Jennie Adams Carter
by Michelle Seehoffer
The following is a reprint of an article published in the California Journal
Her head held tall and proud, her dark almond-shaped eyes glowing with intelligence, her hair neatly pulled into a bun, E. Jennie Adams posed the stereotypical image 19th century schoolteacher-in all but one feature. Carter was an African American woman.
Elizabeth Jennie Adams was freeborn October 9, 1852, to the Rev. Beverly Wilkeson Adams and his wife, Eliza Jane Peters Adams, in Monongahela City, Washington County. Her grandparents lived as slaves until buying their freedom and moving north. She graduated from Monongahela City Union School in 1878 as class historian and entered college.
Just 16 years after the Civil War ended, in 1881, Carter became the first African American to graduate from the South Western State Normal School, now known as California University of Pennsylvania. It was not until eight years later (1889) that the first African American man graduated from the Normal School.
Her determination and thirst for education earned her respect as an elocutionist, a scholar and an educator despite great odds. Carter sought higher education amid a sea of white men and women in the post-Civil War.
Carter's presence at the Normal School proved not only a novelty for her race but also for her gender. Although women outnumbered men 16 to 12 in the 1881 graduating class, women were relatively new to local higher education. The Normal School graduated its first woman in 1876, just five years before Carter.
The laws of 1854 required states to establish separate but equal schools for black children. Anti slavery sentiment in Southwestern Pennsylvania, evidenced in the,active Underground Railroad, apparently led the schools trustees to admit blacks. However, the racial divide was evident.
The day Carter graduate July 14,1881, the Monongahela Valley Republican chronicled the division in a front-page story calling for reform in African American schools. "To the upper rooms as the law now knows neither 'white' nor 'black' let promotion be the same in every case on exactly the same rules," the article stated. "As time wears on, people's prejudices will wear away - and as the colored race becomes more polished and the. living habits more careful, there will be no prejudice at all."
The Republican article went on to claim that teachers in African America schools were not required to know as much as those in white schools and that African American students were given easier tests.
"The greatest portion of the colored population are poor and have a variety of domestic services to perform in which the larger children can help very materially. Hence, they are generally withdrawn from school, or else their attendance is very irregular," the paper reported.
The courage that led a young African American woman to seek higher education despite biases can only be imagined. The California Normal School announced in a July 2, 1881, press release for its commencement ceremonies, "The class was composed of twelve gentlemen and sixteen ladies. Among them was a colored young lady;there being no colored line here."
The hardships her ancestors must have endured to achieve their goals were evident in her graduation address, untitled "Unwritten History." "All is not written; if we knew the unwritten histories of even our enemies, perhaps the knowledge of their weaknesses might cause us to pity and forgive them," she said.
Carter had captured the attention of local media not merely because of her race, but also because she had earned respect as an orator. "Miss Adams, a colored girl, surprised the audience by her originality, quaint humor and, more than all, in the cultivation of her voice as a reader. She won success because she deserves it," read a commencement review published July 21, 1881, in the Monongahela Valley Republican.
"Miss Jenny has no superior in the California Normal School," another review said.
The Daily Republican, in reviewing a Normal School professor's lecture, noted, "By request of all the faculty and students, at the close of the lecture, Miss Jenny Adams recited, in her own happy manner, a choice selection, and responded to a hearty and persistent encore with a second, even better than the first."
Other testimonials praised Carter for being "universally respected as a student and teacher," and for giving readings that provided "meritorious entertainment."
The Elizabeth Herald reported, "Miss Adams is a fine elocutionist and her manner captivated the audience. Her selections were not the same old stock that one is almost sure to hear, but were fresh and sparkling." Carter's descendants remember her through these and other newspaper accounts of her elocution, as well as through clippings that reflected her personality and her political and societal views. Rather than write her own speeches, Carter, who was often invited to speak to local organizations, read poetry and essays from noted authors of the day, according to William B. Carter Ill, Jennie Carter's great-grandson.
"She kept a scrapbook of contemporary clippings, often juxtaposing articles about women's efforts to succeed in a 'man's world' with contrasting contemporary articles about the 'woman's place being in the kitchen' and the 'inherent lack of intelligence' of women," William Carter said. "It seems a reflection of her survival skills that she was able to keep a sense of humor as she faced the double burden of being a black woman in the United States in the late 19th century."
One of Carter's undated news clippings, "The Female Teacher's Soliloquy," humorously debates whether a woman should teach school or get married. Most, school district contracts until the 1940s contained marriage clauses requiring women to remain single. Carter managed to marry and maintain a teaching career.
She started her career in, the Brownsville schools, serving at one time as vice principal for Bridgeport Colored School. About seven years after her college graduation, she married John Nelson Carter, an African Methodist-Episcopal (AME) minister, who also attended the Normal School.
The newlyweds moved to Waco, Texas, and joined the faculty of Paul Quinn College. John Carter served as minister at an AME church in San Angelo, Texas, and Jennie Carter taught school. Before and after school, Jennie Carter tutored children who needed extra help or who worked during regular school hours.
In an 1886 letter of recommendation for a church construction fundraising project, local white pastors and county Judge Tom Green referred to Jennie Carter as "amiable, intellectual, and in every way eminently qualified to teach and govern children." They noted that she teaches in the colored school and is a good scholar and an estimable Christian woman.
The Carter's had two children, Lida Jane and William Beverly Burgin Carter. Jennie Carter died in January 1891 at the age of 38 in West Bridgewater, Beaver County, PA. Her son, a physician, hypothesized years after her death. that Jennie Carter died of a brain tumor resulting from a head injury she suffered in a fall several years before her children were born. Her daughter died two years later at the age of six of an unknown cause.
Carter started a family tradition higher education. Four Carter generations have graduated from college and have led prominent careers. Her son, the late Williarn Beverly Carter, was a physician in Philadelphia. William had one son, the late Ambassador W. Beverly Carter Jr., a diplomat. He died in 1982. Jennie Carter's great-grandson, William B. Carter III of Chevy Chase, MD., serves as associate director of community relations for professional exchange programs at the Institute of International Education (IIE). His son, Terence Sebekos Carter, is a graduating senior at Harvard University.
California University preserved Carter's place in local history
with the 1986 dedication of the Jennie Carter House, home to the university's Black Student Union. She also receives recognition through the academic minority scholarship, the Jennie A. Carter Distinguished African American Student Award.