Speaking as one of the few women at the Pan-African Congress conference in London, 1900, founding the Colored Women’s YWCA in 1905, and pushing W.E.B Du Bois to write Black Reconstruction are only three of Anna Julia Cooper’s achievements. Sure, when you live to be 105, you can set your sights high, but in an era of progressive depravity when it came to race and gender, Cooper’s position as one of America’s formidable scholars and educators is no small feat.
She was born in 1858 in Raleigh North Carolina. Her mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, was a slave—whose master was the father of Anna and her siblings. She excelled at her early education, and fought against the coursework for girls to take classes reserved for boys…like learning Greek!
Cooper married at nineteen, but her husband died after only two years of marriage. Her early widowhood gave her a unique independence and she was able to pursue further education and become a teacher. After getting both a BA and MA at Oberlin (the first black graduate of the school), she taught at the M Street, later Dunbar High School in Washington DC.
Instead of shepherding the black students of M Street into vocational trades, she mentored them into Ivy League Schools (Harvard accredited the high school during her time as superintendent). But Cooper was dismissed from her position in 1905, a discreet way of discouraging the lofty academic ambitions of the black students (which just wouldn’t do at a time when the powers-that-be did not believe black students were academically on par with white students) and for reigning in an educated black woman who aspired for more than a schoolteacher position.
But even after she was dismissed, Cooper, now in her fifties, applied for a doctoral degree at Columbia University. However, her studies were cut short early when she adopted the five young children of her late brother-in-law. Naturally, Cooper wasn’t set back too much and began to pursue her degree at the Sorbonne in Paris. After successfully defending her thesis, “The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery”, Cooper became the fourth black woman to get a PhD.
Her book, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (1892) is considered one of the first black feminist works—and one written at a time when women in general were expected to be domestic not scholarly, couldn’t vote, and black women in particular were extremely economically disadvantaged and politically disenfranchised. Recognizing the status of black women as the true barometer of race relations, Cooper wrote,
Only the black woman can say “When and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence an without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.
Published at a time when women were expected to stay home, and when black women were economically disadvantaged and couldn’t vote, the book challenged both black men and white women for fighting for an independence that more often than not did not include black women. She pointed out that black men could achieve education and earn class and political power by going into theology—a profession that was not open to women. She called out white suffragists when they asserted that white women deserved the right to vote more than black or Native American men. (Cooper herself, of course, was speaking from a specific class privilege and had an education the majority of black women did not at this time.)
In another text she wrote,
The cause of freedom is not the cause of race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of human kind, the very birthright of humanity. Now unless we are greatly mistaken the Reform of our day, known as the Woman’s Movement, is essentially such an embodiment, if its pioneers could only realize it, of the universal good.”
..a segment of which appears on pages 26 and 27 of every new United States passport ( Thanks Wikipedia!). Read one of Cooper’s speeches, “Women’s Cause is One and Universal” here, but don’t stop there. Cooper’s work is still readily available as are contemporary reflections on her work, such as the anthology Black Women’s Intellectual Tradition: Speaking Their Minds.