Filed Under African American

105 Wentworth Street

Septima Clark's home once stood here

Civil rights activist Septima Poinsette Clark was born at this address in 1898. Her mother worked as a laundress and her father had been enslaved to a College of Charleston trustee. This family, like other Black citizens, had few legal rights and limited opportunities. Clark worked to change these conditions, drawing inspiration and support from her family and community.

In 1898, when Septima Poinsette was born in a house on 105 Wentworth Street, Black citizens had few opportunities 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. 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. To learn more about Septima Clark's life, take this virtual tour or visit the Septima Clark Auditorium in the Education Center, room 118.

Images

Present-day 105 Wentworth Street, College of Charleston 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 Source: College of Charleston
1872 “Bird’s Eye” map of Charleston showing the house at 105 Wentworth Street 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.
1850 Slave Schedule for Joel Poinsett 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. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004.
The 1900 census 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: Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1900. Twelfth Census of the United States Schedule No. 1 – Population, Charleston County, Precinct 1., Ward 4.
Septima Poinsette Clark’s mother, Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette 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.
Rosa Parks with Septima Clark Rosa Parks, a civil rights activist at the forefront of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, took a class with Septima Clark a few months before her historic refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger. The class was at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where this photo was taken in December 1956. Source: Rosa Parks, Mrs. Septima Clark, Mrs. Leona McCauley, Highlander Folk School, De. [Monteagle, Tennessee] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Septima Clark with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Citizenship Education Training Center, 1960 Septima Clark sits at the head of the table at The Citizenship Education Training Center in Liberty County, GA, 1960. Martin Luther King, Jr. is seated far left. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
Septima Clark receiving honorary doctorate from College of Charleston, 1978 Septima Clark and James B. Edwards, former President of MUSC, at College of Charleston’s Founders Day ceremony in 1978, when the College of Charleston awarded Clark an honorary doctorate. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
College of Charleston Teaching Fellows Honor Clark Aly Lain, Ridgeland Welch, Nerie Clark, 105 Wentworth Street, 2018. Students in the College’s Teaching Fellows program installed a State Historical Marker on the site after doing the research for the marker and fundraising to cover its cost.  The marker was unveiled May 3, 2018, 120 years after Clark’s birth on this site. Source: College of Charleston

Location

Metadata

Julia Eichelberger, “105 Wentworth Street,” Discovering Our Past: College of Charleston Histories, accessed December 2, 2023, https://discovering.cofc.edu/items/show/72.