Meet Willa Johnson Cofield. More than 50 years ago, she was a teacher at the all-Black high school in Enfield, N.C., instructing her students in literature and grammar by day, leading voter-registration campaigns and petitioning to end segregation in her small town by night.
In April 1963, a group of her students, fired up by their classroom discussions, went to the Whites-only library in town knowing they’d be turned away. They were inspired to start a series of demonstrations to dismantle the status quo and even attended the March on Washington in August of that year.
For Cofield, the activism she engaged in was an expression of her belief in education and social justice. She felt they were intertwined. Her employer, however, did not. She was fired.
But the values she espoused lived on long after she left North Carolina and settled in New Jersey. Cofield at age 87 continues to talk to audiences of students and teachers about voting rights and advocating for laws that will make it easier – not more difficult – to vote. (You can take a stand on this issue by emailing your elected officials to support the Voting Rights Enhancement Act.)
Black History Month is often when we tell the familiar stories of struggle and triumph: the heroism of Rosa Parks, the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., the boldness of Malcolm X. These activists and leaders were instrumental in our nation’s progress, and they must never be forgotten. But there are so many stories of educators who were activists. Their names may not be as familiar, but their impact was just as great. And it’s up to us to share those narratives throughout the year.
Did you know the very first institutions created by the newly freed slaves were schools? The former slaves had little money, they didn’t have strategic plans, and they couldn’t call on people with influence and resources for assistance or advice. Yet they somehow got these schools up and running only a year or two after slavery.
“They pooled their resources – which were very meager – to hire a teacher, to find a building, to build a building, to use an abandoned building, to create a school,” says historian Eric Foner. “And at these schools, everybody is going… .This is one of the critical definitions of freedom for black people: the ability to get an education.”
The freed slaves wanted for their sons and daughters what they would never have themselves. These mothers and fathers believed all children – including the children of those who had been in bondage, who were considered less than full citizens and denied full participation in society – deserved the opportunity to learn. And they were determined to provide it. Consider the founding of Talladega College in Alabama. A small group of slaves gathered in Mobile in 1865, and out of their meeting came a commitment:
“…We regard the education of our children and youths as vital to the preservation of our liberties…and shall use our utmost endeavors to promote these blessings in our common country.”
They partnered with the federal Freedmen’s Bureau, which was created to bring the freed slaves to full citizenship. (Of course, the backlash during Reconstruction, followed by years of Jim Crow laws, ensured that did not happen for another 100 years.)These Alabama activists – barely out of slavery themselves – constructed a one-room schoolhouse using whatever materials they could find. The thirst for literacy and demand for education were so great, the school was overcrowded as soon as it opened.
The very first courses offered by Talladega beyond elementary education were “normal courses” for training teachers; the founders wanted to build a cadre of educators who could reach, teach, and inspire Black students throughout Alabama.
The Talladega story is fascinating, but not unique. Wilberforce University, in Ohio, traces its roots to 1856, five years before the Civil War. Although the original campus shut down after the Civil War, an African American pastor, Daniel A. Payne, led the effort to purchase the facilities and reopen the historically Black university in 1863. Payne was the first Black college president in the United States.
Daniel Payne, the founders of Talledega , and Willa Cofield Johnson were committed to providing the educational opportunities that they believed would uplift their students and communities. They were activists, and we can be activists, too. If you’d like to learn about how you can get involved in protecting public education and voting rights and strengthening the middle class, sign up for email updates from Education Votes.
We must uncover fascinating stories such as these and share them with our students. We are teaching and inspiring the educators and activists of the future. They need to know the powerful legacy on which they stand.