5 Black Teachers Turned Social Activists

Image courtesy of  Historic Columbia

Image courtesy of Historic Columbia

 Modjeska Monteith Simkins 

After graduating from Benedict College in 1921 she began teaching at Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, South Carolina. Married women were not allowed to teach so she was asked to resign. In 1931 she became SC’s only full-time African American public health worker when she started working for the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association. She saw how racism played a role in African American mortality due to disease so she created alliances with Black and White groups that raised funds and decreased health risks for Black People significantly. Despite these significant achievements, her increasing activity with the NAACP contributed to her being fired from the Tuberculosis Association. She worked her way up to Secretary in the NAACP and served from 1941-1957, she was the first woman to serve as an officer. Her most notable work was writing the declaration for the lawsuit Briggs v. Elliot which became one of key cases in the decision of Brown v. The Board of Education that knocked down the doctrine “separate but equal” and desegregated schools. She is known to this day as the matriarch of the South Carolina Civil Rights Movement.

Mary McLeode Bethune

Image courtesy of The State Archives of Florida

Image courtesy of The State Archives of Florida

After graduating from Moody Bible Institute she taught for a number of years before exclusively dedicating her teaching talents to African American Girls by starting the  Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls with only a $1.50 to her name. After the passing of the 19th amendment, which theoretically gave women the right to vote, Bethune saw the unequal enforcement of voting rights for African Americans and became a community organizer.She single handedly taught 100 potential voters to read so they could past the literacy test and register to vote. Under Franklin Roosevelt she served as Special Advisor on Minority Affairs and she founded the National Council for Negro Women. Her portrait hangs in the South Carolina State House in Columbia, South Carolina and Bethune Cookman College continues to be a prosperous HBCU continuing her legacy of education. 

Charlotte E. Ray

Not only was she the first female graduate from Howard University’s Law department, and the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia bar, but she was the first African American lawyer in America. She opened a law office in Washington D.C. however; racism prevented her from building a clientele big enough to keep her practice  open. This forced her to return to New York City in 1879 and teach in public schools. In the late 1880s she married a Mr. Fraim. Little is known about the later years of her life. She died on January 4, 1911 at 60 years old in Woodside, New York. This trailblazer opened doors for Black women in law. Racism and sexism kept her from practicing law the way she desired but she turned her talents and intelligence to serving the youth through education. 

Anna Julia Cooper 


 At age nine Cooper attended St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute where she had a feminist awakening. Even at a young age she protested the preferential treatment of her male classmates, beginning her journey into activism. She went on to attend Oberlin College where she continued her rebellion by taking what were considered “gentlemen’s courses” and earning her BA in 1884. She returned to earn an MA in mathematics in 1887. She then moved to Washington, DC and worked in the Washington Colored High School as a teacher. While in DC she continued creating spaces for Black Women by founding the Colored Women’s League of Washington in 1892 and helped open the first YWCA chapter for Black Women in response to the segregated YWCA. Her revolutionary work in the classroom and in the community proved before her time and angered her colleagues. She was fired from her position at the Washington Colored High School in 1906. In 1924 she became the fourth Black Woman in the United States to receive a PhD and the first to receive one in history from the University of Paris. She dedicated her long life to education and advocating. She was openly critical of racism and sexism, criticizing Black men for hailing opportunities that were exclusive to Black men as racial progress. She retired from education at age 95. Her legacy is as one of the founding mines of intersectional feminism. 

Mary Church Terell 

Image courtesy of Wiki commons

Image courtesy of Wiki commons

 Mary attended the Antioch College Laboratory School in Ohio. After, she attended Oberlin College where she earned a bachelor and then a master’s degree. She spent two years teaching at Wilberforce College before moving to DC in 1887 to teach at the M Street Colored High School.  Her foray into activism began in 1892 when one of her friends, Thomas Moss, was lynched in Memphis because his successful business competed with Whites in the area. She joined Ida B. Wells in the anti-lynching campaign and dedicated her life’s work to, in her words, “Lifting as we climb.” This became the motto of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) which she helped found. She was a firm believer that by advancing Black lives through education, work, and community activism it would uplift the entire race. She was an early champion of intersectional feminism, campaigning tirelessly for Black women’s suffrage and rights as a way of uplifting the entire Black Community. She said she belonged “to the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount…both sex and race.” In 1909 she was one of the founding members of the NAACP along with Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois. In 1950, at the age of 86, she publicly challenged segregation by protesting the John R. Thompson restaurant in Washington, DC. In 1953, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor saying segregation was unconstitutional adding her case to the groundbreaking legislation of the Civil Rights Movement.