When Anna Julia Cooper died at what was probably the age of 105 in 1964, she left behind a remarkable list of accomplishments for anyone, let alone a woman of color at a time when social taboos, laws, and even the attitudes of her fellow African-American activists were all obstacles to achievement and success. Cooper declared herself "the voice of the South," and that she spoke for its black women, who had only been relatively recently freed from the degradation of legalized slavery when her best-known book was published in 1892. Scholars consider A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South the first work by an African-American feminist. Cooper lived and worked in an era when the fledgling feminist movement in the United States all but ignored the plight of minority women, and she also combated the attitudes of prominent African-American men who entertained their own biased views. "Cooper spent her life demonstrating how far Black women could travel," asserted Betty Dermus in Essence.
Most sources cite Anna Julia Cooper's year of birth as 1858. During the slave era, official birth and death records were rare, 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, but as Elizabeth Alexander explained in a paper on Cooper for Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, "a curious condition of admission, given the recent end of the war, was some prior academic training; we can infer from that as well as from Cooper's autobiographical account that Cooper's mother encouraged her daughter's education from a very young age."
By the age of eight, Cooper showed such academic proficiency that she was made a pupil-teacher. She also recalled the hours spent helping her mother learn to read as some of the pleasantest of her youth. But in her journals, Cooper detailed the struggles she encountered when she became interested in mathematics and sciences, at the time subjects considered the preserve of male minds. Over time, Cooper graduated to the teacher level at St. Augustine's and also embraced the Episcopal denomination under which it was run. In 1877, she married George C. Cooper, a candidate for the ministry at the school and former slave. She gave up her teaching career, since married women were barred from the profession. Tragically, her husband died just two years later, and she never remarried.
By this point Cooper had a solid background in Greek, Latin, and higher math, and won entrance to Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1881. This college, in a state that had come to be known as a refuge for freed and escaped slaves, was one of the first co- educational and integrated secondary educational facilities in the United States. Admitted as a sophomore, she lodged with a professor, Henry Churchill, and his family. Cooper received her undergraduate degree in 1884, and four years later an A.M. in mathematics. From there she secured a teaching post at Wilberforce University, also in Ohio, and in 1885 returned as a teacher to St. Augustine's for a year. In 1887, she was hired as a teacher of Latin and math at Washington High School in the nation's capital. This academically demanding school for African-American students would later be renamed the M Street High School, and then Dunbar High School.
Despite some setbacks, Cooper would spend the next four decades there, and greatly impact the school, its curriculum, and the lives of her students in the process. Washington High prepared students for a college education (there were a number of all-black educational institutions already in existence by this time) and offered some business courses as well, but during the 1890s there arose a racist sentiment that African Americans should restrict themselves to vocational education, or the trades, and not pursue degrees in philosophy, history, and other liberal arts studies. This was partly the work of Booker T. Washington, founder of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, who espoused the view that blacks should first work to build economic independence, then agitate toward full equality in all areas. Cooper opposed this point of view and argued that gifted African Americans should be given equal access to America's institutions of higher learning.
In her persuasive book, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, first published in 1892, Cooper wrote convincingly on this topic of intellectual abilities and the benefit of holding a degree. She was an ardent champion of education for African- American women, a rather radical notion at the time. Divided into two parts, "Soprano Obligato" and "Tutti Ad Libitum," A Voice from the South comprises eight essays. Cooper wrote in the preface, "Our Raison D'Etre," about her intent:
"One muffled strain in the Silent South, a jarring chord and a vague and uncomprehended cadenza has been and still is the Negro. And that muffled chord, the one mute and voiceless note has been the sadly expectant Black Woman, 'an infant crying in the night, / an infant crying for the light; / And with no language--but a cry.'"
Elsewhere Cooper discussed African Americans since the end of slavery less than three decades before, writing, "the race is young and full of elasticity and hopefulness of youth. All its achievements are before it. It does not look on the masterly triumph of nineteenth century civilization with the blase world- weary look which characterizes the old washed out and worn out races which have already, so to speak, seen their best days...."
Feminist and African-American historians have deemed A Voice from the South the wellspring of modern black feminist thought. Even legislated equal rights for white women in America were still nothing but a hope at the time of its publication, and the idea that African-American women should and could demand that their voices be heard and their concerns be addressed was revolutionary. "Written in an energetic yet graceful prose, her essays are as engaging as they are persuasive," declared Thadious M. Davis in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, "They constitute a significant contribution to the cultural and intellectual history of women and blacks in the U.S."
Cooper spoke before the World's Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1893, and touched on these topics before a largely white audience. She spoke of the African-American women she met over the years who had taken on great financial sacrifice in order that their children could obtain an education and cited figures that showed remarkable progress in the number of schools open to the race, as well as its increasing literacy rates since 1865 and the eradication of slavery. Cooper declared that "I speak for the colored women of the South," which was the title of her speech, reprinted in Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900. It read in part, "because it is there that the millions of blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history, and there her destiny is evolving." She urged her listeners to embrace the notion of solidarity with their African-American sisters and work together so that opportunities being discussed--potentially the right to vote, for instance--would be open to all. "A bridge is no stronger than its weakest part," Cooper exhorted, "and a cause is not worthier than its weakest element."
