Cheyney University Celebrates Its Legacy—From the Institute of Color Youth to Cheyney University

February 3, 2011

There have been many extraordinary leaders who have graduated or provided leadership for the Commonwealth, region, and America who have been members of the Cheyney University family. These faculty, students, and staff added value to the 19th , 20th, and 21st centuries in America. They include:
Fannie Jackson Coppin and Laura Waring Wheeler—extraordinary Americans.

In the president’s office is a painting of Fannie Jackson Coppin, by the portrait artist Laura Waring Wheeler. Both of these women were extraordinary Americans, and they lent their talents and commitment to Cheyney University at different times in its history. President Michelle Howard-Vital proclaims that the painting of Fannie Jackson Coppin “has become a source of strength and a reminder of the gratitude I owe.”

In the Laura Waring Wheeler painting, Fannie Jackson Coppin looks like she is in her mid thirties or early 40’s. She is a handsome woman, with a definite presence, and with eyes that, in the custom of the day, look off into the future. When you look at the painting, you can see the dedication and determination on her brown face, even though she is not looking at you. Her black hair is pulled back from her face also in the custom of the day, and you know—she means business. Behind her are faces of younger women who are looking at her as they pass her in academic regalia; it must be commencement day. The young women in the painting are looking at her, with smiling faces, and they look hopeful.

Fannie Jackson Coppin was born into slavery in Washington, D.C. on October 15, 1837. She spent her youth performing housework and learning in the homes of others, and she was admitted into Oberlin College in 1860. Prior to graduating, Ms. Fannie Jackson Coppin was contacted by the Religious Society of Friends to come to the Institute for Colored Youth as a teacher. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1865, and she joined the faculty of the Institute for Colored Youth. Within a year, she was promoted to principal of the Ladies Department and taught Greek, Latin, and higher Mathematics.

In 1869, Fannie Jackson Coppin became principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, the first African-American woman to receive the title of school principal in our nation. Fannie Jackson Coppin held the title of principal for 37 years until she retired in 1906.

It is hard to image what the life of the first African-American women principal must have been like in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Philadelphia. In 1881, Fannie Coppin Jackson married a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The couple traveled in South Africa and founded the Bethel Institute, which was a missionary school that emphasized self-help programs. A hint of her character can be deduced from her trip to Africa. In her own words, Fannie Jackson Coppin states, “My stay in Africa was pleasant, for I did not count the deprivations, and sometimes hardships. We were graciously kept from disease, even the bubonic plague that came to our very door.”

After a decade of missionary work, Coppin returned to Philadelphia because of declining health and died in 1913. In 1926, a Baltimore teacher training school was named the Fanny Jackson Coppin Normal School in her memory. It is now Coppin State University. The Institute for Colored Youth moved from Philadelphia shortly after Fannie Jackson Coppin retired to Cheyney Farms about 25 miles away, and it is known today as Cheyney University.

Laura Waring Wheeler
The artist of the painting of Fannie Jackson Coppin, Laura Waring Wheeler, was born much later than Fannie Jackson Coppin in 1887 in Hartford Connecticut, and she died in 1948 in Philadelphia. According to the historical account of the life of Laura Waring Wheeler, her early life was very different from that of Fannie Jackson Coppin. She was born in what was considered a more advantaged family. Her father had studied theology at Howard University, and Ms. Wheeler graduated from Hartford High School in 1906 with Honors, and she studied for six years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Moreover, in 1914, Ms. Wheeler was able to study in some of the major cities in Europe after receiving the A. William Emlen Cresson Memorial Travel Scholarship.

When Ms. Wheeler returned from her European travels, she brought her talents to Cheyney Training School for Teachers in Philadelphia, where she established both art and music programs. Similar to Fannie Jackson Coppin, Ms. Wheeler shared her talents with Cheyney for over thirty years. However, while teaching, she also painted. According to some historical accounts, Ms. Wheeler traveled to Europe again in the 1920’s, and she produced some of her first paintings there. These paintings were exhibited in Paris art galleries. She became well-known for one painting, Houses at Semur. Eventually, Ms. Wheeler’s work would be displayed in numerous galleries around the United States including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Brooklyn Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It comes to little surprise that Ms. Laura Wheeler Waring would become praised for her work in portraits given her portrait of Fannie Jackson Coppin. In 1948 she was commissioned to by a New York Foundation, the Harmon Foundation, to paint portraits of famous African Americans. Ms. Waring portraits include James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, Marian Anderson, and Leslie Pinckney Hill.

Nonetheless, Ms. Waring also painted murals and landscapes of both America and Europe, which also gained her wide acclaim. Laura Wheeler married Walter E. Waring, who was a professor at Lincoln University, in 1927.

(retrieved from ; retrieved on January 29, 2011)