Cooper, Anna Julia 1858—1964
Anna Julia Cooper 1858—1964
Feminist writer, educator
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 most pleasant moments 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
At a Glance…
Born August 10, 1858 (one source says 1859), in Raleigh, NQ 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; Oberi in 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; Episcopal.
Career: 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.
Member: Black Women’s Clubs
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 blasé 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,” Davis continued.
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 Gabei 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.
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.
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 head lines 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 socioeconomic 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 ante-bellum 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.
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