Anna Julia Cooper

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Celebrated as one of the most accomplished scholars and courageous educators of the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth century, Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) is most well-known for A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (1892) in which she theorized intersecting forms of oppression and advocated for a broad and inclusive approach to liberation and human rights. Now recognized as a foremother of Black feminist thought and a forerunner in the fight for Black education and equal rights, Cooper’s voice as a visionary educator, public intellectual, social theorist, cultural critic, essayist, poet, and reformer emerged over the course of her long life and career.

Born into slavery in Raleigh, NC, on August 10, 1858, Anna Julia Haywood Cooper was the youngest of three children born to Hannah Stanley Haywood and presumably, her mother’s enslaver, George Washington Haywood. Cooper became an educational leader and activist in Raleigh, entering the first class of St. Augustine’s Normal and Collegiate Institute in 1867, where she went on to work as a teacher and community leader. From there she launched one of her first protests for equal rights, petitioning for access to the advanced “Gentleman’s Courses” in the Classics and later signing the North Carolina Teacher’s Association Resolution calling for state support of Black secondary education in North Carolina. Cooper married George A. C. Cooper in 1879. He died just two years later, and she never remarried, but supported, at various stages in her life, at least two foster and five adopted children.

Cooper earned a BA (1884) and MA (1887) both in Mathematics at Oberlin College before being recruited to Washington, DC in 1887 to teach at the prestigious Washington Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (or “M Street” as it was known and later renamed the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 1916). From the mid-1880s through the turn into the twentieth century, as white politicians and publics abandoned Reconstruction reforms, Cooper crisscrossed the nation and traveled the world exposing this betrayal and advocating for Black rights and equality. During this time, Cooper published the work she is most known for, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South. Written in a moment of social and political backlash, Cooper provided a “clear-eyed” commentary on a nation faced with the failures of Reconstruction and in the midst of the rapidly solidifying system of Jim Crow segregation. In the text, Cooper delivered an incisive critique of white supremacist patriarchal power and argued for an intersectional, situated analysis of the operations of race, gender, and class. She addressed the need for Black women’s higher education, the prejudice of the white women’s suffrage movement, and the vital, but erased, contributions of African Americans to American culture, society, and wealth. She argued that Black women, situated at the intersection of overlapping forms of oppression, possessed a unique and necessary perspective on both the “race problem” and the “woman question,” but were often the neglected and overlooked factor in both. And finally, she joined her educational training in history, philosophy, rhetoric, and literature with her own lived experiences to outline a broad and inclusive approach to liberation, asserting: “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” (“Woman versus the Indian,” A Voice from the South, Portable Anna Julia Cooper, 66).

Well-received and widely reviewed, the collection established Cooper’s place as one of the most prominent intellectuals of her day. She spoke at the Congress of Representative Women in 1893, presented at the Pan African Conference in London in 1900, and at a 1902 Friends’ General Conference in Asbury, NJ she advanced a lengthy argument against the revisionist histories of Reconstruction already taking shape in the US literary imaginary and wider social and political discourse. With the publication of A Voice from the South, Cooper also created an intellectual framework that placed Black women at the center of the national discourse, famously announcing, “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” (“Womanhood: A Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of the Race,” A Voice from the South, Portable AJC, 19).

Alongside her intellectual productivity and activism, Cooper helped found several organizations to address both the ideological and material conditions that left African Americans in general, and Black women in particular, vulnerable, imperiled, or invisible. She was a founding member of the Colored Woman’s League, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, and the Colored Settlement House, and served as an editor for The Southland magazine and interim editor for “Folklore and Ethnology Column” of The Southern Workman. In 1896, she joined other prominent “clubwomen” to found the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), uniting hundreds of local and state groups and moving Black women unapologetically to the forefront of their own national organizing efforts.

In 1901 she was appointed principal of the prestigious M Street High School, where she succeeded in sending Black students to elite colleges and universities, including Yale, Harvard, Brown, and Oberlin, and maintained a rigorous classical and liberal arts program. Her success, however, brought her face-to-face with the bitter local, regional, and national politics that congealed in the nation’s capital as the country convulsed over questions about Black social, civic and political rights. In 1906 she was removed from her post as principal by the DC Board of Education for waging what she referred to as her “courageous revolt” against a “lower colored curriculum.” In a 1909 letter she explained:

“I served as a principal of M Street High School [for five years]. In this work I had the satisfaction of believing that I was able to encourage the effort of higher development. I can only say that my labor in this direction met with appreciative recognition from the people I served. But they are lowly and for the most part voiceless. The dominant forces of our country are not yet tolerant of the higher steps for colored youth; so that while our course of study was for the time being saved, my head was lost in the fray” (rpt in Louise Hutchinson, A Voice from the South: Anna Julia Cooper, 83).

After being removed from her post in Washington in 1906, Cooper immediately initiated efforts to pursue a PhD. Though her efforts were repeatedly thwarted, delayed and re-routed by limited opportunities, lack of support and resources, and requirements unforgiving for a single Black woman raising 5 adopted children, Cooper managed to enroll in the doctoral program at Columbia University in 1914 and completed her scholarly translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemage, which was to serve as her doctoral thesis. Unable to meet the residency requirements of the program, however, it would not be until 1925 that Cooper became the fourth Black woman from the US to complete the doctorate, and likely the first to do so in the field of history, when she earned her PhD from the University of Paris, Sorbonne. Her dissertation, L’Attitude de la France à l’égard de l’esclavage pendant la Révolution, is a deeply archival historical study situating the French Revolution in the context of the transatlantic slave trade and reconstructing the history of and dialectical relationships between the French and Haitian Revolutions.

