Born a slave in the nation’s capital, the child Fanny was purchased by an aunt. Another aunt took the little girl in, but Fanny had to go out and work as a domestic, getting schooling whenever she could. By age fourteen, she was supporting herself in Newport, Rhode Island, and struggling for education. “It was in me,” she wrote years later, “to get an education and to teach my people. This idea was deep in my soul.” She attended Rhode Island State Normal School and then Oberlin College, where her achievements were amazing. She was the first black person chosen to be a pupil-teacher there. In her senior year, she organized evening classes to teach freedmen.
After her graduation in 1865, Fanny Jackson was appointed to the Institute for Colored Youth, a Quaker school in Philadelphia. Within four years, she became head principal, from which position she influenced two generations of young people. In a letter to Frederick Douglass in 1876, she explained her commitment: “I feel sometimes like a person to whom in childhood was entrusted some sacred flame…This is the desire to see my race lifted out of the mire of ignorance, weakness and degradation; no longer to sit in obscure corners and devour the scraps of knowledge which his superiors flung at him. I want to see him crowned with strength and dignity; adorned with the enduring grace of intellectual attainments.”
Her school was centered on this dream. She expanded the curriculum to include an Industrial Department, established a Women’s Industrial Exchange to display the mechanical and artistic works of young women, and founded a Home for Girls and Young Women to house workers from out of town. Moreover, she persuaded employers to hire her pupils in capacities that would utilize their education.
In 1881, she married Rev. Levi J. Coppin, a prominent A.M.E. minister, and together they were a driving force in Black America. She continued her work at the school but added missionary work to her interests. Mrs. Coppin retired from her beloved school in 1902 at age 65 and began a new career. She accompanied her husband, now a bishop, to Cape Town, South Africa, where she was an effective missionary, counseling African women.
She returned to Philadelphia in 1907, broken in health but not in spirit. In her last years, she completed her autobiography, Reminiscences of School Life, which remains a record of a remarkable life. Fanny Jackson Coppin died in 1913 at age 76. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was her influence on her students. She prodded them toward excellence. She made them dream. She made them become more than they ever thought they could. Frances (Fanny) Marion Jackson Coppin was, indeed, a model of academic excellence—both in her life and in the heritage that she has bequeathed to those who followed.