Today we honor Anna Julia Cooper, who "was an American educator, writer, and scholar remembered for her pioneering crusade for the upliftment of African-American women.”
"Anna Julia Cooper was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on August 10, 1858. Cooper was the eldest of two daughters born to an enslaved black woman, Hannah Stanley and her white master George Washington Haywood...‘Cooper possessed an unrelenting passion for learning and a sincere conviction that black women were equipped to follow intellectual pursuits.’ During the slave era, official birth and death records were rare, [as we found were the cases for Prince Hall, Paul Cuffe Sr., and Frederick Douglass] and had she been given a birth certificate for her August 10 entrance in Raleigh, North Carolina, the question of parentage might have been an issue. Though her mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, never spoke of it, since Cooper was light-skinned she came to presume that her other parent was her mother's owner, George Washington Haywood. Cooper remembered little of her early years when slavery was still legal, but was six or seven when the hostilities of the Civil War came to a close and with it the institution of slavery. In Raleigh, she won entrance to a new teachers' training school, St. Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute, at the age of seven. The school was created by Episcopal funds to provide educational opportunity for newly freed blacks. When she was older she wrote in her journals the struggles she encountered when she became interested in math and science, at that time these subjects were considered the preserve of male minds.” (citations omitted)
“In 1881, she left St. Augustine's and began her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College on a tuition scholarship, having already achieved distinction in both liberal arts and mathematics.” “Her emphasis on equality for women in education began during her St. Augustine years, when she fought for and won the right to study Greek, which had been reserved for male theology students. Cooper continued that struggle after enrolling at Ohio’s Oberlin College, which was among the first U.S. colleges to admit both black and white students. There, she insisted on pursuing the more rigorous ‘gentleman’s course’ instead of the basic two-year ‘ladies’ course.’” “In 1884, she completed her BA and became one of the first African American women to do so. After graduation, she taught for a short period at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and then for one year at her alma mater, St. Augustine. Then she attended the Oberlin College and earned a Master of Science degree in mathematics in 1887. In 1887, she received an offer to become a faculty member at what was then called the Washington Colored High School (later known as the M Street School).”
“During her time at M Street School, Cooper was also involved in building new spaces for black women outside of the educational sphere. She founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington in 1892, and seven years later helped open the first YWCA chapter for black women, in response to their unwillingness to allow women of color into the organization”. “She.. also received recognition as an author. Her first book, [originally published in 1892] ‘A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South’, received wide critical acclaim and raised awareness against slavery and racism targeted at black women. Later, she completed her doctoral studies and became only the fourth African-American woman to earn the Ph.D. degree in any field.”
“She was not only an author and educator, but also a social commentator. She participated in several conferences including the World's Congress of Representative Women at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, the Woman Suffrage Congress in 1893, and the Pan-African Conference in London in 1900, and delivered notable speeches on racial and gender equality and education.” “She spoke at the Pan African Congress and the Women’s Congress in Chicago, with a speech entitled “The Needs and the Status of Black Women.” “ “She became the first and only woman to be elected to the American Negro Academy.”
“Cooper began at M Street School as a math and science teacher, and was promoted to principal in 1902. With her firm resolve in education as tantamount to the progress of people of color, Cooper rejected her white supervisor’s mandate to teach her students trades, and instead trained and prepared them for college. Cooper sent her students to prestigious universities and attained accreditation for M Street School from Harvard, but her success was received with hostility rather than celebration from a power structure that was not necessarily interested in the advancement of black youth… Cooper’s achievements both in and outside of the classroom garnered contempt from white colleagues and supervisors, and she was dismissed from M Street School in 1906 after a controversy erupted surrounding her character and behavior." "Cooper was publicly accused of having an illicit affair, but this appears to have been a cover — Cooper said that the real reason for her dismissal was her 'revolt…waged against a lower [less academic] ‘colored’ curriculum for M Street School.'" "As a testament to her reputation and achievements at M Street School, Cooper was re-hired in 1910 as a teacher by a new superintendent. Motivated rather than defeated by this scandal, Cooper decided to return to school, and in 1924 became only the fourth black woman in the United States to receive a doctorate degree, attaining her Ph.D at the University of Paris." "During her second tenure at M Street, Cooper created a YWCA chapter of the Camp Fire Girls." "While teaching and working on her doctorate, Cooper was also raising five children whom she had adopted in 1915 after her brother passed away.”
"When she retired from M Street School in 1930 at the age of 72, she became president of Frelinghuysen University, an institution offering education for older, employed African-Americans." "[She was] the president of Frelinghuysen University for a decade, renting her home to the financially insecure school when it could not afford space elsewhere, and continued there as a teacher and registrar until 1950 — just eight years shy of her 100th year. She was still writing and publishing."
"Anna Julia Cooper lived through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, the lynchings and legal segregation of Jim Crow, the era of Betty Friedan’s 'Feminine Mystique,' and the renewal of the Civil Rights movement. As an African-American woman of the 19th and 20th centuries, she knew firsthand that the struggles for human liberty and equality did not end with the...attainment of legal citizenship and the right to vote."
“While notable for her long life span, Cooper is most remarkable for the amount and significance of her accomplishments over the course of her lifetime, as well as the dedication and perseverance she exhibited while fighting tirelessly for what she thought was just. Cooper made no concessions in her fight; believing “a cause is not worthier than its weakest elements,” she decried movements advocating for women’s rights and racial justice for ignoring black women who were victims of both oppressions. Cooper was critical of black men for hailing opportunities that were not open to black women as markers of racial progress, and openly confronted leaders of the women’s movement for allowing the racism within it to remain unchecked. She recognized that neither movement could achieve its cause while still being divided by race or gender.”
“She died of a heart attack on February 27, 1964, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 105. She was buried next to her husband at the City Cemetery in Raleigh.” “In 2009, Anna Julia Cooper became the 32nd person commemorated by the U.S. Postal Service with a stamp in the Black Heritage series.” “[I]n the current U.S. Passport, which features numerous quotes from famous American men, Anna Julia Cooper stands alone — as the only woman and the only African-American — who is quoted for her advocacy of freedom as a birthright of humanity… [Her quote reads:] ‘The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class — it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.’” (emphasis in original)
Click to watch the video below to learn more about how Anna Julia Cooper shaped civil and women’s rights, as MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry interviews Alison Stewart, author of "First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School” to examine the life of Anna Julia Cooper. (2013 interview)