Anna J. Cooper

Anna J. Cooper bigraphy, stories - American educator, feminist, essayist

Anna J. Cooper : biography

August 10, 1858 – February 27, 1964

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (Raleigh, August 10, 1858 – February 27, 1964) was an American author, educator, speaker and one of the most prominent African-American scholars in United States history. Upon receiving her Ph.D in history from the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1924, Cooper became the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctoral degree. She was also a prominent member of Washington, D.C.’s African-American community.

A Voice from the South

During her years as a teacher and principal at M Street High School, Cooper completed her first book, A Voice from the South: By A Woman from the South, published in 1892. It was her only published work, although she delivered many speeches calling for civil rights and woman’s rights. Perhaps her most well-known volume of writing, A Voice from the South is widely viewed as one of the first articulations of Black feminism. The book advanced a vision of self-determination through education and social uplift for African-American women. Its central thesis was that the educational, moral, and spiritual progress of black women would improve the general standing of the entire African-American community. She says that the violent natures of men often run counter to the goals of higher education, so it is important to foster more female intellectuals because they will bring more elegance to education. This view was criticized by some as submissive to the 19th-century cult of true womanhood, but others label it as one of the most important arguments for black feminism in the 19th century. Cooper advanced the view that it was the duty of educated and successful black women to support their underprivileged peers in achieving their goals. The essays in A Voice from the South also touched on a variety of topics, from racism and the socioeconomic realities of black families to the administration of the Episcopal Church.

Childhood and education

Anna "Annie" Julia Cooper was born into enslavement in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1858 to Hannah Stanley Haywood, an enslaved woman in the home of prominent Wake County landowner George Washington Haywood. Haywood is widely believed by historians to be the biological father of Stanley’s seven daughters. Cooper had two older brothers named Andrew J. Haywood and Rufus Haywood, and worked as a domestic servant in the Haywood home.

In 1868, when Cooper was ten years old, she received a scholarship and began her education at the newly opened Saint Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, founded by the local Episcopal Diocese for the purpose of training teachers to educate former slaves and their families. According to Mark S. Giles, a Cooper biographer, "the educational levels offered at St. Augustine ranged from primary to high school, including trade-skill training." During her fourteen years at St. Augustine’s, she distinguished herself as a bright and ambitious student, who showed equal promise in both liberal arts and analytical disciplines such as math and science; her subjects included languages (Latin, French, Greek), English literature, math and science. Although the school had a special track reserved for women – dubbed the "Ladies’ Course" – and the administration actively discouraged women from pursuing higher-level courses, Cooper fought for her right to take a course reserved for men, by demonstrating her scholastic ability. In fact, Cooper excelled in her academics to the point where she was able to tutor younger students. During this period, St. Augustine’s pedagogical emphasis was on training young men for the ministry and preparing them for additional training at four-year universities. One of these men, George A. C. Cooper, would later become her husband for two years until his death.

Cooper’s work as a tutor also helped her pay for her educational expenses. After completing her studies, she remained at the institution as an instructor. In an ironic twist, her husband’s early death may well have contributed to her ability to continue teaching; had she stayed married, she might have been encouraged or required to withdraw from the university to become a housewife.