Only the black woman can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”

Anna Julia Cooper, in A Voice from the South, 1892

Born into slavery in North Carolina in 1858, Anna Julia Haywood Cooper lived long enough to see the rising Civil Rights Movement. During that century-plus lifetime, she was a leader in the fight for African American equality, women’s equality and their rights in education, and for African Americans’ and women’s right to vote.

Cooper helped to launch the late 19th century black women’s club movement. She served as principal of The M Street High School, an important Washington D.C. educational institution. At age 65, she earned a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in Paris. She continued to write about slavery, and the importance of education, until the end of her life.

Cooper’s mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, was a slave, and her presumed father was her mother’s master, George Washington Hayward. She began her long career in education when at the age of nine, she won a scholarship to St. Augustine’s Normal and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, N.C., which had just been founded to educate former slaves and their families.

Her emphasis on equality for women in education began during her St. Augustine years, when she fought for and won the right to study Greek, which had been reserved for male theology students. Cooper continued that struggle after enrolling at Ohio’s Oberlin College, which was among the first U.S. colleges to admit both black and white students. There, she insisted on pursuing the more rigorous “gentleman’s course” instead of the basic two-year “ladies’ course.”

Cooper earned a bachelor of arts degree, and a master’s degree in mathematics, from Oberlin.

As a teacher and later principal of The M Street High School – the country’s first high school for black students – Cooper set academic standards that enabled many students to win scholarships to Ivy League colleges. This challenge to the widespread view that black students should instead be trained for manual trades cost her the principalship, but she continued as a teacher until she retired in 1930.

That year, at age 72, Cooper became president of Frelinghuysen University, a night school providing education for older, working African Americans. After retiring as president in 1940, she served as registrar until 1950.

At age 19, Cooper married George Cooper, a professor at St. Augustine’s. He died two years later and she never remarried. At age 57, and while she was studying for her Ph.D., she adopted five young children of a deceased nephew.

As one of the founders of the black women’s club movement, Cooper focused not only on overcoming the huge social and economic difficulties faced by the growing number of educated African American women, but also on winning equality for black men and women of all classes, and for women generally. The club movement also paid particular attention to the continuing sexual exploitation of black women.

“The colored woman feels that woman’s cause is one and universal … not till race, color, sex and condition are seen as the accidents and not the substance of life … not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won – not the white woman’s, nor the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong,” Cooper, one of a handful of black women participants, told a women’s conference during the 1893 World Colombian Exposition in Chicago.

She added, “Women’s wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with all undefended woe, and the acquirement of her ‘rights’ will mean the final triumph of all right over might, the supremacy of the moral force of reason, and justice, and love in the government of the nations of the earth.”

Cooper wrote many essays and addressed a variety of audiences. In her book, A Voice from the South, published in 1892, she wrote, “… woman’s cause is the cause of the weak; and when all the weak shall have received their due consideration, then woman will have her ‘rights,’ and the Indian will have his rights, and the Negro will have his rights, and all the strong will have learned at last to deal justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly …”

In 2009, Anna Julia Cooper became the 32nd person commemorated by the U.S. Postal Service with a stamp in the Black Heritage series.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for the People's World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She has been a member of the paper's staff since 1986. She has also been active in the peace movement. Born in Iowa, Marilyn has also lived in Chicago and New York City, and originally made her living as a professional musician.