Fannie Cobb Carter

Remembering Miss Fannie

By Edward Peeks

Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail State Magazine
June 5, 1977

Next Saturday has been proclaimed "Fannie Cobb Carter Day" by Mayor Hutchinson, who notes that the late Charleston resident will be honored by the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. A plaque will be placed in the Science and Culture Center in recognition, sponsors say, of "her distinguished service to mankind."

Mrs. Carter, affectionately known to many as "Miss Fannie," is recognized as an educator, humanitarian, and centenarian. She will be memorialized at 6 p.m. Saturday in the theater of the Science and Culture Center.

In addition to the presentation of the plaque by the association, the Charleston-Institute Chapter of the Links will present to the Archives a commemorative book of letters and other memorabilia about Mrs. Carter, says Delia Brown Taylor, president of the Links. The Links and members of the center's staff are cosponsors of the memorial.

The program, Mrs. Taylor says, includes music by First Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir and a performance by the St. James Episcopal Church Dancers.

This is a fitting part of the tribute. Those of us who knew Miss Fannie and shared her confidence realize that Negro American music and dance held special appeal to her as art forms and as means of being what she termed "ambassadors of goodwill."

That belief went back to her European travels with the Hampton (Va.) Institute Singers in the late 1890's, although she herself wasn't a singer. Hampton was one of several schools that she attended and where she later taught during her career as an educator. Significantly, it was the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University who first took Negro spirituals and folk songs to the concert halls of Europe and drew waves of applause in the l880's. On top of that, "they made money for Fisk and for themelves [sic] as individual students. From. it all flowed the goodwill that Miss Fannie felt inherent in the touching music that grew out of the black experience.

"We used to know how to dance and sing, but now it seems that all we know how to do is raise hell," Miss Fannie once complained to me.

She wondered whether we American blacks during the latter part of the sizzling 1960's weren't in danger of creating our own poisonous stereotype. It was durring the height of inner-city riots marked by the angry self-destructive cry of "Burn, baby, burn."

Mrs. Carter didn't believe in the double-standard, one for whites and another for blacks.

"Right is right if nobody does it, and wrong is wrong if everybody does it," she would say.

She was candid, although she often spoke to her friends in confidence about personal and public matters on her mind. An obvious intent of confidence was to avert a chain of mindless and malicious gossip, but at the same time to help her clear up some question or maybe to put a rumor to rest about this or that. She had a.peculiar way of swearing one to secrecy.

"If I hear this again," Miss Fannie would caution, "I shall say, 'Mr. Peeks is my friend, but he makes mistakes.'"

Yet she spoke on the record about topical and controversial matters. One notable occasion was the week before her 100th birthday when she was interviewed by John Morgan in a Gazette story Sept. 23,1972.

She told Morgan she was against strip mining.

"I would rather see little children playing on the hillsides. And I like to see cows and horses there."

She was all for then-Secretary of State John D. Rockefeller IV becoming governor.

"I think Rockefeller will make West Virginia a garden spot if he is given a chance," she said, adding, "He can't be blamed if he was born rich and white. He would make a fine official for West Virginia."

By comparison, she said she didn't know Gov. Moore. This question, however, made her sound a bit devious if not politic, in the judgment of those in whom she confided.

She once said she didn't know Sen. Robert C. Byrd,.D-W.Va. but added softly, "I don't think his heart is right."

Miss Fannie had reason to doubt the junior senator from the Mountain State, now Senate Majority Leader, because as one wag put it, "Byrd made a reputation for himself by minding the morals of the poor in Washington."

The reference was to his crackdown on so-called "welfare cheats" when he was chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for the District of Columbia in the early 1960's. "Taxpayers are subsidizing illegitimacy," Byrd maintained.

He raised the old question of welfare reform for the District of Columbia and for the nation as a whole, but the question was overtaken and politically drowned out by the war on poverty. Now the welfare reform question is back again.

"It's a question that Miss Fannie understood all too well for those on welfare and those off, and for those honestly interested in welfare reform as opposed to those who would make political hay out of it.

