THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Elizabeth Duncan Koontz
June 3, 1919 – January 6, 1989
Video from The Elizabeth Duncan Koontz (EDK) Committee, a subcommittee of the Salisbury Human Relations Council
Civil rights leader, special education advocate, labor president, government official, feminist teacher. Elizabeth Duncan Koontz was all of these and more. Throughout a remarkable public career that spanned more than 40 years, Libby Koontz opened doors and broke through countless barriers.
She dedicated herself to standing up for those less fortunate and advocated for equal rights and greater opportunities for blacks, women and the working poor. Articulate and eloquent, soft spoken, but always a tough negotiator, Mrs. Koontz was tireless in her commitment to what she thought was right. By taking multiple stands in her professional life, Elizabeth Koontz affected positive change and improved the lives of countless Americans through inspired leadership and compassion for others.
She was born in the segregated South on June 3rd, 1919 in Salisbury, North Carolina, to a family of educators who valued learning and believed that if you were fortunate to get an education, you were obligated to use it on behalf of others. Since she was able to read at an early age, she helped her mother tutor illiterate adults at home and was destined to become a teacher. After graduating from Price High School and Livingstone College, she was hired by the all black Harnett County Training School and was assigned to the “ungraded” room.
Instead of hiding these children, she taught them a handicraft to prepare them for self-sufficiency in the community – challenging the commonly held belief that “special” students were not capable of learning. The following year, she was fired for instigating a protest against the exorbitant rates teachers were being charged in a boarding house owned by the school. By taking a hard stand against injustice, she was naturally drawn to the concept of unionism – protecting and improving the working conditions for all.
When she joined the faculty at Price Junior Senior High in the all-black School, she became even more politically active in educational issues.
She led the charge to drop the word Negro from the North Carolina Negro Teachers Association, encouraged black teachers to join the new organization, and confronted the challenges of implementing the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which mandated the desegregation of schools. She was seen as a natural leader and someone who met challenges head on. Throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, Libby Koontz quickly began to move into positions of responsibility at the National Education Association, the largest union in the country, and in 1967 was elected as its first black president.
“Teacher Power” was the rallying cry of her administration, as she promised swift action to organize, agitate and as a last resort to strike for their grievances. She drew a line in the sand of what was lacking in the teaching profession. Job and retirement security, a voice in educational decision making and adequate pay. The number of teachers strikes in the country increased dramatically during her tenure.
She believed teachers were provoked to strike, because local school boards did not believe that every child deserved the education that they were entitled to. Always concerned for the disadvantaged, she also argued that negotiated contracts assured teachers a voice in the decision-making process so they could protect the rights of all students. She also took a stand for more federal money for education.
Congress is currently in an economy move. How do you feel that federal aid to education will be effective?
Yes, I believe that it is possibly the only answer to the massive problems of education that we have. I think we can no longer hide behind any kind of excuse.
Finally, she believed that discrimination continued for teachers of color.
On the other side of the ledger, is there much discrimination against Negro teachers in the South as opposed to the North?
By comparison, one can only say that perhaps the kind of discrimination differs.
The senator made several top-level appointments today. He chose as director of the Women’s Bureau of the Labor Department, Mrs. Elizabeth Koontz, a negro who was president of the National Education Association.
In 1969, she was appointed by President Richard Nixon as the first African-American Director of the United States Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. As head of the Women’s Bureau, Koontz helped to share research and expertise with women abroad, address and eliminate discrimination against women and minorities in the workplace and identify discriminatory provisions in state statutes. She believed women could choose from a full range of occupations, not just those of secretary, nurse or teacher. In urging women not only to operate a typewriter, but to repair them, she took a stand and was labeled as a radical.
This is Joan Murray and our guest today is Director of the Women’s Bureau, the United States Department of Labor, Mrs. Elizabeth Koontz. Mrs. Koontz, as Director of the Women’s Bureau for the Department of Labor, what do you see as the special or specific problems of women?
If I had to put them in to a kind of priority area, I would say that perhaps one of the greatest obstacles is the attitude of the general public, including women, toward women’s right to enter the job market in the jobs heretofor considered to be traditionally men’s jobs.
Her most important role was to support and fight for the passage of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. She later stated, “I like to think that if I’d stayed on, we would have gotten national ratification.” As a Democrat in a Republican administration, Mrs. Koontz was not reappointed for President Nixon’s second term and faced criticism from women’s groups for the lack of progress.
She returned to her native North Carolina to coordinate nutrition programs for those in need and later served as assistant state superintendent, charged with improving the quality of public education. She retired from public service in 1982 and died in 1989 at the age of 69. Her legacy of a strong commitment to public service and willingness to stand up for those in need continues today.
The Elizabeth Duncan Koontz humanitarian award is given annually in her native Salisbury to those who improve the lives of others in the areas of education, women’s rights and community service. The Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Elementary School opened in 2006 and continues to embrace family, diversity and learning. Elizabeth Duncan Koontz worked to improve human relations throughout her long and distinguished career, taking positions that were not always popular or politically correct. By standing up for those less fortunate, she changed the lives of countless people and provided greater opportunities for teachers, African-Americans, women and the working poor. Always teaching, she set an example for those who came under her influence. She lived her life by the words of her favorite Bible passage.
Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression. Isaiah 1:17