When Anna Julia Cooper died at the age of 105 in 1964, she left behind accomplishments remarkable for anyone, let alone a woman of color at a time when social taboos, laws, and even attitudes of fellow African American activists were obstacles to achievement. Cooper declared herself "the voice of the South," speaking for black women, recently freed from 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.
Most sources cite Cooper's birth year as August 10, 1858. Her mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, was a slave; Cooper's father was probably her mother's owner, George Washington Haywood. Cooper was six or seven when the Civil War ended. She attended St. Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute, created by Episcopal funds to provide education for newly freed blacks.
By the age of eight, Cooper showed such academic proficiency that she was made a pupil-teacher. She also helped her mother learn to read. But in her journals, Cooper detailed the struggles she encountered when she became interested in mathematics and sciences, subjects considered suitable only for male minds. Cooper graduated to the teacher level at St. Augustine's and converted to 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, but her husband died just two years later and she never remarried.
In 1881, Cooper, who knew Greek, Latin, and higher math, was admitted to Oberlin College, one of the first co-educational and integrated secondary educational facilities in the United States. She received her B.A. degree in 1884 and M.A. in mathematics in 1888. Then she taught at Wilberforce University. In 1889, she was began teaching Latin and math at Washington High School in the nation's capitol (later renamed the M Street High School and then Dunbar High School).
For the next forty years, Copper taught at the school. Washington High prepared students for a college education and offered some business courses as well, but during the 1890s a racist sentiment developed that African Americans should restrict themselves to vocational education or the trades, and not pursue college degrees. Booker T. Washington, founder of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, espoused the view that blacks should first build economic independence, then agitate for equality. Cooper argued that gifted African Americans should be given equal access to higher learning.
In her A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, first published in 1892, Cooper wrote about intellectual abilities and the benefit of holding a degree. She was an ardent champion of education for African American women. Elsewhere Cooper wrote that "the race is young and full of elasticity and hopefulness... its achievements are before it."
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 to be heard and their concerns be addressed was revolutionary.
Cooper spoke before the World's Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1893, touching on these topics before a largely white audience. She spoke of the African American women she met over the years who had sacrificed in order that their children could obtain an education and cited progress in school openings and in literacy rate increases since 1865. Cooper declared, "I speak for the colored women of the South," (the title of her speech).
In 1901, Cooper became principal of M Street High School, the second woman in the District's public school system to reach this post. Yet an education bill in Congress presented a special curriculum for African American schools, and the efforts of Cooper and other educators eventually buried it. At M Street, she instituted a rigorous curriculum and saw success when some students won admittance to Ivy League schools like Harvard, and formed a scholarship fund to aid college-bound students. The local school board was particularly set against Cooper and her lofty goals for students; they tried to curtail her activities and when she disobeyed their injunctions, they fired her in 1906. Her biographer, Leona Gabel, wrote there was "pressure from Tuskegee to drop her."
Cooper was rehired in 1910 as a teacher. During the interim she took a teaching post in Missouri and spent time at Oberlin pursuing a doctorate degree. She studied French history and literature and from 1911 to 1914 spent summers in Paris at the Guilde Internationale. In 1914 at 56, she gained admittance to Columbia University in hopes of earning a Ph.D. there, and spent three years working part-time toward it; she continued to teach at M Street, give lectures, and write, and even more remarkably, she was a foster parent to five children of a relative. Her thesis on an eleventh-century epic of French history was published in France in 1925. She was admitted to the Sorbonne and completed her doctoral work by correspondence. Her dissertation, also published in France in 1925, explores democratic ideals that shaped the French Revolution of 1789 and the new Republic's hypocritical policies toward its slave colony in Haiti. At 65 Cooper finally received her doctorate from the Sorbonne, conferred in a special ceremony at Howard University.
Retired from teaching around 1929 or 1930 and 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. 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.
Born a slave, Cooper lived until the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. She died a year after the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous march on the capitol. Her papers are collected at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University. Cooper was the subject of The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, published in 1998.