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Outstanding Teachers

While the vast majority of our early teachers, faded into anonymity with perhaps only the gratitude of a few students and parents, many distinguished Americans started their careers as teachers and went on to greater contributions to the country. These are two of the most memorable.

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)
Born into the family of cotton manufacturer Daniel Anthony, in Adams, Mass. Susan Anthony enjoyed a relatively rich educational start in life at first her father’s school, and then a Philadelphia boarding school. She did not enter the teaching field until 1852, when she was engaged by a female academy in Rochester, N.Y. where she would teach for 15 years. The annual education convention was held in her now home city, in 1853, and Anthony attended all three days of the sessions, along with thousand of other female teachers, who were neither allowed to speak, nor vote on questions. For possibly the one time in her life, this worked to her advantage. After listening to an hours long debate on why the teaching profession got so little respect, Miss Anthony stood and addressed the President. When questioned as to what she wanted, she asked to speak. The assembly was asked their pleasure, and there followed a half hour debate on whether it could be allowed. By a small margin of male votes, she was given the floor. Anthony stood and asked why, when they deemed women unfit to be lawyers, doctors, etc. that they were praised as teachers. And since men were also teachers, did that not place them on the lower intelligence level attributed to women. She then drove her point home by noting that male teachers have to compete with the cheap labour of women, who were paid less, and would they not elevate both the salaries and status of those educating the country’s future Presidents and Senators. Anthony continued to attend the annual conferences, repeating her requests each year for equal pay and rights, and in the end saw all the concessions asked for, granted. Women were appointed to committees, voted on issues, delivered reports, sat on the platform, and held office. Susan B. Anthony went on to champion women’s rights on many fronts. She died in March, 1906.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
Macon County, Alabama got its first school for black Americans in 1881, thanks to the machinations of that great institution- politics. An ex-confederate colonel coveted a seat in the state legislature and thought the Negro vote would swing the balance his way. He struck a deal whereby a school would be opened in return for the leading townsman delivering him the Negro vote. The colonel got his seat, the town of Tuskegee got its school, and the school got its first teacher, a young black man named Booker T. Washington. Washington at that time, was nothing but a teacher, such an unusual state, that people would mistakenly refer to him as “Reverend”. The only black citizens of note were ministers and politicians, with most ministers being teachers as well. Once his lack of “status” was discovered, the same preachers who allowed him to take the pulpit on Sundays and encourage people to send their children to school, got up and condemned him for a godless man running a godless school. Washington’s career was off to a rocky start, from whites and blacks. Six weeks after his school opened in an old shanty church, he had 30 pupils and an assistant teacher, Olivia A. Davidson, who would become Mrs. Washington. He soon discovered that 85% of the families he would teach, derived a living from agriculture. Washington then applied himself to teaching them how to live off the land, by personally borrowing $250 to buy land and erect buildings where his students would learn more than just their ABCs. Eventually they started their own brickyard, again out of necessity in order to erect proper buildings in which they would house boarding students. For the recently emancipated black population, learning to properly raise, store, cook and serve food from the land would take more than day classes. Not content with the hands-on improvement of his students’ lives, Washington sought ways for them to help those less fortunate, without the benefit of schooling. Emmett J. Scott and Lyman Beecher Stowe, authors of his 1916 biography, noted that he had no patience with those who climbed the tree of knowledge and pulled the ladder up after them. Washington went forth with his students onto the farms of the county, helping, suggesting, sharing the work, and in general improving the farmers’ lives and enriching those of his students. Soon, Mrs. Washington would form a ladies organisation of wives and mothers, where household hints and sanitation would be taught. From the nucleus of his first school, Washington’s influence spread to the next county, then the next, gaining momentum until there was a statewide wave of practical and conscience-driven education and social reform. As is often noted, his influence, like that of his school, was at first community wide, then county wide, then State wide, and finally nation wide. In 1895, he mounted the platform of the Cotton States and International Exposition to address the assembly, the first black man to ever do so. He left the stage to overwhelming enthusiasm that never waned. From that day on he was seen as a leader of his people, and one of the great Americans.