Fanny Jackson Coppin was born a slave on January 8, 1837, and at age 12, she escaped slavery when her aunt decided to purchase her freedom with the hopes that Fanny could do something worthwhile with her life. She was later employed as a domestic servant by American essayist and Mayor of Newport, Rhode Island, George Henry Calvert.
Until 1860, Fanny was self- taught, learning how to read and write at any opportunity she had. She was very particular and determined to get an education. In 1860, she enrolled into Oberlin College, Ohio. Oberlin College was the first college that accepted both black and female students.
While in her junior year, Fanny was chosen by her faculty to teach some classes. Despite fears that she might be rejected as a teacher by the students, the faculty gave Fanny the opportunity and she was received warmly. Fanny’s classes had to be divided because the class grew bigger with time. She also taught for free a reading and writing course in the evenings for African-Americans until she graduated in 1865 with a Bachelor’s Degree.
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Fanny became very passionate about education and the education of African-American females. Right after graduation, she began teaching Mathematics, Greek and Latin in the Institute of Colored Youth, Philadelphia and became the principal of the girls’ high school department of the school.
In 1869, after the departure of the principal Ebenezer Bassett, Fanny was appointed the Principal of Philadelphia’s Institute of Colored Youth presently the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania where she restructured the school’s programs and stayed for 37 years.
Her appointment as Principal made her the first African-American Female School Principal. During her time as principal, the board of education promoted her to Superintendent position making her the first African American Superintendent of a school district in the United States.
In 1878, Fanny Coppin introduced a practice-teaching system into the teacher training course and also introduced industrial–teacher training program which offered vocational training in 10 trades.
Her activism in education and vocational training was due to her belief that education and employment were tools to eliminate discrimination towards African-Americans and empowerment of African- American Women.
In 1881, Fanny married Reverend Levi Jenkins Coppin and resigned from her post as Principal in 1902 when the school moved to Pennsylvania. After her resignation, the family moved to South Africa and she became very involved in missionary work with her husband. She helped found the Bethel Institute in Cape Town. Poor health forced her to move back to Philadelphia where she died on the 21st of January 1913.