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Black History Month – Icons of Education.

For Black History Month, this October 2021, we are sharing some of the important black pioneers in education history.

Education and Black History have a turbulent affiliation to issues of discrimination, law and institution. The history of racism in education covers centuries of discrimination and inequality of access to schooling. Furthermore, the evolution of ancient education is a topic of debate, concerning racism. Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek notoriety for the founding of intellectual knowledge remains under controversy of ownership.

Racism directly impacts education. Throughout history, racism and discrimination have caused severe inequality in the distribution of access to learning.

However, during the 19th Century amidst developments for the abolishment of slavery, breakthrough black pioneers of education began to emerge.

In observation of Black History Month, this year we are recognising and sharing some important black educators, and raising awareness of their ground breaking contributions to the history of education.


Fanny Jackson (1837 – 1913)

Fanny Jackson was an American educator, missionary and advocate for female higher education.

Born into slavery, Fanny Jackson’s freedom was bought by her Aunt. Upon entering education, Fanny Jackson excelled, attending college in Ohio. Whilst at college, Fanny enrolled onto the ‘Gentleman’s Course’, in search of ‘more challenging’ material at the time. Fanny taught evening classes whilst studying at college and tutored reading & writing for free African-Americans.

Fanny Jackson was one of the first black, female students to earn a Bachelor’s Degree.

Jackson was also the first ever African-American woman to become principal of a school.

During her working life, Jackson dedicated a long period of time to working with her husband on his missionary projects. They worked across South Africa, founding schools and education environments to facilitate and encourage learning.

In her later career, Jackson opened a home for destitute young women.

Her passion to further her education during a time when racism and sexism was rife, challenged the discriminative social attitudes of the 19th century.

Mary Jane Patterson (1840 – 1894)

Mary Jane Patterson was the first ever African-American woman to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in 1862.

Patterson is recognised for her Humanitarian efforts and devotion to working with black institutions in Washington. Patterson worked with Fanny Jackson at the Philadelphia Institute for Black Youth and continued to further her career in education.

Mary Jane Patterson served as the first black Principal at a Washington High School, where she was later demoted to Vice Principal. As Vice, Patterson worked under Richard Theodore Greener. Richard was the first ever African-American Harvard graduate.

Patterson also provided training facilities for nursery and teaching staff. The centre also provided classes for rescue work, industrial schooling and apprenticeships.

Booker T Washington (1856 – 1915)

Booker T Washington was an American educator, author & presidential advisor.

Washington’s career saw him develop from a coal mine worker to the most influential black educator in history. Washington is also regarded as the leading voice of former slaves and their descendants, due to his work as a public speaker.

Booker Washington is famous for his well-recognised speech, ‘Atlanta Compromise’. In his policy work, he encouraged black progression through education. Rather than condemning the discriminatory ‘Jim Crow Laws’, Washington encouraged self-help and schooling.

Washington was also the Principal of ‘Tuskegee Institute’, a historical Black college in Alabama for a period of time. He helped develop other schools and colleges later on in his career.

Booker Washington also focused efforts on producing and training more teachers in his later career.

Anna Julia Cooper (1858 – 1964)

Anna Julie Cooper was a prominent African-American scholar in history. Cooper was a successful; author, educator, sociologist and activist. Her activist work gained her the title of, ‘The Mother of Black Feminism’.

Through her dedication to education, Cooper ended up studying for a PHD. She was only the fourth African-American woman to earn a Doctoral degree in history.

Cooper contributed hugely to social sciences and feminist politics. However, she also taught Latin at a High School in Washington where she later became principal.

During her political work, Cooper advocated for Civil Rights and Women’s Rights. One of her political theories believed in the importance of training intellectual female teachers. Cooper argued in contrast to micro male-aggressions, more female teachers would bring beneficial elegance to education.

Some feminists criticised Cooper, saying her theories were submissive. However she defended her philosophy as an important argument for Black Feminism. Cooper stated it is the duty of successful educated black women to support their underprivileged peers achieve goals.

Kelly Miller (1863 – 1939)

Kelly Miller was an important figure in sharing the intellectual life of Black America. His field of work included; Mathematics, Sociology and journalistic writing.

A son to two former slaves, Kelly Miller excelled in his education. He studied at Howard University and pursued Advanced Mathematics. He was also the first ever African-American to attend John Hopkins University.

Miller began teaching maths at a high school in Washington, from there his work as an educator developed greatly. Kelly Miller was appointed Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, where he had a huge influence over the curriculum taught. The new curriculum included an extension of natural and social sciences.

Kelly also founded an African-American Museum and Library centre. His personal written work focused on early histories of African-American life.

William Leo Hansberry (1894 – 1965)

William L Hansberry was an African-American scholar and lecturer. His personal education saw him graduate from Harvard University.

Whilst studying Hansberry began teaching at college.

As he pursued his teaching career, Hansberry developed the history department. William Hansberry started the African Civilisation section of the history department. Following the expansion of subjects, he taught courses on African civilisations and culture.

