An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally premiered the evening of 2/27/2023,
at the monthly meeting of New Hampshire's Racial Justice Think Tank
"I'm not going to be the teacher. We're going to learn together. You're going to teach me some things, and maybe there are a few things I might be able to teach you, but I don't consider myself a teacher. I just feel that I'm here to learn with you. We'll learn things together."
As an adult educator myself, I couldn't help but be drawn into the fascinating life and philosophies of Bernice Violanthe Robinson. Born February 7, 1914 in Charleston, South Carolina --a day that saw snowfall in Charleston for the first time in more than a century. Robinson's mother, Martha Elizabeth (née Anderson) Robinson took this as a sign that her daughter would spend her life "disturbing the elements." Martha was herself sister to Septima Poinsette Clark's mother (see Lesson #74 in this series), and Bernice's own principles would similarly coalesce around the twin premises of education and citizenship, much like her famous cousin.
In 1929 Bernice moved from South Carolina to Harlem, New York with the intention of becoming a musician, but after a period in the famed garment district, her talents as a seamstress took prominence and she graduated from Poro School of Cosmetology. In 1947 she returned to Johns Island, South Carolina to care for her ageing parents, and with her professional talents was able to open her own salon --a form of economic independence not available to Black women in most other careers. At the time beauticians were traditionally well-regarded amongst civil rights workers, not only because they were known and respected in a community, but also because of their almost-stereotypical role as "the good listeners," and that as self-employed entrepreneurs were less prone to backlash from punitive employers. By all accounts a socially engaging and affable personality with an easy talent for friendly first impressions, Bernice joined the NAACP and made good use of her salon as a "hub" for local activism, and cultivated many contacts and acquaintances.
In 1956 Robinson attended a workshop hosted by the Highlander Folk School (an organization that itself certainly merits its own course of study); her cousin Septima Clark also attended. Ostensibly the topic was about desegregation but over the course of the session the focus turned to civic literacy and educating would-be voters. Bernice expressed an interest in helping to better educate the people of Johns Island but lamented her lack of professional teaching credentials. Clark countered by suggesting that her cousin was the ideal candidate for such a role precisely because she lacked such a credential; that she was perfectly suited to the task because of her lack of formal training --no preconceived notions.
Thusly "voluntold," Bernice threw herself into her new calling; in five months (!) she developed lesson plans, curricula, and distributable materials for the SCLC that would lead to voter-registration workshops in communities well beyond Johns Island; eventually catching on in Charleston itself. The growth of these first Citizenship Schools in turn fed into the enthusiasm and the missions of CORE, the Freedom Riders, and the SNCC --all of which reinforced one another as they continued to educate and motivate scores of citizens who had never before stepped into a voting booth.
As an adult educator, Bernice also adhered to the principle of never stopping learning: in 1967 she completed a University of Wisconsin correspondence course in community development, and also found time to secure an additional degree in interior design. Robinson stepped down from her behind-the-scenes SCLC teaching role in 1970, having quietly developed what amounted to the most successful and widespread literacy campaign in modern American history. She pivoted to developing curricula for the South Carolina Commission for Farm Workers (SCCFW); and then in 1972 --in what I can only assume is the inherent desire of the adult educator to yet again try something new and different-- she ran for Congress.
Recommended further reading (and a title that is apparently not necessarily easy to find, so call in those librarian favours, folks): Or We'll All Hang Separately: The Highlander Idea by Thomas Bledsoe (1968). Also worth a read: A beautician without teacher training: Bernice Robinson, citizenship schools and women in the Civil Rights Movement, an essay by Clare Russell, Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston.
Next page - Lesson 119: Carolyn Beatrice Parker
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