Anna Julia Cooper

Aug 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Activism, Education
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Anna Julia Cooper1858?-1964  Anna Julia Haywood Cooper was a pioneer black feminist and educator, whose achievements expressed her faith in the potential of African Americans and the special role of black women.

A Gentlemen’s Course

Cooper was probably born in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, was a slave whose master, George Washington Haywood, is believed to have fathered Cooper and several siblings. Cooper’s mother, while illiterate, supported her daughter’s appetite for learning, and in 1867, the precocious student earned a scholarship to a new school founded to educate, and train teachers for newly liberated slaves, the St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute. By age nine, she realized she had exceptional talents, and decided to pursue teaching certification. She married an older teacher at the school, George C. Cooper, in 1877, and because the mores of the era did not permit married women to teach, she terminated her career aspirations. When her husband died two years later, she returned to her training but would never remarry.

In 1881, Cooper began undergraduate studies at Oberlin College on a tuition scholarship, having already achieved distinction in both liberal arts and mathematics. The school had a prescribed course of study for women, but Cooper insisted on following the so-called “Gentlemen’s Course” instead. She earned her BA in 1884, one of the first African American women to do so. Continuing her studies at Oberlin, she took a Masters of Science in mathematics in 1887. After graduation, she taught briefly at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and then for one year at her alma mater, St. Augustine.

In 1887, Cooper received an invitation from the Washington, DC, superintendent of colored schools to become a faculty member at what was then known as the Washington Colored High School (later called the M Street Colored High School and ultimately the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School). During this period in Washington, Cooper began writing and publishing the works that would earn her scholarly distinction and renown. Her best-known book, A Voice from the South, by a Black Woman of the South, was published in 1892. A compendium of essays emphasizing the nature and role of African American women, the book is widely considered to be the first black feminist tract. Cooper held that women were specially qualified to lead Blacks in their efforts to improve their lives and standing, and advocated women’s advancement through education and social progress.

Cooper became active on the lecture circuit, promoting these same themes of self-determination and improvement, and participated in several related initiatives. She co-founded the Colored Women’s League in 1892, and served as its corresponding secretary. In that capacity, she was one of a small number of black women to attend the World’s Congress of Representative Women, held in Chicago in 1893. There, she spoke during a session called “The Intellectual Progress of Colored Women of the United States Since Emancipation.” At the first Pan-African Conference, held in London in 1900, Cooper was a member of the executive committee and one of only two women to address the gathering. She was the first and only woman to be elected to the American Negro Academy, and later was one of the founders of the Colored Women’s YWCA and the Colored YMCA.

Principal to Ph.D.

In 1902, Cooper was named Principal of M Street High School. True to her philosophy, she insisted that the school achieve academic excellence and offer a full range of coursework including college preparation. Her efforts made M Street one of the finest black schools in the country, one from which many future leaders would graduate. However, this orientation conflicted with the vocational training philosophy espoused by Booker T. Washington, as well as influential members of the Washington elite. When W.E.B. Du Bois spoke at the school, advocating for Cooper’s position, resistance was catalyzed. A number of charges were made against Cooper by the local school board in what would become known as the “M Street Controversy.”

The Controversy, now considered to be motivated by race and gender politics, was partly in response to Cooper’s insistence that Blacks could and should be prepared to attend college; partly in reaction to her own professional achievement as a woman, and her violation of the taboo against married female teachers; and partly based on assumptions of impropriety between Cooper and a male lodger in her home, a teacher named John Love. Love and his sister had been taken in by Cooper as foster children when they were orphaned, and remained lodgers along with four other women, all teachers, as adults. While the nature of the relationship between Love and Cooper remains unclear, it is known that she would ultimately refuse his offer of marriage. Forced to resign in 1906, Cooper moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, and taught at Lincoln University. Then in 1910, a new superintendent in Washington asked her to return to M Street as a teacher, and she rejoined the faculty there to teach Latin.

Cooper began doctoral work at Columbia University in 1911, but interrupted her studies when her half-brother died in 1915 leaving five grandchildren orphaned. She adopted all five, and in 1924, with the children at boarding school, she resumed work on her degree at the University of Paris in France. She completed her dissertation, “The Attitude of France toward Slavery in the Revolution,” in 1925, earned her Ph.D. that year, and became the fourth African American woman to achieve that honor.

Cooper continued her teaching career at M Street (by then Paul Laurence Dunbar) High School until 1930, and then joined Frelinghuysen University, a night school for black adults, as its president until 1940, and in a reorganized form, as registrar of the Frelinghuysen Group of Schools for Colored Working People into the 1950s. She continued writing up to her death at age 105 in Washington, and is remembered for her pioneering crusade on behalf of African American women and education.


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