Education Icon: Anna Julia Cooper
Copyright: USPS 2008
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Born into slavery in 1858 to Hannah Stanley Haywood, Cooper entered the first class at St. Augustine’s in Raleigh post-emancipation. She later graduated from Oberlin in 1884 with Mary Church Terrell and Ida Gibbs Hunt and became a renowned teacher and controversial principal at the M Street high school in Washington, D.C., the nation’s largest African American high school. Cooper refused racist textbooks and successfully fought to keep a comprehensive curriculum: she rejected a system in which an entire race of people would be schooled for second-class citizenship. She developed culturally relevant curricula, opposed standardized tests, and believed that education should make the disenfranchised “ready to serve the body politic” by fostering intellectual curiosity, political consciousness and resilience: A “neglected people … must be fitted to make headway in the face of prejudice …”
Cooper also argued African American girls should not be an educational afterthought: “I ask the men and women who are teachers and co-workers for the highest interests of the race, that they give the girls a chance!” A woman with an education would be “less dependent on … marriage” and more able to “tug at the great questions of the world.” Given the opportunity, Black women could become equal participants in the future of the race and nation: “Such is the colored woman’s office.”
An active scholar, Cooper published in 1892 the first volume of Black feminist thought in the U.S., A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, spoke in 1900 at the first Pan African in London , and in 1925, at age 67, was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate at the Sorbonne. In the 1930s, she worked as president of Frelinghuysen University, which offered Black working adults access to higher education via satellite campuses and part-time study. On her modest teacher’s salary, she helped raise seven children: two orphaned children of friends and five orphaned grand-nieces and-nephews.
Since Cooper sought to connect theory with practice, her legacy of social advocacy is significant. She helped create autonomous Black community and cultural organizations that advocated for fair housing, equal employment, equal education and cultural preservation (such as the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, the Colored Women’s League, the Washington Negro Folklore Society, the Colored Settlement House and the Bethel Literary and Historical Society, to name a few). Just as she believed in practicing politics in everyday life, Cooper emphasized the importance of lived experience as a site of knowledge.
Drawing on her social location as a Black woman, she exposed race and gender bias in dominant ways of thinking. She showed how different forms of oppression must be understood as interdependent, anticipating contemporary theories of intersectionality. Cooper challenged white feminists to see how the rights they advocated were based on white, middle-class women’s worldview and wondered,
Why should woman become plaintiff in a suit versus the Indian, or the Negro or any other race or class who have been crushed under the iron heel of Anglo-Saxon power and selfishness?
Vivian M. May is Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Syracuse University. She is author of Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist (Routledge, 2007) and is working on a new book, Intersectionality: Theories, Histories, Practices (Routledge).