The Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia is now the Fanny Jackson Coppin School, named for the woman born into slavery who became a renowned educator.
“This is a momentous occasion,” said Principal Kelly Espinosa before the unveiling of the new name Tuesday atop the front door.
The name change occurred after a long process that involved teachers, students, families, and community members. The decision was finalized last year after considering several other options, including Philadelphia Black abolitionist William Still and Acel Moore, who was the first Black reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and grew up nearby.
School buildings, said Superintendent William Hite, should “reflect the values … that make us feel proud and inspired.” It is significant that the school is being renamed during Women’s History Month, he said.
“It is a name you can be proud of,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. Coppin “got an education when women weren’t allowed to go to college or even high school.”
Anthony L. Jenkins, president of Coppin University in Baltimore, announced he was establishing a scholarship program that will allow any graduate of the school to attend his college tuition-free.
“The teachers are committed to your success,” Jenkins told the students assembled in the blocked-off street for the ceremony. “Education will transform your life, it is through your education that you will become a better person. Like Coppin, you should work to make every environment you enter better.”
At Coppin, a K-8 school, about four in five of its 500 students are listed as coming from low-income families. The student body is diverse: about 40% white, 30% Latino, 14% Black, 8% Asian, and 8% multiracial.
The school is one of the oldest in the city, founded in the 19th century as the Federal Street School (it is located at 12th and Federal streets) and renamed for Jackson in 1838. Jackson was U.S. president between 1829 and 1837. The current building opened in 1924.
Coppin was born in January 1837 in Washington, D.C., as Jackson’s presidential term was ending. While she was still a young girl, an aunt bought her freedom but she had to support herself, and she worked in Rhode Island as a domestic. She was determined to get an education and first attended the Rhode Island State Normal School and then Oberlin College in Ohio.
After graduation in 1865, she got a job at the Institute for Colored Youth in South Philadelphia, the first high school for Blacks in the country, and within four years became its principal — the first African American school principal in the country. There, she advocated for industrial arts training in addition to courses in the classics and established a teacher training program.
The institute later moved to Chester County and became Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.
After her career at the institute, Coppin traveled to South Africa and worked as a missionary among Black women, promoting temperance, and founding the Bethel Institute in Cape Town.
As teacher, principal, and missionary, she never stopped advocating for the education of women.
When asked what they knew about Coppin, some fourth graders had quick answers.
“She was a principal and teacher at the same time,” one said.
“Her aunt bought her out of slavery,” said another.
When asked what they knew about Andrew Jackson, those answers were also quick.
“He held 166 slaves,” one said. His friend corrected him: “It was 161.”
Added another: “He was the seventh president but he still owned slaves.’”
The district is in the process of renaming two other schools: Woodrow Wilson Middle School and Philip H. Sheridan School, both in the northeast.
Wilson, the 28th president, was a racist and did not believe in the equality of African Americans; he segregated the federal workforce, resulting in many Black employees losing status and income. Princeton University purged his name from its public policy school in 2020.
Sheridan, a successful Civil War general, led U.S. forces during the subsequent Indian Wars and attacked reservations and settlements, unconcerned about non-combatant casualties. Sheridan also made racist comments about Indigenous people.
There is no word when those schools will get new names.
The school’s famous rock band, Home, played at the event.
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at email@example.com.