Annie Cooper (1858-1964) expressed strong concerns for justice, right conduct, gender equality, racial pride, and fairness in social matters. As an educator, writer, and scholar, she did not make headlines. However, as a teacher and thinker who had known and learned from some of the greatest minds of her time, Cooper affected the lives of untold numbers of young people in ways that headlines never could.
Anna Julia Haywood Cooper was born on August 10, 1858 or 1859, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her mother was Hannah Stanley (Haywood), a slave, and her father was most likely George Washington Haywood, the owner. A precocious child, Cooper was admitted to Saint Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute (now Saint Augustine's College), an Episcopalian establishment that opened in Raleigh in 1868. There she soon distinguished herself and even became a tutor in those important years that followed Emancipation. When she finished her studies, she became a teacher at that same institution, where she met and, in 1877, married a fellow teacher. Her husband, George A. C. Cooper, was a 33-year-old former tailor from Nassau who had entered Saint Augustine's in 1873 to study theology; he died prematurely in 1879 just three months after his ordination. Anna Cooper never remarried.
In 1881 the young widow entered Oberlin College, one of the few institutions that accepted blacks and women at the time. She earned her A.B. degree in 1884 and taught modern languages at Wilberforce University (1884-1885). She returned to Raleigh the following year to teach mathematics, Latin, and German at Saint Augustine's. Oberlin awarded Anna Cooper an M.A. degree in mathematics in 1887. That same year she accepted a position in Washington, D.C., at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, which in 1891 became the M Street High School and in 1916 was renamed the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Most of her career as an educator would be at this distinguished institution.
Cooper's first important work, A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman from the South (1892) consists mainly of essays and papers that she had delivered at various meetings and conferences. It demonstrates clearly the concerns that were to preoccupy her throughout life: women's rights and the uplifting of African-Americans--who at that time were just one generation removed from bondage.
The 1890s were peak years of experience and achievement for Cooper; while racist terrorism escalated, she and other black intellectuals organized and mobilized both to arouse public opinion and provide direction. During this decade Cooper attended numerous conferences, making addresses and presenting papers to such diverse groups as the American Conference of Educators (1890), the Congress of Representative Women (1893), the Second Hampton Negro Conference (1894), the National Conference of Colored Women (1895), and the National Federation of Afro-American Women (1896). In addition to her teaching duties at the M Street School, Cooper also found time to do her first foreign travel: Early in the decade she went to Toronto on a summer exchange program for teachers, and in 1896 she visited Nassau. Cooper traveled to London in July 1900 to attend the first Pan-African Conference, where she presented a paper on "The Negro Problem in America"--the text of which has apparently not survived. Her London stay was followed by a tour of Europe, including a visit to the Paris Exposition, a stop at Oberammergau for the Passion Play, and a journey through the Italian cities of Milan, Florence, Naples, Rome, Pisa, and Pompeii.
Cooper was principal of the M Street School from 1902 until 1906. When she disputed the board of education's design to dilute the curriculum of "colored" schools, she was dropped from her position. She served as chair of languages at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, from 1906 to 1910, then returned to the M Street School as a teacher of Latin.
In 1904, during her stint as principal, Cooper had impressed a visiting French educator, the abbe Felix Klein, who would later serve as an important contact when she decided to pursue the doctorate in France. Study at the Guilde Internationale in Paris during the summers of 1911, 1912, and 1913, then at Columbia University in the summers of 1914 through 1917, allowed Cooper to finish her course requirements for the Ph.D. With credits transferred, and two theses completed--an edited version of the medieval tale, Le Pelerinage de Charlemagne, and an important historical study of French racial attitudes, L'Attitude de la France a regard de l'esclavage pendant la Revolution, Cooper successfully defended her dissertation at the Sorbonne on March 23, 1925. At the age of 66 she was only the fourth known African-American woman to earn the doctorate degree and among the first women to do so in France. This feat is all the more admirable when one considers the obstacles that Cooper had to overcome: Born in slavery, reared in a sexist and racist country, she had worked her way through school, and raised two foster children while in her forties. She then adopted her half brother's five orphaned grandchildren (ages six months to twelve years) when she was in her late fifties
In the latter years of her life, Anna Cooper retained a lively interest in education. Even before her retirement she became involved with Frelinghuysen University in Washington, of which she served for a short while as president. Named for a senator who had been sympathetic to the struggle for equal rights, Frelinghuysen was a unique institution that only briefly became a university before socio-economic conditions and accrediting requirements combined to close it. Frelinghuysen was intended primarily for adult education and offered evening classes at several centers, providing academic, religious, and trade programs. These were particularly important for the many adult working people in the Washington area who had moved in from points south where educational opportunities for blacks were limited.
Anna Julia Cooper died in her 105th year, on February 27, 1964 in Washington DC. She was interred in the Hargett Street Cemetery in Raleigh next to her husband, whom she had outlived by 85 years.
Gender and Racial Issues in Writings
Cooper's earliest writings, collected in A Voice from the South, mark her both as a dedicated feminist and an advocate for her race, with a firm position clearly and logically thought out. Her concern for women's rights grew out of her own experiences. As a student she was not encouraged in her schoolwork in the way that male students were, and her announced intention of going to college "was received with incredulity and dismay". "A boy," she wrote in later years, "however meager his equipment and shallow his pretentions, had only to declare a floating intention to study theology and he could get all the support, encouragement and stimulus he needed". Not all colleges would admit women in those days. Of those that did, only a handful had ever graduated any African-American women--Fisk leading the way with twelve.
