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Anna Julia Cooper
St. Augustine Normal School

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Anna Julia Cooper

Anna Julia Cooper
[b.1858 - d.1964]

Born in North Carolina to a slave named Hannah Stanley Haywood and Haywood's white master, Anna Julia Cooper rose from these unpromising beginnings to establish herself as one of the leading black scholars and teachers of her day. Her remarkable career in education began quite early, when at nine she was offered a scholarship to attend St. Augustine's Normal School, an institution founded to train teachers for service among the ex-slaves. Cooper stayed there for roughly fourteen years, eventually joining the school's faculty. It was while teaching at St. Augustine's that she married George Cooper, a Bahamas-born Greek instructor. In September 1879, however, her husband died, and Cooper remained single for the remainder of her life.

In 1881 Cooper entered Oberlin College, graduating in 1884 with two other black women, one of whom, Mary Church (Terrell), would gain considerable celebrity as an important activist of the time. After teaching briefly at Wilberforce, Cooper returned to St. Augustine's in 1885. In 1887, she received a master's degree in mathematics from Oberlin and then moved to Washington, D.C., where she began a long and at times stormy tenure at the distinguished Washington Colored High School, also known as the M Street School. Cooper became principal there in 1902.

In June 1892, she helped to organize the Colored Woman's League of Washington, D.C.; the following year, she and two other black leaders, Fannie Barrier Williams and Fannie Jackson Coppin, addressed the Women's Congress in Chicago, convened during the Columbian Exposition held in that city. Cooper spoke on "The Needs and the Status of Black Women." In 1895, she played an active role in the first meeting of the National Conference of Colored Women; and in 1900 she traveled to London, where she participated in the Pan-African Conference along with W.E.B. Du Bois. Cooper also helped edit The Southland, a magazine founded in 1890 by Joseph C. Price, the head of Livingstone College in North Carolina. More importantly, Cooper published A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South in 1892, a collection of essays in which she addresses a wide range of issues concerning black women at the end of the nineteenth century.

The conceptual core of A Voice from the South is Cooper's contention that "the fundamental agency under God in the regeneration, the re-training of the race, as well as the ground work and starting point of its progress upward, must be the black woman." Or, as Cooper put it, "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.'" The dominant position that Cooper accords the black woman in her vision of racial progress reflects, in part, the influence of nineteenth-century bourgeois ideals of "true womanhood," which assumed that women constituted the moral center of a society. At the same time, Cooper consistently argued for the unique position of black women in a male-dominated, racist society, contending that they brought to bear on contemporary problems an invaluable perspective forged in the crucible of multiple and intersecting oppressions. Therefore, the full development of their talents especially through formal education, Cooper argued would be of inestimable value not just to women or blacks generally but to the nation as a whole. It also follows that no one could or should speak for the black woman; to Cooper, it was critical that the black woman's voice be raised on her own behalf.

By the mid-1890s, Cooper had come to be recognized as an important member of the black intelligentsia. She was active in the Bethel Literary and Historical Association in Washington, D.C., and she even received an invitation to join the American Negro Academy, the previously male-only organization of such leading black thinkers as W.E.B. Du Bois, Francis Grimke, Alexander Crummell, and Carter Woodson. Cooper's distinguished record as a scholar and teacher, however, did not protect her from scandal. She became embroiled in 1904 in what became known as the "M Street School controversy." Under fire for allegedly condoning smoking and drinking by her students and morally questionable behavior by her teachers, she herself was the target of rumors linking her romantically with a member of the school's faculty whom she happened to have raised in her house. Despite the support of many local blacks, Cooper was dismissed in 1906. After teaching in Missouri, she returned in 1910 to the M Street School (known as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School after 1916), where she worked until her retirement in 1930.

The remainder of Cooper's life was marked by academic achievement and commitment to ensuring the welfare of the black community through education and social service organizations. After studying at Columbia University, Cooper earned a Ph.D. in French from the University of Paris in 1925 despite extraordinary obstacles, including lack of support from her employers. In so doing, Cooper (then in her mid-sixties) became only the fourth black American woman to receive a doctorate. During this time, she continued her efforts to improve conditions within the local black community as well, taking a leadership role in the Colored Settlement House in Washington, D.C., and in the local Colored Young Women's Christian Association. This involvement culminated in 1930 in her accepting the presidency of Frelinghuysen University, a school founded in 1917 to serve black Washington, D.C., residents (especially working people) who might otherwise have little access to higher education. At one point, in an attempt to save the school, Cooper moved its operations into her home. Anna Julia Cooper's educational and community activities continued to the end of her life, one as long and rich and full of dedicated service to her race as that of her far-better-known contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she outlived by six months.

"In Her Own Voice: Nineteenth Century American Women Essayists" Ed. Sherry Lee Linkon