employed at The Rehabilitation Center at Ladson has not received his either.
Standard 3-5: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the major developments in South Carolina in the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century.
Indicator 3-5.6 Summarize the key events and effects of the civil rights movement in South Carolina, including the desegregation of schools (Briggs v. Elliott) and other public facilities and the acceptance of African Americans’ right to vote.
Standard 5-5: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the social, economic, and political events that influenced the United States during the Cold War era.
Indicator 5-5.3 Explain the advancement of the civil rights movement in the United States, including key events and people: desegregation of the armed forces, Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X.
Standard 8-7: The student will demonstrate an understanding of South Carolina’s economic revitalization during World War II and the latter twentieth century.
Indicator 8-7.4 Explain the factors that influenced the economic opportunities of African American South Carolinians during the latter twentieth century, including racial discrimination, the Briggs v. Elliott case, the integration of public facilities and the civil rights movement, agricultural decline, and statewide educational improvement.
Standard USHC-9: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the social, economic, and political events that impacted the United States during the Cold War era.