Throughout the years, Cooper's commitment endured, but her vision expanded from the obvious signs of inequality and injustice to the overall situation that created and maintained those conditions in the first place. By the time she did what should be considered her major work--her doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne--Cooper had matured and broadened her perspective considerably. L'Attitude de la France a l'egard de l'esclavage pendant la Revolution (Paris: Imprimerie de la Cour d'Appel, 1925) incorporates both sides of the Atlantic and studies the social and racial complexities of the Americas in a global and historical framework. The immorality of the abuse of force is a recurring theme in Cooper, as is the view that slavery could have been very easily ended if only the will had been present.
Although her dissertation at the Sorbonne is labeled as a study of French racial attitudes, it is equally a study of the successful struggle of slaves to throw off an oppressive system and to attempt the creation of a new order. And although this work centers on Haiti and France, Cooper shows that it is not limited geographically or historically, because the whole phenomenon of colonial plantation slavery impacted both sides of the Atlantic over a period of several centuries. In a word, events that took place in antebellum North Carolina, in pre-1843 Bahamas, and in revolutionary Saint Domingue/Haiti were all chapters in the same book of history.
Cooper's L'Attitude may at first glance appear to be a very ordinary work, one among many of the studies of events in Saint Domingue that led to the establishment of a black state by slaves who revolted. Indeed, her sources are far from extraordinary; official documents in the Archives de la Guerre and the Archives Nationales, contemporary journals, memoirs, polemic works on slavery, travelogues, and histories. Yet Cooper's work, if it does not make major discoveries or revelations, does possess the unique characteristic of its point of view: it is the work of an African-American scholar who was born a slave, and as such benefits from an insight and sensitivity that elude most histories. For one thing, she holds up positive African images and she praises black achievements; she emphasizes the fact that Toussaint L'Ouverture--the brilliant military strategist and leader of the slaves--was of pure and unmixed African descent.
Intellectual Evolution Mirrored Social Development
Anna Cooper's intellectual evolution mirrored her social development. From the confined environment of a small, newly emancipated rural community, she grew to become a broadly educated and knowledgeable scholar and teacher. From a young woman concerned with sexism and racism, she expanded her horizons to international proportions where her concerns could be viewed and addressed in a much broader context.
This process must have begun with her education at Saint Augustine's, particularly in the classics, when she studied the history of ancient Greece and Rome. Later she would have read some of the more recent European writers and thinkers, particularly those in France and Germany, which she was able to read in the original--as she did also the classics. But her personal contacts appear to have been particularly fruitful, beginning with her husband, George Cooper, who was born a free man in Nassau in 1843 or 1844 (emancipation in the British colonies occurred beginning in 1834). His experiences must have provided new perspectives to the curious and intelligent young Anna Cooper, who later went to see Nassau for herself.
Another important contact was the Reverend Alexander Crummell, founder of the American Negro Academy, with whom Anna Cooper had a long acquaintance. A former missionary in Liberia for twenty years (1853-1873), Crummell was the American grandson of an African dignitary and a graduate of Queen's College, Cambridge His positive views on Africa and on the importance of education find echoes in Cooper's writings. Other significant contacts in Washington were made through Cooper's circle of friends, which, besides the Crummells, included the Grimkes--brothers Archibald and Francis, and the latter's wife, Charlotte Forten Grimke. The Reverend Francis James Grimke, a former slave and graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, was active in civic affairs in the capital; his wife, Charlotte, the granddaughter of Philadelphia free black abolitionist James Forten (1766-1842) was an activist and a teacher; Archibald Grimke--also a former slave--was a graduate of the Harvard Law School, and served as United States consul to Santo Domingo from 1894 to 1898. These, and others--like W. E. B. Du Bois, Sylvester Williams, and Edward Wilmot Blyden--were individuals with international connections and interests.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Cooper would take the opportunity to travel when she had the chance. Her summer's stay in Canada had a positive impact on her; a glowing letter to her mother speaks of the beauty of Toronto and of the kindness of her hosts. Some years later, Cooper would be similarly impressed and pleasantly surprised by public civility in France, when she visited the Chambre des Deputes, where it was customary in the public gallery for gentlemen to rise when a lady entered, and to remain standing until she was seated.
The 1900 Pan-African Conference in London must have been another important event in Cooper's formation. Arranged by the Trinidadian barrister, Henry Sylvester Williams, and attended by W. E. B. Du Bois, the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, bishop Alexander Walters of Jersey City, former attorney general of Liberia F. S. R. Johnson, and the bishop of London, among others, the conference was held at the Westminster Town Hall and attracted considerable interest. Participants from the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and the United States--Cooper among them--spoke on a variety of topics relating to peoples everywhere of African descent. The conference ended-after electing to honorary membership Emperor Menelek of Ethiopia and the presidents of Haiti and Liberia--with an address to the governments of all nations to respect the rights of colonized peoples everywhere.
Such exposure on an international scale surely gave Cooper an impetus to undertake the research necessary for her important work that was to earn her the Ph.D. degree. Cooper's great achievement is that she came to understand the importance of these wider, international dimensions, and, as a teacher, to communicate them to her students.
- The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images. Edited by Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. Kennikat Press, 1978.
- Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings. Edited by Ruth Bogin and Bert Loewenberg. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985.
- Gabel, Leona Christine. From Slavery to the Sorbonne and Beyond: The Life and Writings of Anna J. Cooper. Department of History of Smith College, 1982.
- Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter. Morrow, 1984.
- Hooks, Bell. Ain't I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism. South End Press, 1981.
- Hutchinson, Louise Daniel. Anna J. Cooper, a Voice from the South. Smithsonian Press, 1981.
- Sewall, May Wright. World's Congress of Representative Women. 1893.
- Shockley, Ann Allen. Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933. G. K. Hall, 1988.
- Who's Who in Colored America. 6th ed. Thomas Yenser, 1942.