Reflecting on her tenure at M Street High School in Washington, D.C., Anna Julia Haywood Cooper penned, “The dominant forces of our country are not yet tolerant of the higher steps for colored youth.” Her life’s mission revolved around writing, teaching and activism, with a strong emphasis on advocating for the education of Black people, especially Black women. In addition to her dedication to education, she excelled as a public intellectual, social theorist, cultural critic, essayist, poet and reformer. Furthermore, she founded and participated in various organizations and delivered many speeches. Her intellectual pursuits led her to form a relationship with Mary Church Terrell, a fellow activist who fought for racial equality and women’s voting rights. In addition, as a member of the Black upper middle class, Terrell promoted racial uplift, which was an ideology that believed discrimination could be eliminated through Black people’s advancement in education, work and activism.

Mary Terrell

Mary Church Terrell, ca. 1910.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ray and Jean Langston in memory of Mary Church and Robert Terrell

Notably, her impact on Black education found expression in her 1892 book titled, "A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South." Within this work, she asserted that educated Black women played a pivotal role in uplifting the entire race. The book marked a significant milestone, as it stands as “one of the most forceful and enduring statements of Black feminist thought to come out of the nineteenth century.” 

Cooper's Early Activism

Born into slavery in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina, she was the daughter of Hannah Stanley Haywood, an enslaved woman who was likely impregnated by her enslaver, Fabius J. Haywood. After Emancipation, she embarked on a journey shared by many newly freed individuals and enrolled into the Saint Augustine Normal and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a student, she took a stand against educational gender disparities that would illustrate her advocacy throughout her life. 

Organizing one of the earliest protests at the institute, she demanded admission to Greek and Latin courses, which were typically reserved for male students. Noting the gender disparities, she recalled, “A boy…had only to declare a floating intention to study theology and he could get all the support, encouragement and stimulus he needed…While a self-supporting girl had to struggle on by teaching in the summer and working after school hours to keep up with her board bills, and actually to fight her way against positive discouragement to the higher education.” She gained acceptance through her protest. Her fight against unfair treatment continued when she attended Oberlin College in 1881. Once again, she encountered obstacles when she was denied access to “gentlemen’s courses.” She launched another petition to gain entry. 

Oberlin College

Anna J. Cooper attended Oberlin College in Ohio.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

At the age of 19, she married George A.C. Cooper, a Greek teacher and technology student at Saint Augustine. Tragically, she became a widow only two years later, shortly after leaving Oberlin. She never remarried and devoted herself to caring for two foster children and five adopted children. 

"A Voice from the South" (1892)

In "A Voice from the South," comprising a collection of essays and speeches, Cooper offered commentary on the state of the country after the failure of Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow laws. In the company of diverse Black thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and additional voices who engaged with matters of race relations, she critiqued the reunionist politics that sought to reconcile sectional divisions while sacrificing the memory of slavery and ignoring ongoing racial prejudice and discrimination. Moreover, Cooper urged the nation to live up to its ideals and confronted the negative portrayals of Black people. She demanded society to recognize their contributions to the country.

Dr. Cooper's book

Anna J. Cooper: a voice from the South exhibition records.

Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Her criticism also encompassed a feminist perspective, as she challenged Black men for disregarding the racialized and sexualized violence that Black women endured. Noting the Black men tended to ascribe to old logic when it came to issues Black women and girls faced, she wrote, “[G]ive the girls a chance!...Let our girls feel that we expect more from them than that they merely look pretty and appear well in society. Teach them that there is a race with special needs which they and only they can help; that the world needs and is already asking for their trained, efficient forces.” 

She advocated for greater protection and opportunities for Black women while also criticizing White women for abandoning their commitment to universal voting rights. Cooper firmly believed that Black women possessed a unique perspective that could address both the “race problem” and the “women question.” As Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debated whether a liberal-educated Black elite or vocational training should guide Black people, she placed Black women at the center of the national discourse on race and gender.  “Only the black woman can say…when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood…then and there the whole Negro race enters with me,” she wrote. 

Anna Cooper seated on veranda

Dr. Cooper sitting in a wicker chair on a porch, facing the camera.

Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution

The Activist and Educator

Throughout her life, she actively participated in various organizations, including the Phyllis Wheatley Young Women’s Christian Association and the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C. Additionally, she co-founded the Colored Settlement House, a social service agency for Black people in D.C., and became a member of the executive committee of the Pan-African Conference. 

She became the seventh principal at M Street High School in 1902, which is now know as Dunbar High School, in Washington, D.C. Embracing a different approach from Washington’s accommodationist philosophy, which encouraged vocational training, she advocated for higher education opportunities for her students. Many of her pupils went on to attend prestigious Ivy League institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. However, her progressive methods faced opposition from the D.C. School Board. Despite pressure to teach a limited “colored curriculum,” she stood firm in her beliefs, leading the Board to decline her reappointment in 1906. 

Dr. Anna Julia Cooper

Anna Julia Cooper was the fourth African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a doctoral degree. 

Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Cooper went on to teach at the Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri, for four years. She eventually returned to M Street High School as a teacher and continued to advocate for higher education opportunities for her students. Later, she went on to earn her doctorate in 1925 from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, making her the fourth Black woman in the United States to earn a PhD. 

Upon retiring from Dunbar High School in 1930, she took up the position of president at Frelinghuysen University, a community school founded in 1906 to offer continued education for Black adults in D.C. She encountered obstacles yet again when the D.C. Board of Education refused to grant the school the authority to grant bachelor’s degrees. In response, she sought assistance from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but it declined her appeal. Unfazed by the setback, she relocated a portion of the university’s administrative and teaching services to her residence on T Street in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of D.C. 

Dr. Cooper at Frelinghuysen University

Dr. Anna Cooper in parlor of 201 T Street, N.W., then the Registrar's Office of Frelinghuysen University.

Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution

Throughout her life, she wrote a collection of unpublished poems, plays and journalistic pieces, and exchanged with W.E.B. Du Bois through around thirty letters. She died in February 1964 in her sleep at the age of 105. 

Historical Significance

While the Washington and Du Bois education debate continues to be a central theme in popular accounts of that era, Cooper boldly interjected her voice into the conversation. Through her feminist critique of Black women's status and her advocacy for higher education among the Black community, she established a distinctive and invaluable perspective among prominent voices.

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