Worcester’s first African-American school teachers: Jennie Cora Clough and Sarah Ella Wilson

Worcester Normal School, which later became Worcester State College, was the alma mater of Worcester’s first African-American schoolteachers: Jennie Cora Clough and Sarah Ella Wilson. Although nearly 20 years separated the women, both became influential members of the Worcester community.

Jennie Clough, who graduated in January 1878, was born in 1857 to one of Worcester’s most prominent African-American families. Her grandfather, Peter Rich, had been born a slave in Lancaster, Mass. As a young man he moved to Worcester, where he became one of only three “colored” property owners in the community.

Jennie’s father, Francis A. Clough, ran a popular barber shop that attracted many white customers. Her brother, Benjamin, became Worcester’s first African-American postman.

A graduate of Worcester’s English and Classical High School before qualifying for admittance to Worcester Normal School, Jennie did her apprentice teaching at the Sycamore Street and Ledge Street schools.
She began teaching in 1881 at the Thomas Street Primary School, which had been the Worcester School for Colored Children until the mid-1850s. In 1882, the mix of nationalities in Jennie’s class was listed as 58% Irish, 21% American, 12% Canadian, and 6% English.

In 1889, Jennie moved to the Providence Street School, where she taught for another four years. She served her alma mater by hosting a number of teacher apprentices in her classrooms over the years. She also wrote a song about Worcester Normal School for a school reunion held in June 1886. (See below.)

Jennie’s teaching career ended in 1893 when she married George Alfred Busby. (Female teachers were not allowed to be married.) G. Alfred Busby was elected to the City Board of Aldermen in 1902, becoming Worcester’s first black city councilman.

Jennie bore two children, Alan Thacker (December 12, 1895) and George Clough (November 25, 1897). She passed away on May 11, 1928, at age 71.

Sarah Wilson graduated from Worcester Normal School in January 1894. She devoted her life to teaching and to promoting racial equality.
Born in 1873, she was the first child of George and Elizabeth Wilson, freed slaves from North Carolina. The couple had been resettled in Worcester by Lucy and Sarah Chase, prominent abolitionists, following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
Sarah Chase took an active interest in her namesake, introducing her to art and literature, while Sarah Wilson’s mother taught her daughter Christian beliefs and values.

Sarah became an apprentice and then a first-grade teacher at the Belmont Street School, where she worked for 49 years, from 1895 until her retirement in 1944. During those years she was active in a number of local and national organizations.

Locally, Sarah was a member of the Bethel A.M.E. Church, for which she served as vice-president of the Missionary Association, then of the St. Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church. She was involved with the Levana Club for Teachers and the Women’s Service Club of the YWCA.

Sarah was also a founding member of the Home for the Colored and Aged, for which she served as auditor, publicity agent, and vice president, and was active in the Worcester Inter-racial Council, which worked to remove racial barriers to housing, employment, healthcare, and recreation.

Nationally, Sarah served as secretary for the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women. This organization served as a voice for African-American women, especially on the issue of suffrage.

Sarah Wilson, a lifelong teacher and champion of social justice, passed away on November 1, 1955. She is still remembered in small ways within the Worcester community. In 1972, the Belmont Street Community School named its library after her. And in 1974, Corrine Bostic, commissioned by the YWCA, published a book about Sarah Wilson titled Onward and Upward!

The book’s title is an apt description of the indomitable spirit of Worcester’s first two African-American schoolteachers.

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