Anna Julia Cooper, World’s Congress of Representative Women, 1893 Chicago World Fair
THE EARLY YEARS
Born in 1858 in North Carolina to her enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, and her white slaveholder, Anna Julia Cooper spent her lifetime of over a century redefining the limitations and opportunities for women of color in a society set up for their disempowerment and subjugation. A distinguished scholar and educator, Cooper saw the status and agency of black women as central to the equality and progress of the nation. She famously wrote in her 1892 book A Voice from the South, “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 whole Negro race enters with me.” She fought tirelessly throughout her life to re-center and uplift the voice of black women in pursuit of a more just society for everyone.
Cooper’s political action began at age nine in St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute, where she protested the preferential treatment given to men as candidates for the ministry and petitioned to take classes traditionally administered only to boys. She continued this trend at Oberlin College, where she declined the inferior “ladies course” in favor of the “gentleman’s course.” Cooper received her B.A. in 1884, and then returned to earn a M.A. in mathematics in 1887. After attaining her degree, Cooper moved to Washington, DC and was recruited to work at Washington Colored High School, or M Street School, the only all-black school in DC.
The colored woman feels that woman’s cause is one and universal; and that not till the image of God, whether in parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won–not the white woman’s, nor the black woman’s, nor the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong. Woman’s wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with all undefended woe, and the acquirement of her “rights” will mean the final triumph of all right over might, the supremacy of the moral forces of reason, and justice, and love in the government of the nations of earth.
Anna Julia Cooper
Describing her own vocation as “the education of neglected people,” Cooper saw education, and specifically higher education, as the means of black women’s advancement. She believed “that intellectual development, with the self-reliance and capacity for earning a livelihood which it gives,” would supersede any need for dependence on men, allowing women to extend their horizons and have their “sympathies… broadened and deepened and multiplied.” Cooper began at M Street School as a math and science teacher, and was promoted to principal in 1902. With her firm resolve in education as tantamount to the progress of people of color, Cooper rejected her white supervisor’s mandate to teach her students trades, and instead trained and prepared them for college. Cooper sent her students to prestigious universities and attained accreditation for M Street School from Harvard, but her success was received with hostility rather than celebration from a power structure that was not necessarily interested in the advancement of black youth.
THE MIDDLE YEARS
During her time at M Street School, Cooper was also involved in building new spaces for black women outside of the educational sphere. She founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington in 1892, and seven years later helped open the first YWCA chapter for black women, in response to their unwillingness to allow women of color into the organization. She spoke at the Pan African Congress and the Women’s Congress in Chicago, with a speech entitled “The Needs and the Status of Black Women.” It was also in this last decade of the 19th century that Cooper published her landmark text A Voice From the South, in which she dissects the way black women are affected by living at the intersection of oppressions and explains their status and progress as a definitive marker of the status and progress of the nation. In VFTS, Cooper also emphasizes the need to privilege black women’s voices, criticizing white scholars who wrote about and acted as authorities on the lives of black men and women despite their ignorance on the subject. Cooper believed that black women’s subjection to intersecting oppressions gave them a unique and invaluable outlook on society, arguing that rather than being suppressed, it was the voices of these women that needed to be front and center as society moved forward.
Cooper’s achievements both in and outside of the classroom garnered contempt from white colleagues and supervisors, and she was dismissed from M Street School in 1906 after a controversy erupted surrounding her character and behavior. As a testament to her reputation and achievements at M Street School, Cooper was re-hired in 1910 as a teacher by a new superintendent. Motivated rather than defeated by this scandal, Cooper decided to return to school, and in 1924 became only the fourth black woman in the United States to receive a doctorate degree, attaining her Ph.D at the University of Paris. While teaching and working on her doctorate, Cooper was also raising five children whom she had adopted in 1915 after her brother passed away.
THE LATER YEARS
Cooper’s retirement from M Street School in 1930 was by no means the end of her political activism. The same year she retired, she accepted the position of president at Frelinghuysen University, a school founded to provide classes for DC residents lacking access to higher education. Cooper worked for Frelinghuysen for twenty years, first as president and then as registrar, and left the school only a decade before she passed away in 1964 at the age of 105. While notable for her long life span, Cooper is most remarkable for the amount and significance of her accomplishments over the course of her lifetime, as well as the dedication and perseverance she exhibited while fighting tirelessly for what she thought was just. Cooper made no concessions in her fight; believing “a cause is not worthier than its weakest elements,” she decried movements advocating for women’s rights and racial justice for ignoring black women who were victims of both oppressions. Cooper was critical of black men for hailing opportunities that were not open to black women as markers of racial progress, and openly confronted leaders of the women’s movement for allowing the racism within it to remain unchecked. She recognized that neither movement could achieve its cause while still being divided by race or gender.
Adamant in her fight for a just, equal society, Anna Julia Cooper lived a remarkable life in which she refused to acquiesce to the demands and expectations of a white, male dominated society. In a place and time largely unreceptive to the needs of people of color and women, Cooper broke barriers and insisted that her voice as a black woman from the south be heard and acknowledged. Her accomplishments and vision have helped not only make Cooper one of the most noted African-American intellectuals in the history of the nation, but have helped reframe the understanding of intersections of race and gender and their political, cultural and personal implications in pursuit of a better nation.