Throughout the history of the U.S., the educational system has changed in many ways. For those of color, those changes took longer and came with more strife. Yet, throughout the development of that education system, there have been leaders of color in education who have stood out, helping to foster success and create opportunity.
There are many African American leaders who have shaped the country’s education system in many ways including contributions to everyday life and activism. “It is important to not only address the needs of our educational system in our current times, but also acknowledge the progress and development made by countless leaders before us,” says Harrison Peters, chief executive officer of Men of Color in Education Leadership (MCEL).
Here is a look at some of the most important Black leaders in the history of education.
An easy person to add to this list is Thurgood Marshall. He was a civil rights lawyer who led the team in the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court case. In that case, the Supreme Court overturned segregation in public schools.
As one of the most important cases in the 20th century, Brown vs Board of Education came to be when a group of Black parents in Topeka, Kansas created a class-action lawsuit because their children were forced to go to a segregated school.
Marshall led the charge in getting changes in place. He later became the first African-American to be appointed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. In that role, he continued to support and inspire people in many ways.
Edmond W. Gordon
Though lesser known, the work of Edmond W. Gordon did help to provide access to education for children in preschool. Gordon chaired the College Board’s National Task Force on Minority High Achievement. Through that work, he achieved many significant accomplishments including just working endlessly to make education accessible to people of color.
Perhaps his most notable change, though, came in his involvement in the development of Project Head Start, a child development and early education program designed to meet the needs of young children in need-based situations. Over 35 million children have gone through the program since 1965.
Fanny Jackson Coppin
Though her early beginnings were challenging, Fanny Jackson Coppin was the first female African-American principal. She worked at the Institute for Colored Youth. By breaking through this typically male-oriented position, she paved the way for young women and minorities to hold key leadership roles in education. Though she was born into slavery, she served more than 37 years in her leadership position. She was easily one of the most notable figures of her time inspiring young girls to create big goals.
Nathan Hare took on his role in education a bit differently. He worked at the San Francisco State University in 1968. During that time, he developed a Black Studies program, the first in the country like it. His initial efforts were refuted, but he and his students spent months protesting the plan to cut the program in half. Over time, it led to national acclaim. It spurred many other universities in the country to create Black Studies programs themselves. Today, there are over 350 such programs.
Selena Sloan Butler
Many parents today know about the National Parent Teacher Association, a very important tool in improving communication between parents and teachers. Selena Sloan Butler created a different version, the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers Association (NCCPT). This was the very first parent teacher association designed to support the needs of black parents. The program was meant to foster communication, but also to encourage parents to become more involved in their child’s education. The first program, founded in 1919, was a catalyst to change. In 1926, she pushed for the first national convention. Today, these organizations are no longer segregated.
Charlotte Forten Grimke
Charlotte Forten Grimke is notable as the first Black teacher to take a position at Penn School. The school was founded in South Carolina specifically designed to educate newly freed black slaves. The school was put into place right after the Civil War during a very trying time. Grimke worked to provide incredible support for her students. Later in her life, she worked for the U.S. Treasury Department. In this role, she championed recruiting people of color to take on educator roles throughout the education system across the U.S.
Quite the impressive mathematician, Kelly Miller is notable as he was the very first Black graduate student studying Mathematics. Not only was this an important milestone in the educational history of the U.S., but he went on to do amazing things. He became a dean at Howard University. Later, he was very active working as a civil rights activist. Throughout his career, he continued to encourage and motivate Black students to pursue higher education.
Marva Collins did what others thought was impossible. She worked at the Westside Preparatory School in 1975. There, she worked to teach what many called “unteachable” students. Throughout her career, she would teach thousands of students and helped to motivate and support other teachers working to do the same.
These are just a few of the most notable individuals who contributed to the significant changes in the education system. Many other leaders of color have contributed to these efforts including Dr. Jeanne L. Noble, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Carter G. Woodson.