Anna Julia Cooper
"The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of human kind, the very birthright of humanity."
Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858-1964) was a writer, teacher, and activist who championed education for African Americans and women.
Born into bondage in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Anna Haywood married George A.G. Cooper, a teacher of theology at Saint Augustine’s, in 1877. When her husband died two years later, Cooper decided to pursue a college degree. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio on a scholarship, earning a BA in 1884 and a masters degree in mathematics in 1887. After graduation, Cooper worked at Wilberforce University and Saint Augustine’s before moving to Washington, D.C. to teach at Washington Colored High School.
Cooper published her first book, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, in 1892. In addition to calling for equal education for women, A Voice from the South advanced Cooper’s assertion that educated African American women were necessary for uplifting the entire black race. The book of essays gained national attention, and Cooper began lecturing across the country on topics such as education, civil rights, and the status of black women. In 1902, Cooper began a controversial stint as principal of M Street High School (formerly Washington Colored High). The white Washington, D.C. school board disagreed with her educational approach for black students, which focused on college preparation, and she resigned in 1906.
Cooper also established and co-founded several organizations to promote black civil rights causes. She helped found the Colored Women’s League in 1892, and she joined the executive committee of the first Pan-African Conference in 1900. Since the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) did not accept African American members, she created “colored” branches to provide support for young black migrants moving from the South into Washington, D.C.
Cooper resumed graduate study in 1911 at Columbia University in New York City. After the death of her brother in 1915, however, she postponed pursuing her doctorate in order to raise his five grandchildren. She returned to school in 1924 at the University of Paris in France. In 1925, at the age of 67, Cooper became the fourth African American woman to obtain a doctorate of philosophy. In 1930, Cooper retired from teaching to assume the presidency of Frelinghuysen University, a school for black adults. She served as the school’s registrar after it was reorganized into the Frelinghuysen Group of Schools for Colored People. Cooper remained in that position until the school closed in 1950.
Learn more about her at the Anna Julia Cooper Center.