Remembering Individuals, Remembering Communities: Septima P. Clark and Public History in Charleston

Exhibit Splash Image

Pier facing the Cooper River

Pier on the Cooper River, photograph by Monica Bowman, Charleston, South Carolina, October 19, 2016.

Pier on the Cooper River, photograph by Monica Bowman, Charleston, South Carolina, October 19, 2016.

A pier near the Battery Park in downtown Charleston serves as the site of one of the most traumatic experiences in Septima P. Clark’s personal life – when she contemplated suicide after the loss of her first child. In 1920, at the age of twenty-two, Septima P. Poinsette married Nerie David Clark, a sailor in the Navy from Hickory, North Carolina. Her mother did not approve of the match because she did not know his family. Clark’s choice to marry a stranger also had broader social consequences in Charleston. Despite the fact that she was a teacher, one of the most respectable professions among black women, a sailor’s wife would not have been invited to gatherings hosted by the city’s prominent African American families.

In 1921, the couple’s first-born child, a daughter, died of an unnoticed birth defect. Devastated and alone while her husband was at sea, Clark later confessed that she walked to a pier facing the Cooper River and considered ending her life. “I felt I was being punished for having disobeyed my mother,” she observed. “I thought what I had done was against the will of God, according to the religious laws that I learned, and I felt very strongly about that.” Fortunately, Victoria Poinsette sent one of her sons to find his sister and bring her back home, though according to Clark, “she never forgave me.” This painful time in Clark’s life illuminates not only her struggles, but also the intensely personal reasons for her abiding concerns with high black infant mortality rates in the South, and her advocacy for women’s health education from the 1920s forward. The Clarks had another child, a son, in February 1925, but that December Clark’s husband Nerie died of a kidney ailment. Following another tragedy, Clark struggled to rear their son, Nerie Clark Jr., by herself as a widowed mother, and eventually decided to send him to live with his paternal grandparents in Hickory.