Miss Fannie was quite aware of welfare problems in the nation's capitol, where she spent many years. In 1945, she became associated with Miss Nannie H. Burroughs, president of the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls in Washington. Mrs. Carter was dean of this institution and later acting president for a combined period of about 17 years.

The school was supported mainly by the women's auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, the largest black denomination in the country. One of its major aims was to give wayward girls and unwed mothers a second chance for a high school education and to learn a marketable skill. It was something of a forerunner of the jobs corps.

Miss Fannie had an abiding faith in young people, as witnessed by the many friends she made among them throughout her lifetime. She differed with them on questions of separating generations, but without marring friendship and the high esteem in which she was held.

She, for example, preferred to be called a "Negro" rather than a "Black" even with a capital "B." Since Orientials weren't referred to as "yellows," she pointed out, it made no sense to her for Negroes to be called "blacks." She believed that "Black English" was something for the birds.

She had been part of the fight through the years for the spelling of Negro with a capital "N," as was the case with capitalizing Indian, Jew or the name of any other ethnic or racial group. It wasn't until the early 1930's that the fight for the recognition of a name was won. The New York Times and the New York Board of Education capitulated and agreed to write Negro in the "uppper [sic] case," printer's parlance for capital letters.

Mrs Carter believed in the ideals of racial integration, but not at the expense of the Negro American past and ethnic recognition.

"Disbanding our schools in West Virginia is leaving my peopole [sic] no connection with the history of education in West Virginia," she said. "We've made large contributions."

She was appalled that the trophies won by black Garnet High School athletes over the years were shunted aside in a cabinet at the Mattie V. Lee Home. She was even more appalled that the name of Garnet was changed to John Adams when the school was integrated as a junior high school.

"This is our fault for not calling attention to what is surely an oversight," she remarked. "Our people need a voice, not to create trouble but to call attention to things like this. Integration is no good unless it is in goodwill.

"There's no doubt we gained and yet we lost. I'm not sure yet whether the gain is equal to the loss."

Those remarks were made on her 90th birthday in 1962. She lived to see the name of Garnet restored to the old school building as the Garnet Adult Education School. She saw other changes during the next 10 years that pleased her and indicated that integration was a positive gain.

In sports, she regarded the black stars and superstars with their six-figure salaries as an opportunity come true, for more individual blacks to get into the main stream of American business. She used to count ways how she thought this could be done through franchises, partnerships and the like.

Her husband was lawyer-businessman Emory R. Carter who had an eye for real estate. Mrs. Carter delighted in recalling how people referred to her husband as crazy when he bought land south of the Kanawha River. In those days, practically all of present South Hills was nothing but a wilderness. Her husband died in 1925 and the couple had no children.

But Mrs. Carter experienced motherhood as the mother of other people's children, some of whom were motherless and fatherless, too. She was prepared. She was graduated from Storer College at Harpers Ferry in 1891. She did postgraduate work at Ohio State University, Oberlin College, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University.

She took postgraduate studies mostly during the summer after she started teaching in Charleston before the turn of the century. She taught in the city for nine years. She also set up the teacher training department at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State College. She also taught at Bluefield State College.

In 1926, she was named superintendent of the first Industrial Home for Colored Girls in Huntington, where she remained for 10 years. After that, she returned to Charleston and became director of adult education for Negroes in Kanawha County.

As a result of all this, Miss Fannie took a wealth of teacher and administrative experience to Washington when she joined Miss Nannie H. Burroughs at the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls.

For words and deeds, Miss Fannie is being honored by the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. The association was founded in 1915 by a former West Virginia coal miner, Carter Godwin Woodson, who earned a doctor's degree in history at Harvard University.

In 1975, the association started the two-year National Historic Marker Project for honoring prominent and pioneering black Americans. Each year, 100 bronze markers, like the one for Mrs. Fannie Cobb Carter, are placed at birthplaces and other sites of commemoration.

The first marker was dedicated to Dr. Woodson and placed in New Canton, Va., Dec. 19, 1975, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The project was started with a $75,000 grant from the Amoco Foundation, under the present executive director of the association, Dr. J. Rupert Picott.

The historic marker and commemorative musical tribute Saturday to Mrs. Carter is open to the public.

African Americans

West Virginia Archives and History