The improbable life of Fanny Jackson Coppin

On this “Fanny Jackson Coppin Day” — as proclaimed by Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh — it’s only fitting that we take a moment to consider the implausibility of it: a 12-year-old, Washington, D.C. slave, set free, all because a benevolent aunt managed to save enough from her meager earnings of $6 per month to buy her niece’s freedom. For as long as she could remember, Fanny Jackson Coppin had a burning ambition to gain an education so that she, in turn, could educate others.

Taking up residence as a servant in the household of George H. Calvert, great-grandson of Lord Baltimore who settled Maryland, she took private tutoring lessons every other afternoon to prepare for eventual enrollment in the Rhode Island Normal School (now known as Rhode Island College), where she eventually completed her first formal course of study.

The experience fueled her determination to know — and do — more. Just as the nation was splitting into warring factions over the question of slavery in 1860, Fanny enrolled at Oberlin College, the only college in the nation at the time that accepted both women and African-Americans. She became the first female student to take “gentlemen’s courses,” establishing the first instance of co-educational learning in higher education.

While still a student at Oberlin, Fanny established a special school with evening classes to teach freed slaves. Not surprisingly, Fanny excelled in her own studies and, in 1865, became only the second African-American woman in the country to earn a bachelor’s degree. She pressed on further, becoming the first African-American woman to be appointed a school principal four years later at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia (the forerunner of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania). During her 37 years at the institute, Fanny was responsible for expanding its curriculum, recognizing that African-Americans were being excluded from higher-paying technical and industrial jobs. She set another precedent when the Philadelphia Board of Education promoted her as the first African-American woman in the nation to be named a school superintendent.

Fanny’s Baltimore roots took hold in 1881 when she married the Reverend Levi Coppin, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church, less than two miles from the present-day Coppin State University campus. Together, they traveled to South Africa where they established a missionary school in Cape Town. After nearly a decade of missionary work, and a life devoted to advancing the prospects of others, Fanny returned to Philadelphia due to declining health, where she eventually died on Jan. 21, 1913. Her remarkable personal journey and her indelible contributions to expanding education resources and opportunity for African-Americans became known, far and wide, leading to the renaming of a teacher training department within the Colored High and Training School to Fanny Jackson Coppin Normal School in 1926.

In 1939, the school was again renamed Coppin Teachers College, when it was granted authority to award the four-year Bachelor of Science degree. In 1950, the college was transferred to the Maryland Department of Education, taking the name Coppin State Teachers’ College. Renamed, yet again, in 1963 as Coppin State College, it awarded its first bachelor of arts degrees four years later while also developing its curriculum for its master of education degree. Eventually, in 2004, the Maryland General Assembly settled on Coppin State University.

Fanny Jackson Coppin’s lasting influence is a gift that keeps on giving. Today’s Coppin State University is dedicated to serving the needs of a multi-generational student population, many of whom return to higher education after years of delay due to family obligations, the need to work or simply because life has a way of disrupting the best-laid plans. Regardless of circumstance or socio-economic background, Coppin State University provides accessible pathways to educational and career advancement in critical fields such as nursing, early-childhood education, computer science, business, social work, criminal justice, health information management and urban arts. In doing so, Coppin prepares its student population to address real and persistent needs and to give back to the community in ways that reflect the spirit of Fanny Jackson Coppin, who devoted her life to lifting others — herself, having been lifted. As such, Fanny is an enduring role model for so many of our community who face unreasonable odds but who recognize in themselves the potential to achieve more, become more, and who have the capacity to contribute more than, otherwise, might be expected.

On this first “Fanny Jackson Coppin Day” in Baltimore, we hope that her enduring example serves to embolden and motivate the minds and spirits of all who strive to achieve their full potential through the pursuit of higher education. Even as they lift their own prospects, they lift the prospects of our city, our communities and of those unsuspecting generations, yet to come.

Maria Thompson is president of Coppin State University. Her email is mthompson@coppin.edu.

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