Filed Under African American

Inheritance: Septima Poinsette Clark's Family, 1850s-1910s

Septima Poinsette was raised by parents who worked tirelessly to make sure their children were educated and successful, despite the obstacles facing Black citizens throughout their lifetimes.

When Septima Poinsette was born in a house on 105 Wentworth Street in 1898, Black citizens had few legal rights and little opportunity to advance in American society. Virtually no Black people could vote; although Black men in South Carolina gained that right during Reconstruction (1865-1877), white South Carolinians rolled back Blacks’ civil rights in the late 1800s. Reconstruction had extended voting rights to all men and had implemented a free public school system, but South Carolina’s 1895 constitution excluded Blacks from voting and mandated segregated schools. Amid these repressive circumstances, Peter and Victoria Poinsette managed to create full lives for themselves and their children. They succeeded, not only through their personal efforts, but also with the support of Black schools, churches, clubs, and neighborhoods that surrounded the Poinsette family in Charleston.

Records do not indicate how long Septima Poinsette Clark’s ancestors lived in the Americas. She believed her mother’s family had some Native American ancestry, which she and her cousin remembered as Seminole, Muskhogan, or Santee. As with many Black and Indigenous people, “official” records are not available to confirm all these family memories. Regarding her father, Ms. Clark told interviewers that his enslaved mother died while he was young, and that she knew nothing about her paternal grandfather. Her father, Peter Porcher Poinsette, was probably born in the late 1840s near Georgetown, SC. His enslavers were Mary Izard Pringle Poinsett and her second husband, Joel Poinsett, a diplomat, politician, and trustee of the College of Charleston.

As an enslaved child, Peter Poinsette had received no schooling. Like most Black South Carolinians (and over forty percent of whites), he was illiterate. His wife, Victoria Anderson Poinsette, was better educated. She was born in 1870 in Charleston, then spent part of her girlhood in Haiti, where she received some education. “That made her the proud soul she was all her life,” her daughter later said. As an adult, Mrs. Poinsette, who worked from home as a laundress, was active in Black women’s clubs and in her church, Old Bethel United Methodist, near the College of Charleston on Calhoun Street. (Old Bethel, a Black congregation, had originally worshipped with whites in this building, until the white members of Bethel United Methodist gave them the building and moved to a new church across the street.) Mr. Poinsette worked as a waiter, caterer, and custodian, and briefly co-owned a restaurant on State Street; he was a member of Centenary United Methodist Church. The Poinsette children attended both churches as well as Sunday school and services at Zion Presbyterian and Emanuel AME Church.

When Septima Poinsette was six, her family moved to a house on Henrietta Street. There the children helped their mother wash and iron her customers’ laundry, fetched buckets of water from the fountain in Marion Square, and on some Sundays, took walks with their mother down King Street and along the Battery. At home, Mrs. Poinsette enforced strict discipline, and she stood her ground with other people. Once when a policeman came through the yard, saying he was pursuing a suspect, Mrs. Poinsette shooed him away, saying, “I’m a little piece of leather, but I’m well put together, so don’t you come in here.” Mr. Poinsette had a more tranquil disposition. He often cooked for the family, and his daughter later recalled “sitting around that pot-bellied stove” and absorbing three important lessons from her father: always tell the truth, never “exalt yourself,” and “see others as Christ saw them. . . seeing that there is something fine and noble in everybody.”

Decades later, Ms. Clark reflected on her parents’ influence. “I always say that I stand on the platform that was built by both my mother and my father. My mother with her courageous philosophy, and my father with his non-violent philosophy. I think I have some of both in me.”

Both parents wanted the best possible education for their children. Mrs. Poinsette supervised the children’s homework and arranged for music lessons and, in some years, for private schooling. “There were lots of Black women who had little schools in their homes,” Ms. Clark later recalled, “and I really learned in that kind of school.” In other years, she attended segregated public schools, including Charleston Colored Industrial School (now Burke High School), which then ended at the 8th grade. There were no public high schools for Black students.

In 1912, eager to continue her education, the teenaged Septima Poinsette enrolled in the Avery Normal Institute, a private school founded in 1865 to train Black teachers. Encouraged by her family, neighbors, and Black educators in Charleston, she was on her way to achieving more than her parents had been allowed to do.

