Elizabeth Duncan Koontz was the first African American president of the National Education Association (NEA), which at the time consisted of 820,000 classroom teachers. Koontz was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, on June 3, 1919. Samuel E. Duncan, a former president of Livingstone College, and Lena Bell Jordan Duncan, a teacher at Salisbury’s Dunbar Elementary School, were her parents.
Koontz, the youngest of seven children, began elementary school at the age of four and graduated salutatorian of her class from Joseph Charles Price High School in 1935 before enrolling in Livingstone College. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree three years later, in 1938. She then earned a Master of Arts degree in 1941 from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia. She married Harry Koontz, a math teacher, in 1947.
Koontz was the first African American to serve as NEA secretary in 1960. She wrote Guidelines for Local Associations of Classroom Teachers in 1961 as an academic facilitator and strategist.
Elizabeth Koontz with Teachers
While Koontz held several positions as an educator in North Carolina, including president of the National Education Association’s Association of Classroom Teachers (NEA) from 1965 to 1966, her big break came in 1968, when she was elected president of the National Education Association. Her tenure was highlighted when she established the National Education Association’s Human and Civil Rights Division. A year later, in 1969, US President Richard Nixon appointed Koontz as the first African American director of the US Department of Labor Women’s Bureau.
She collaborated globally and addressed relevant and pressing issues in an effort to eliminate workplace discrimination against women and minorities. In that capacity, she advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment. Koontz was featured on the covers of Jet magazine on August 1, 1969, and Teacher magazine on October 1, 1969, as a result of her work.
Elizabeth Koontz with Richard Nixon
Between 1969 and 1974, Koontz received numerous honors, most notably for her service to the country as president of the National Education Association and director of the Labor Women’s Bureau. Livingstone College, Howard University, Coppin State College, Eastern Michigan University, Northeastern University, and Bryant University, Indiana University all bestowed honorary doctorates on her. In her honor, a Salisbury elementary school was named.
Koontz was the assistant state school superintendent in North Carolina from 1975 until her retirement in 1982.
Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., died of a heart attack on January 6, 1989, in Salisbury, North Carolina. She was 70 years old.