William Hansberry is internationally recognised as an outstanding scholar for his contributions to education and curriculum.

Charles Hamilton Houston (1895 – 1950)

Charles Houston was a Harvard graduate, remembered as ‘the man who killed Jim Crow’.

Houston played a significant role in the dismantlement of the Jim Crow Laws. Specifically, Houston helped to abolish segregation of students in schools.

Charles Houston furthered his career in education in the role of Dean at Howard University Law school. He personally trained and mentored a generation of black attorneys. As well as his career in education, Charles Houston served as a First-Lieutenant in the racially-segregated US army during WW1.

Houston’s political agenda called for equalization of salaries for teachers regardless of race as well as equal teaching facilities.

Inez Beverly Prosser (1897 – 1934)

Inez Beverly Prosser was an African-American teacher and school administrator.

Prosser was the first ever African-American woman to earn a PHD in Psychology.

Prosser dedicated her early career to the educational and psychological developments of black students. She worked as a teacher in a high school and sponsored events for black students. Inez Prosser also coached girl’s spelling competitions.

Tragically, Inez Prosser was killed in a car accident shortly after earning her Doctorate degree.

Edmund W Gordon (1921)

Edmund Gordon was a Psychology professor who had a huge influence on contemporary education.

Gordon dedicated his career to the schooling of lower status youth and children of colour in America. His teaching focused on the development of African-American ethnic minority, low-socioeconomic status students.

Gordon’s research examined the advanced concepts of ‘the achievement gap’. This theory demanded focus on improving the quality of academic achievements in diverse learners. Edmund Gordon was an early pioneer of flexibility in learning styles.

This year, 2021, Edmund Gordon celebrated his 100th birthday.

Stuart McPhail Hall (1932 – 2014)

Stuart Hall was a Jamaica-born political activist, cultural theorist and British Marxist sociologist. The Observer decreed Hall, ‘One of the country’s leading cultural theorists’.

Hall’s academic efforts expanded the scope of cultural studies to further examine race and gender. His beliefs and theories were heavily influenced by philosophers such as Michel Foucault.

During his academic career, Hall helped to found ‘The School of Thought’, also recognised as ‘The Birmingham School of British Cultural Studies’. Stuart Hall served as lead of Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. He later became director of the university in 1972.

Hall is also recognised for his involvement in the Black Arts Movement.

Marva Collins (1936 – 2015)

Marva Collins was an American educator and founder of the Westside Preparatory School in 1975.

Collins had been teaching for 16 years when she became concerned at the levels of learning available to some of her students. As a result, Marva Collins decided to take money out of her retirement fund to open an elementary school in West Garfield Park. This area was underfunded and affected by low status and low income living.

Collins’ solution was to build a low-cost private school, specifically for low-income black children who had been labelled as ‘learning-disabled’.

Marva Collins believed the students were teachable and able to overcome obstacles of learning via her methods. Collins’ style of teaching supposedly eliminated behavioural issues, helping the students to flourish.

It is possible, Marva Collins was actually one of the earliest pioneers of Special Education Needs (SEN) teaching.

Her passion for teaching was shared with her daughter who also worked at Westside Prep school.

Marva Collins was such an icon in the education field, multiple presidents asked her to become Secretary of Education. However she declined, in order to continue mentoring students instead.

Gus John (1945)

Gus John was a writer, education campaigner, lecturer and researcher. He moved to the UK in 1964, where he pursued a career in education.

John worked in multiple universities across the UK. He later served as Associate Professor of education at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning (University of London). As his career developed, Gus John contributed heavily to the development of education policies.

John was a leading developer of education policy, active in issues of education in Britain’s inner cities. He invested in schooling and education, youth development and the empowerment of ,arginalised groups within a community. Gus John combined his policy work with community activism.

He was the first black Director of Education Services ever in Britain.


Where are we now?

Racism in education remains an issue under continuing investigation and developmental action. Although major progression has taken place since the attitudes of the 19th century, educators and students continue to report issues of inequality in education. One educational professional, reported to The Guardian,

‘I have found a serious diversity problem; I have been unable to get past overt and subtle prejudice in order to make a difference to BAME students and potential future academics. As a black academic in a UK university, I became accustomed to defending myself to students and sometimes to staff. “Yes, I really do have a doctorate.” “No, it was not awarded to me to fill a quota.”’

The Guardian 10/04/2021

The issue of lacking diversity in education, continues to remain problematic. Subtle racism and micro-aggressions demand attention in order to improve the working environment of BAME teaching staff and students. Representation is a vital method to improve the current conditions in education.

In comparison to the history of education and discrimination we have undoubtedly come a long way, however there is obvious space for improvement. When we remember the first important black figures in education history and recognise their pioneering work and achievements we must also recognise the ongoing issues, that require absolute attention and mindful improvement.


We would like to take this opportunity, as we observe Black History Month, to show appreciation and share a massive thank you to all of our BAME nursery and teaching staff. We support and look forward to schools across the globe, organising lessons and activities in order to share knowledge and raise awareness of Black History.


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