Anna Julia Haywood Cooper
August 10, 1858 – February 27, 1964
Notable: Educator and Writer
Anna Julia Haywood was born a few years before the start of the Civil War in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was the daughter of Hannah Stanley, an enslaved woman, and Stanley’s slave master, George Washington Haywood. At the age of nine, Haywood began attending Saint Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute which had been founded as a school for the newly freed slaves. A gifted student, she began teaching mathematics part-time at the age of ten.
While boys and girls were both allowed to attend school, Haywood realized that they were generally guided towards different academic tracks. Boys were encouraged to pursue a more thorough and challenging education with subjects such as math and science regarded as their domain. Haywood obtained a high school education at Saint Augustine’s and credentials to teach at the school.
During her studies, Haywood met George A.G. Cooper, a classmate who would go on to become a theology teacher at the school. Haywood married George in 1877 and as was the custom at the time she was no longer allowed to teach. Unfortunately, the Coopers’ marriage would end two years later with George’s death.
Following her husband’s passing, Anna Julia Cooper enrolled at Oberlin College from which she would earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. Cooper then worked at Wilberforce University and Saint Augustine’s before moving to Washington, D.C. to join the faculty at the Washington Colored High School (later M Street School) where she taught math, science, and Latin.
1892 would be an incredibly busy and important year for Cooper. During that year she co-founded the Colored Women’s League and was part of the executive committee for the first Pan-African Conference in 1900. Cooper also published A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, a book of essays that was likely one of the first Black feminist publications. Within the book, Cooper advocated for women’s right to an education on par with that of men. She thought that Black women being educated was especially important to the advancement of the Black community as a whole.
The book’s publication brought Cooper national attention as well as invitations to give public speeches. She traveled the country giving lectures related to the book’s main topics of education, equality, and the advancement of Black women. In 1893 she addressed the World’s Congress of Representative Women and called on the predominantly White audience to work across color lines in pursuit of obtaining the right for women to vote.
Cooper became the principal of the M Street School in 1902 but her tenure would only last a few years. At the time, some prominent educators and decision-makers thought that Black students’ studies should focus on vocational trades. Cooper was not in that camp and instead led the school with a focus on preparing its students for college. This ran afoul of the White Washington, D.C. school board and resulted in Cooper leaving the school in 1906 for a teaching position at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.
In 1910, Cooper returned to Washington, D.C. and resumed teaching at M Street School (renamed Dunbar High School in 1916). A year later Anna Julia Cooper began working on her doctorate part-time at Columbia University in New York City. During this period she managed to teach full-time, study part-time, write, and travel to give lectures. She took a break from her studies when her brother died in 1915 leaving behind either five children or grandchildren (the details are unclear) to whom she became a foster parent.
She wrote and published a thesis on eleventh-century French history which gained her admission to the Sorbonne where she hoped to complete her doctorate. Cooper took a leave of absence from the M Street School with the intent to study in residency in Paris for a year but was recalled to the school after a few months. The Sorbonne was understanding and allowed her to return home to work on her thesis. Anna Julia Cooper completed her thesis in 1925, earning her doctorate at the age of 67.
Despite her sacrifice to obtain this great academic credential, the achievement was not appreciated by the M Street school district and may have played a part in her 1930 retirement from teaching. This did not mean that she left education completely. Instead, Cooper became the president of Frelinghuysen University, a school for Black working adults. She later became the school’s registrar and occupied that position until the school closed in the 1950s.
Through her life of writing and speeches, Cooper shared her perspective and personal experiences as a female student and later as a Black educator at a Black school that was controlled by a White school board. She is regarded as being one of the first Black feminists and specifically spoke to the intersection of gender and race. Anna Julia Cooper died in her sleep from a heart attack at the age of 105. Her life spanned being born into slavery and dying during the Civil Rights Movement.
- Steptoe, Tyina. 2007. “Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858-1964).” BlackPast.org. January 29, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/cooper-anna-julia-haywood-1858-1964/.
- Vernon, Joana J. 2003. “Anna Julia Cooper.” University of New Mexico. January 3, 2003. https://www.unm.edu/~erbaugh/Wmst200fall03/bios/Cooper.html.
- Wallach, Jennifer. 2020. “Anna Julia Cooper.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. January 28, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anna-Julia-Cooper.
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