In 1901, Cooper became principal of M Street High School, only the second woman in the District's public school system to reach such a post. Yet trouble was brewing in the form of an education bill in Congress; it presented a special curriculum for African-American schools, and Cooper and other educators strongly opposed it for its marked inferiority; their efforts eventually killed it. At M Street, she instituted an even more rigorous curriculum, and saw success when her students won admittance to Ivy League schools like Harvard. She formed a scholarship fundraising arm among her teaching staff, which aided students in meeting the financial costs of obtaining a college education, but there was still great opposition to her efforts. The local school board in the District of Columbia was particularly set against Cooper and her lofty goals for her students, and tried to curtail her activities. When she disobeyed their injunctions, they fired her in 1906. "It seems clear, however, that there was also pressure from Tuskegee to drop her," noted her biographer, Leona Gabel in an essay on Cooper for Notable American Women: The Modern Period.
Cooper was rehired in 1910, but only as a teacher. During the interim she took a teaching post at Missouri's Lincoln Institute, and spent time back at Oberlin pursuing a doctorate degree. She also developed a passion for French history and literature, and from 1911 to 1914 spent summers in Paris at the Guilde Internationale. At the age of 56, she gained admittance to Columbia University in 1914 in hopes of earning a Ph.D. there, and spent the next three years working part-time toward it; she still continued to teach at M Street, give public lectures, and write, and even more remarkably, had also become a foster parent to five children of a relative. For her thesis topic she wrote on an eleventh- century epic of French history, Le Pelerinage de Charlemagne: Voyage a Jerusalem et a Constantinople. The work was published in France in 1925.
Through her contact with a French educator, Abbe Felix Klein, who had once visited the M Street School, she secured entrance to Paris's Universite de Paris, also called the Sorbonne, with the aim of finishing her doctoral work there. One year's residency was required, however, and Cooper took what she thought was a promised year-long leave from her teaching duties at the M Street School and sailed for Paris in 1924. She received a telegram from the school two months later, however, ordering her to return. She did, but received permission from her Sorbonne masters to complete a new thesis back home. This dissertation was also published in France in 1925, L'Attitude de la France a l'Egard de l'Esclavage pendant la Revolution. Cooper discussed the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the trio of bywords that signified the French Revolution of 1789, and the new Republic's hypocritical policies toward its slave colony in the Caribbean, now the nation of Haiti. "It is a carefully documented study," declared Gabel in Notable American Women, "a pioneer in its field--by a writer uniquely qualified both as a scholar and by personal experience. Of slave background herself, Anna Cooper brought to her subject both understanding and scholarly objectivity."
Cooper was 65 years old when she finally received her doctorate from the Sorbonne, conferred in a special ceremony at Howard University. Earning a Ph.D. was a remarkable achievement for any woman in 1925, let alone a woman of color. It did not, however, earn her any increased degree of respect from her superiors in the District of Columbia educational system and M Street, now Dunbar High, and she retired as a teacher around 1929 or 1930. Though now in her seventies, Cooper became president of the Frelingshuysen Group of Schools for Employed Colored Persons, a privately funded institution for adult-education opportunities that existed until 1961. At times classes were even held in her home on T Street, in Washington's N.W. quadrant. She retired from Frelingshuysen in 1942, but continued to write on slavery, education, and other topics. She also wrote a 1951 work on the family of a friend of hers, The Grimke Family.
Remarkably, Cooper, born a slave, lived right up until the dawn of the modern Civil Rights Movement. She died of a heart attack at her home in 1964, a year after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous march on the capital. Her funeral was held at the chapel at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, and she was buried next to her husband in a cemetery in that city. Her papers are collected at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University. Because of her lifetime of remarkable achievement, Cooper was the subject of a 1998 book, The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, edited by academics Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan, which includes A Voice from the South and many of her other writings and speeches.
Born August 10, 1858 (one source says 1859), in Raleigh, NC; died of a heart attack, February 27, 1964, in Washington, DC; daughter of George Washington Haywood and Hannah Stanley; married George C. Cooper (an Episcopal minister), June, 1877. Education: Oberlin College, A.B., 1884, A.M., 1888; attended the Guilde Internationale, Paris, 1911, 1912, 1913; attended Columbia University, 1914-17; Universite de Paris (Sorbonne), Ph.D., 1925. Religion: Episcopalian. Memberships: Black Women's Clubs.
Was a student teacher at St. Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute, Raleigh, NC, late 1870s-early 1880s; Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, OH, teacher, 1884-85; St. Augustine's Normal School, teacher, 1885-1887; Washington High School (later M Street High School, then Dunbar High School), Washington, D.C., teacher of Latin and math, 1887-1901, principal, 1901-06; rehired as a teacher, 1910, retired, 1929; Frelingshuysen Group of Schools for Employed Colored Persons, Washington, president, 1930-42.
- A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, 1892, reprinted, 1969, 1988.
- L'Attitude de la France a l'Egard de l'Esclavage pendant la Revolution, [France, 1925].
- Le Pelerinage de Charlemagne: Voyage a Jerusalem et a Constantinople, [France, 1925].
- American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, Vol. 1: A to E, edited by Lina Mainiero, Ungar, 1979.
- Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900, edited by Philip S. Foner and Robert J. Branham, University of Alabama Press, 1998.
- Notable American Women: The Modern Period, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1980.
- Essence, February, 1998, p. 84.
- Library Journal, May 1, 1998, p. 123.
- Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Winter, 1995, pp. 336-356.