Two women with an extraordinary connection to Cheyney University’s history have recently been honored for overcoming racism and refusing to be hindered or held back because of the conventions of their era.
Lulu Merle Johnson, a professor and historian who was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in the state of Iowa and Fanny Jackson Coppin, the second African American woman to graduate college in the U.S. have now respectively had a county and a school named after them.
The Philadelphia Board of Education recently voted to rename Andrew Jackson Elementary School Fanny Jackson Coppin Elementary School. Meantime, in Johnson County, Iowa, officials have decided to keep the name, but instead of the county being named for Richard Mentor Johnson, who served as vice president under President Martin Van Buren, it will now take its name after Dr. Lulu Johnson.
Dr. Johnson was one of 14 Black women when she attended the State University of Iowa in 1925. She completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees there by 1930 and her Ph.D. in 1941. She taught history at historically black colleges such as Florida A&M University, and West Virginia State College, before she joined the faculty at Cheyney in 1952. She served as a professor of history and as dean of women students. She retired in 1971.
“I am beyond impressed with the accomplishments of Dr. Johnson,” said Cheyney University alum and psychology professor Dr. Tamika Thomas. “Despite all that she had to overcome, she was able to become one of the first African American women to earn her Ph.D. Dr. Johnson’s efforts are an example of tenacity personified and an inspiration to African American women and men alike. My only disappointment is that I was not a student at Cheney University when she served as Dean of Women Studies. I am very appreciative of the door that she opened, which enabled me to become a female African American doctor of psychology. The renaming of the county after Dr. Johnson is an honor that is long overdue.”
It is interesting to note, that Richard Mentor Johnson owned slaves and that he was not popular with his congressional colleagues because he had a well-known relationship with one of his slaves – Julia Chinn. They lived together openly and had two daughters. A recent story in the Washington Post explored their complicated relationship.
In 1865 Fanny Jackson Coppin accepted a position at the Institute for Colored Youth. She was principal of the Ladies Department and taught Greek, Latin and Math. In 1869 she was appointed principal of the school, the first African American woman to hold that position at a public school in Philadelphia. In 1902, the Institute for Colored Youth moved from its location at 9th and Bainbridge Streets to George Cheyney’s farm in Delaware County which was renamed Cheyney University.
Coppin was an enslaved servant in Washington D.C. before she gained her freedom as a child. She went on to graduate from Rhode Island State Normal School and Oberlin College in Ohio.
Dr. Thomas said of Coppin that she refused to let being born into slavery thwart her desire to attain an education. The elementary school in Philadelphia that will now bear her name had been named in honor of the nation’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson. Jackson, like many wealthy men of his day owned slaves, although he is mostly remembered as a military hero for actions taken in defeating the British in Louisiana during the War of 1812.
In addition, Coppin is also the namesake of Coppin State University, an historically Black college in Baltimore, which was founded in 1900.
“Her passion for education was evident not only in her pursuit of self-education, but also in her commitment to teaching others,” Dr. Thomas said. “In addition to her being the first black pupil-teacher at Oberlin College, she also thought it not robbery to organize and teach classes to freedmen in the evening. Her principalship at the Institute for Colored Youth positively changed and shaped the lives of Black students for decades. Changing the school’s name to honor this amazing educator, is both timely and necessary as this country continues to grapple with appropriate ways to recognize the contributions of African American trailblazers.
“As a Cheyney professor and alum, I am proud that the legacy of Coppin and Dr. Johnson for helping to lay the foundation on which I stand.”