Anna Julia Cooper: Educator and equality advocate

Anna Julia Cooper portrait
Anna Julia Cooper

Biography

“It is not the intelligent woman vs. the ignorant woman; nor the white woman vs. the black, the brown, and the red,–it is not even the cause of woman vs. man. Nay, ’tis woman’s strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear her voice. It would be subversive of every human interest that the cry of one-half the human family be stifled. Woman in stepping from the pedestal of statue-like inactivity in the domestic shrine, and daring to think and move and speak,–to undertake to help shape, mold, and direct the thought of her age, is merely completing the circle of the world’s vision.” – Anna Julia Cooper

Anna Julia Haywood was born into enslavement in North Carolina. The year was 1858. Her mother was enslaved, and her father was the man Anna’s mother worked for, or his brother. While Anna loved her mother dearly and spoke of her fondly, the same could not be said about her father.

In her early years, Anna showed exceptional intelligence and a deep passion for education. In 1868, post-emancipation, she got an opportunity to begin her education formally. She enrolled at the newly established St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh. Originally intended to train teachers to educate the freed Black population, St. Augustine’s expanded its offerings to include college preparatory courses.

Anna’s pursuit of knowledge was challenging. Societal norms of the time prioritized classical education for men, with women often relegated to domestic roles. However, she defied these conventions. Not only did she enroll in courses typically reserved for male students, but she also consistently outperformed her peers.

Anna blossomed academically and socially during her time at St. Augustine’s. And it was here that she met her future husband, George A.C. Cooper. They would marry in 1877, but he would pass away just two years later.

Anna’s years at St. Augustine’s laid the foundation for her future endeavors. The institution’s blend of classical education and commitment to serving the Black community profoundly influenced her. Anna graduated in 1881, her mind set on furthering her education and advancing the cause of Black women and their place in the larger narrative of American history.

After her years at St. Augustine’s, Anna’s desire for knowledge led her to Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin was known for its progressive stances, being one of the first higher education institutions in the U.S. to admit Black students and women. Anna completed her Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics in 1884. She then continued at Oberlin for a Master’s degree in Mathematics, graduating in 1888.

Upon completing her education at Oberlin, Anna moved to Washington, D.C., where she began a long and distinguished career in education. She accepted a teaching position at the M Street High School, later renamed Dunbar High School. And over the years, she rose through the ranks, becoming the school’s principal in 1901. Under her leadership, the school gained a reputation for its high academic standards.

Anna’s academic journey wasn’t restricted to her professional career in teaching. In her 60s, displaying an admirable spirit of lifelong learning, she traveled to France to attend the University of Paris-Sorbonne. She overcame prejudices and earned her Ph.D. in History in 1924.

Anna was also a staunch advocate for civil and women’s rights, writing and giving speeches throughout her life. In one speech, Anna said, “A nation’s greatness is not dependent upon the things it make and uses. Things without thots [sic] are mere vulgarities. America can boast her expanse of territory, her gilded domes, her paving stones of silver dollars; but the question of deepest moment in this nation today is its span of the circle of brotherhood, the moral stature of its men and its women, the elevation at which it receives its ‘vision’ into the firmament of eternal truth.”

Anna lived to be 105, witnessing significant societal changes over the course of her life, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement. Today, her legacy is celebrated in various ways, including a postage stamp issued in her honor in 2009. And her quote, “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”, graces the pages of U.S. passports.


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“Anna Julia Cooper: Educator and equality advocate” sources:

Portrait taken circa 1902 – C.M. Bell, photographer. Mrs. A.J. Cooper. [between February and December 1903] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2016702852/>. / Giles, Mark S. “Special Focus: Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, 1858-1964: Teacher, Scholar, and Timeless Womanist.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 75, no. 4, Journal of Negro Education, 2006, pp. 621–34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40034662 / The Ethics of the Negro Question Speech by Anna Julia Cooper September 5, 1902 / Wikipedia / “A Voice from the South.” By A Black Woman of the South. Published by The Aldine Printing House in 1892, Ohio. / Anna Julia Coper – University of New Mexico / Keller, Frances Richardson. “An Educational Controversy: Anna Julia Cooper’s Vision of Resolution.” NWSA Journal, vol. 11, no. 3, 1999, pp. 49–67. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4316681. Accessed 18 Sept. 2023.

Note: This story was updated on September 18th, 2023.