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Black History Month: Stories of Women Who Changed the Face of Education

Over the past four weeks, AfricAid has shared the stories of seven incredible women from the US and Africa who have changed the face of education as we know it, both in the past and in the present. Our community’s response and support clearly demonstrates how these women’s legacies are carried on by all those who fight for girls’ access to education– by you– each and every day.


Today, we’re compiling the stories we’ve shared into one blog post to make them easier to share with those who may be new to AfricAid’s work or who may have missed the series on our social profiles. Please save and share with those in your community- although Black History Month is coming to a close, stories like these inspire year-round!




Bought out of slavery by her aunt at the age of 12, Jackson Coppin spent the remainder of her youth employed as a servant in Massachusettes. She used her earnings to hire a tutor to help fill the gaps in her education, and later enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college in the US to accept female and black students. In her free time, she taught a literacy class to freed African Americans to help increase their career opportunities.


Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1865 (one of only 3 black women in the country to hold a degree at the time), Jackson Coppin was employed as a teacher, and eventually named Principal of what is now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the oldest historically black college in the US. During her 37 years at the institution, she was responsible for many incredibly impactful educational developments in Philadelphia, such as her establishment of an industrial curriculum that helped promote the work of female artists.


Throughout her life, Jackson Coppin was a devout activist for girls’ and women’s education. Her work helped set a standard of education that many colleges and universities around the country still follow today.


Learn more about Fanny Jackson Coppin at




Have you heard of Hedgepath and Williams vs. Board of Education? 


Considered the precursor case to the famous Brown vs. Board of Education, Hedgepath and Williams vs. Board of Education was initiated by two mothers, Gladys Hedgepath and Berline Williams, whose children were denied entry to their local junior high school. Despite the fact that school attendance in Trenton, New Jersey, was legally determined by home proximity, children were often forced to walk over two miles in harsh weather conditions to the area’s only school that would admit black students.


In 1944, Hedgepath and Williams were victorious in their lawsuit against the district’s Board of Education, paving the way for the abolition of segregation within schools and completely changing the face of the United States’ education system.


Learn more about this case at




The youngest person to be profiled by Forbes at just 10 years old, Zuriel Oduwole is an incredibly inspiring young filmmaker and education advocate.


In 2015 at age 12, Oduwole became the world’s youngest filmmaker, having her self-produced and self-edited documentary screened in multiple countries. Today, she is best known for her work advocating for girls’ education in Africa, and frequently travels to speak to students at universities and secondary schools around the world about the empowerment that education brings.


In 2013, Oduwole launched Dream Up, Speak Up, Stand Up, a foundation that advocates for children’s access to education across the globe. Since its inception, DUSUSU has worked with over 20,000 children. In continuation of this advocacy, Oduwole has met with 31 world leaders over the past several years to discuss the state of education around the world, and to emphasize its importance.


Today, Oduwole continues her advocacy work while also pursuing her own education at UCLA, and has begun using her platform to draw attention to the climate crisis and its inevitable impacts on girls’ education. She was a keynote speaker at COP23, and used her documentary work to educate attendees on the climate issues that are already impacting education for children in the pacific islands.


Someday, Oduwole hopes to run for President of the United States, “that way,” she says, “I’d have a positive influence, not just in this country, but also in other places around the world, especially for education issues.”


Read more about Zuriel Oduwole and her work here:




“Many students all over the country, and all over the continent, are unable to go to school when they have their period,” says Bonang Matheba, South African business woman, media personality, and philanthropist.


In 2018, Matheba partnered with National Geographic and Global Citizen for a docuseries, petitioning for the South African government to invest in improving menstrual health and product access for girls across the country, thereby improving girls’ school attendance rates and increasing their chances of graduating.


Inspired by the #FeesMustFall protests that overtook the country’s universities in 2016, Matheba created a bursary fund in her name, providing financial aid to girls pursuing tertiary education through covering supplies, tuition, and accommodation fees. Matheba has also addressed the United Nations, emphasizing the importance of investing in girls’ education, and continues to use her platform to bring awareness to barriers preventing girls across the globe from accessing their right to quality education.


“Educating the girl child has a ripple effect,” she says, “women are nurturers and they pay it forward. They are really the head, shoulders, and neck of any community.”


Read more about Matheba’s advocacy work with Global Citizen at




A force to be reckoned with in the world of academia, Mamokgethi Phakeng is the Vice Chancellor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the second black woman to hold the position. In 2002, Phakeng was also the first black South African woman to obtain a PhD in mathematics education, and has published over 80 internationally renowned, top-rated research papers.


Phakeng is the founder of the Adopt-A-Learner trust, which provides financial support and mentoring opportunities to students from more rural areas and helps make their dreams of pursuing higher education a reality. She also established the Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship, which is funded with a portion of her personal salary, that supports and empowers black women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. 


Read more about Phakeng’s work at




At just 11 years old, Dias founded #1000BlackGirlBooks, a campaign that emphasizes the importance of representation in literature. According to a 2015 report from TIME, black female students are held to a higher performance standard than their peers, but often lack proper representation within their educational materials. This issue makes it more challenging for affected students to remain motivated and therefore to succeed academically. Frustrated by this issue and determined to address it, Dias has now collected over 13,000 books, all of which feature black girls as the main characters.


Now 16 years old, Dias is the youngest person to date to be featured in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list (2018), and even received the “Dream Big Award” from the US Chamber of Commerce for highlighting the lack of diversity in school curriculums. “My parents have taught me the value of reading and self-love through books that have characters that look and talk like me,” says Dias. “I want to make sure other black girls around the world can see and love themselves, too, through these books.”


To learn more about #1000BlackGirlBooks and access the database, visit