Images

105 Wentworth Street, 2018
105 Wentworth Street, 2018 Present-day 105 Wentworth Street, College of Charleston. The marker commemorates the site where Septima Poinsette was born, in a house that was torn down after her family moved to Henrietta Street. Source: College of Charleston
105 Wentworth Street, 1872
105 Wentworth Street, 1872 1872 “Bird’s Eye” map of Charleston showing the house at 105 Wentworth Street where Septima Poinsette was born, across from Grace Church (48 on this map) and one block from the College’s Cistern Yard (shown on the lower right-hand corner of this image). The house no longer exists; after the family moved in 1904, it was replaced by the house that now stands on the property. Source: C. N. Drie. Bird’s eye map of the city of Charleston, South Carolina. 1872.  Library of Congress http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3914c.pm008830
1850 Slave Schedule
1850 Slave Schedule 1850 Slave Schedule for Joel Poinsett. On these “schedules” (lists), enslaved people were often listed only by age and sex, not name. Peter Poinsette was a small child or an infant in 1850. After Joel Poinsett’s death in 1856, his widow, Mary Izard Pringle Poinsett became the young Peter’s enslaver. She died in 1857 and her son, John Julius Izard Pringle, inherited her human property, including Peter Poinsette. Source: Ancestry.com. 1850 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004.
South Carolina Constitution, 1868
South Carolina Constitution, 1868 Article 10, section 10 of the 1868 South Carolina Constitution mandates free public education for all children “without regard to race or color.” This constitution also extended voting rights to all men of all races. By 1898, when Septima Clark was born, a new state constitution had stripped Black citizens of these civil rights.  Source: Constitutional Convention (1868). Constitution of 1868.Article 10.S131081. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia,SouthCarolina. Online at http://www.teachingushistory.org/tTrove/1868Constitution.htm
South Carolina Constitution, 1868
South Carolina Constitution, 1868 Article 10, section 10 of the 1868 South Carolina Constitution mandates free public education for all children “without regard to race or color.” This constitution also extended voting rights to all men of all races. By 1898, when Septima Clark was born, a new state constitution had stripped Black citizens of these civil rights.  Source: Constitutional Convention (1868). Constitution of 1868.Article 10.S131081. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia,SouthCarolina. Online at http://www.teachingushistory.org/tTrove/1868Constitution.htm
Clipping from SC State Constitution 1895
Clipping from SC State Constitution 1895 South Carolina’s 1895 constitution removed numerous civil rights for Black citizens. Article 2 required that voters demonstrate they could read and interpret the state constitution or demonstrate that they owned property worth at least $300. Source: Constitution of the State of South Carolina: Ratified in Convention, December 4, 1895. H. Wilson, Printer, 1896. Courtesy of College of Charleston Libraries.
Clipping from 1900 census 105 Wentworth
Clipping from 1900 census 105 Wentworth The 1900 census lists 5 Poinsette family members living at 105 Wentworth Street: Victoria, Peter, and their children Ethel, Septima, and Peter. Five more children were born after the family moved to Henrietta Street. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1900. Twelfth Census of the United States Schedule No. 1 – Population, Charleston County, Precinct 1., Ward 4. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
King Street, 1900
King Street, 1900 King Street, Charleston, 1900. Septima Clark recalled how Victoria Poinsette sometimes took the children for walks here after church on Sundays.  Source: Souvenir of Charleston, South Carolina—photo-gravures. 1900.   Souvenir of Charleston, S.C.; photo-gravures. [Brooklyn, N.Y., A. Wittemann 19, 1900] Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/73172356/.  Library of Congress.
Peter Poinsette’s business in 1902
Peter Poinsette’s business in 1902 Peter Poinsette co-owned a small restaurant on State Street, as identified in this page from the 1902 city directory. He also worked as a caterer and custodian. Source: Charleston City Directory, 1902. South Carolina Room, Charleston County Public Library. 
Victoria Poinsette standing by pillar
Victoria Poinsette standing by pillar Septima Poinsette Clark’s mother, Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette (1870-1951). Born in Charleston, she lived with family in Haiti for several years after her mother’s death in 1880, then in Florida with her family. In the 1890s, after she married Peter Poinsette, she relocated to Charleston. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
Newsclipping listing Septima Poinsette on Shaw Elem. School honor roll 1910
Newsclipping listing Septima Poinsette on Shaw Elem. School honor roll 1910 This 1910 story identifies Septima Poinsette among students on the honor roll at Shaw School. Septima and her siblings were mentioned in several newspaper reports during this era for earning top grades and performing recitations at school. Source: Charleston News and Courier, June 18, 1910, page 5 . Newsbank.
Charleston Colored Industrial School building
Charleston Colored Industrial School building Charleston Colored Industrial School Building, 1910-1920. During the early 1900s, this was the only public school for Black students that offered education past primary grades. A new structure was opened in 1911, with instruction through the eighth grade. The school was later renamed Burke High School. Source: South Carolina Historical Society
Charleston Colored Industrial School
Charleston Colored Industrial School Students at Charleston Colored Industrial School, 1910-1920. The school’s purpose was vocational training, as shown in the agricultural work students are doing here. Source: South Carolina Historical Society
Charleston Colored Industrial School
Charleston Colored Industrial School Sewing class at Charleston Colored Industrial School, 1910-1920. Girls learned cooking and sewing in separate classes from the boys who learned carpentry and other work deemed suitable for men. Source: South Carolina Historical Society
Charleston Colored Industrial School Principal’s lecture in 1912
Charleston Colored Industrial School Principal’s lecture in 1912 Lecture on “White Man’s Burden.” The principal of Charleston Colored Industrial School, J. R. Guy, gave a lecture in 1912 entitled “White Man’s Burden,” discussing the alleged “burden” or duty of whites to train Black citizens to earn a living. Like all teachers in the city’s public schools at that time, J. R. Guy was white. Source: Charleston Evening Post, December 4, 1912, page 10. Newsbank.
Verses in memory of Harold Poinsette
Verses in memory of Harold Poinsette Two of the Poinsettes’ eight children died young: a boy who died in infancy, and Harold, who died in 1919 at age 12. A year later, his parents and his siblings published these memorial verses.   Source: Charleston Evening Post, February 11, 1920. Newsbank.

Location

105 Wentworth St. Charleston, SC 29401

Metadata

Julia Eichelberger and Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes, “Inheritance: Septima Poinsette Clark's Family, 1850s-1910s,” Discovering Our Past: College of Charleston Histories, accessed June 24, 2024, https://discovering.cofc.edu/items/show/58.