Cooper, Anna J.

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Cooper, Anna J.

August 10, 1858
February 27, 1964

Educator and writer Anna Julia Haywood was born a slave in Raleigh, North Carolina. While still a child, she was hired out as a nursemaid and developed a love for books and learning. In 1867 she entered St. Augustine's Normal and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, where she soon began to tutor and teach other students. While there, she met George A. C. Cooper, a teacher of Greek. The couple married in 1877, but George Cooper died two years later.

In the fall of 1881 Anna Cooper entered Oberlin College. She received a B.A. in 1884 and an M.A. three years later. She taught for a short while at Wilberforce College in Ohio and at St. Augustine's in Raleigh before going to the M Street (now Paul Laurence Dunbar) High School in Washington, D.C., in 1887. In 1902 Cooper became principal of M Street High School.

Cooper believed that African Americans needed to pursue not only industrial training but academic education as well. During her tenure as head of M Street, she successfully expanded college prep courses, attracted academically oriented black students, and increased the proportion of M Street graduates attending Ivy League schools. Cooper's commitment to classical studies for African Americans clashed with Booker T. Washington's philosophies, which dominated black higher education at the time. Her unconventional approach resulted in charges of misconduct and insubordination. Because of the charges leveled against her, the school board decided not to reappoint her as principal in 1906. Cooper then taught for four years at Lincoln University in Missouri before returning to M Street to teach Latin.

At the age of fifty-three, Cooper began doing graduate work. She studied at La Guilde Internationale, Paris (19111912), and at Columbia University (19131916), working toward her Ph.D., which she received from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1925. Her dissertation, "L'attitude de la France à l'égard de l'esclavage pendant la revolution" (translated as "The Attitude of France Toward Slavery During the Revolution") was published in 1925.

Much of the rest of Cooper's career revolved around Frelinghuysen University in Washington, D.C., an institution of adult education offering evening classes in academic, religious, and trade programs. She served as president of Frelinghuysen from 1930 to 1940. Because of financial difficulties, the university lost its charter in 1937, becoming the Frelinghuysen Group of Schools for Colored Working People, and Cooper became its registrar. Cooper continued to be centrally involved with the school, offering her home for classes and meetings, when necessary.

Throughout her career Cooper was a staunch defender of African-American rights and a relentless proponent of education for females. She believed that race and sex were inseparable and that both racism and sexism affected the social status of black women. She also argued that the struggles of all oppressed people were "indissolubly linked" together. In her book A Voice from the South, published in 1892, she asserted that African-American women were a distinct political and social force and that they could act as spokespersons for their race and as advocates for women.

Cooper believed that the key to achieving social equality for women was education, and she fought for women's collective right to higher education. During her early years at St. Augustine, she protested the exclusion of females from courses for ministerial studies and argued that boys and girls should have equal access to education. She believed that education would widen women's horizons and make them less dependent on marriage and love. She was one of the earliest advocates for women's rights and one of the most tenacious supporters of women's suffrage. Cooper was also the only woman elected to the American Negro Academy, was a participant in the 1900 Pan African Conference, and was elected to its executive committee.

Anna Julia Cooper

"Only the BLACK WOMAN can say 'when and where I enter,' in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing, or special patronage, then and there the wholerace enters with me."

a voice from the south (1892). introduction by mary helen washington, new york: oxford university press, in collaboration with the schomburg center for research in black culture, 1988.

Although Cooper never had children of her own, she adopted and raised five great-nieces and nephews. The death in 1939 of her niece and namesake, Annie Cooper Haywood Beckwith, who had lived with her since 1915 when she was six months old, devastated Cooper. Shortly after Beckwith's death in 1939, Cooper's public activity diminished. Nevertheless, she continued to write and work at home. She was a prolific writer, publishing on a wide variety of subjects, such as Le Pélerinage de Charlemagne (Charlemagne's Pilgrimage ) (1925), Equality of Race and the Democratic Movement (1945), The Life and Writings of the Grimké Family (1951), and essays on "College Extension for Working People" and "Modern Education." Cooper died in her sleep in 1964 at the age of 105.

See also Education in the United States; Washington, Booker T.


Cooper, Anna J. A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Gabel, Leona C. From Slavery to the Sorbonne and Beyond: The Life and Writings of Anna J. Cooper. Northampton, Mass.: Department of History, Smith College, 1982.

Hutchinson, Louise Daniel. Anna J. Cooper, A Voice from the South. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.

Johnson, Karen Ann. Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Lives, Educational Philosophies and Social Activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen Burroughs. New York: Garland, 2000.

premilla nadasen (1996)
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