After earning her doctorate, Cooper continued to teach at Dunbar High School until her age-mandated retirement in 1930. She then took on the presidency of Frelinghuysen University, a group of community schools that served Washington, DC’s working Black adults, where she continued as Registrar until well into her nineties. She also continued to write, edit, and teach, contributing at least 28 articles to local Washington, DC newspapers and privately printing the two-volume collection, The Life and Writings of the Grimké Family and Personal Recollections of the Grimké Family in 1951. In the two-volume collection, Cooper edited and published essays, letters, poems, notes, and pamphlets exploring in Volume 1 Francis Grimké’s critiques of racism within white ministries and in Volume 2 presenting Charlotte Grimké’s writings and personal reminiscences as sites of historical memory and creative production.

Throughout her archive of published and unpublished writings, one also encounters the expansiveness of Cooper’s voice and vision. She wrote essays and articles on the founding of societies, local politics, Black folklore, poetry, film, theater, and the stakes of white cultural and literary representations of Black life and literature. She took on discriminatory labor laws, wage inequalities, unsanitary housing and living conditions, extralegal and state-sanctioned violence, and the need for community organizing and charitable giving. Education continued to be a prominent theme in her work, and she wrote and produced plays and pageants that advanced her aesthetic and pedagogical commitments. She also composed verse devoted largely to religious themes, commemoration, memory, and resistance. In one of the most poignant pieces in her unpublished archive, Cooper writes about her grandfather:

“Jacob Stanley was a broad chested upstanding black man. Family tradition has it that he took place in the planning and construction of the State Capital at the South Central entrance to which heading Fayetteville Street stood the stately brick mansion of doctor Fabius Haywood, Stanley’s owner. For Jacob Stanley was a slave.

I do not know how come.”

(“Grapes from Thorns,” Anna Julia Cooper, c. 1956, Digital Howard, AJC Digital Collection).

Throughout her life, Cooper remained steadfast in her faith in education as a vehicle for individual and social transformation and unmoved in her critique of systems of oppression and domination that diminished the freedom and life chances of African Americans generally, and Black women specifically. She created archives and scrapbooks to preserve and publish her own and other Black women’s writings, and she imagined a place for Black women in higher education and as intellectual leaders in the struggles for social justice from the Reconstruction era through the dawning of the Civil Rights movement.

Cooper died on February 24, 1964, at her home at 201 T Street NW in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of Washington, DC.  Fellow Dunbar High School graduate Mary Hundley remembered Cooper as “a woman of rare courage and conviction.”

*Updated and adapted from Shirley Moody-Turner, “In Memoriam, Long Overdue: Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964).” Perspectives on History: News Magazine of the American Historical Association 61: no. 7 (October 2023): 83; Shirley Moody-Turner, “Introduction,” Portable Anna Julia Cooper, New York: Penguin Random House (August 2022): xxi-xxxv.


from “Woman vs. the Indian” in A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (Portable 66-8).

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…it is important and funda­mental that there be no chromatic or other aberration when the teacher is settling the point, “Who is my neighbor?” It is not the intelligent woman vs. the ignorant woman; nor the white woman vs. the black, the brown, and the red,—it is not even the cause of woman vs. man. Nay, ’tis woman’s stron­gest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear her voice. It would be subversive of every human interest that the cry of one-half the human family be stifled. Woman in stepping from the pedestal of statue-like inactivity in the domestic shrine, and daring to think and move and speak,—to undertake to help shape, mold, and direct the thought of her age, is merely com­pleting the circle of the world’s vision. Hers is every interest that has lacked an interpreter and a defender. Her cause is linked with that of every agony that has been dumb—every wrong that needs a voice.

It is no fault of man’s that he has not been able to see truth from her standpoint. It does credit both to his head and heart that no greater mistakes have been committed or even wrongs perpe­trated while she sat making tatting and snipping paper flowers. Man’s own innate chivalry and the mutual interdependence of their interests have insured his treating her cause, in the main at least, as his own. And he is pardonably surprised and even a little chagrined, perhaps, to find his legislation not considered “per­fectly lovely” in every respect. But in any case his work is only impoverished by her remaining dumb. The world has had to limp along with the wobbling gait and one-sided hesitancy of a man with one eye. Suddenly the bandage is removed from the other eye and the whole body is filled with light. It sees a circle where before it saw a segment. The darkened eye restored, every member rejoices with it.

What a travesty of its case for this eye to become plaintiff in a suit, Eye vs. Foot. “There is that dull clod, the foot, allowed to roam at will, free and untrammeled; while I, the source and me­dium of light, brilliant and beautiful, am fettered in darkness and doomed to desuetude.” The great burly black man, ignorant and gross and depraved, is allowed to vote; while the franchise is withheld from the intelligent and refined, the pure- indeed and lofty souled white woman…

Is not this hitching our wagon to something much lower than a star? Is not woman’s cause broader, and deeper, and grander, than a blue stocking debate or an aristocratic pink tea? Why should woman become plaintiff in a suit versus the Indian, or the Negro or any other race or class who have been crushed under the iron heel of Anglo- Saxon power and selfishness?

…when race, color, sex, condition, are realized to be the accidents, not the substance of life, and consequently as not obscuring or modifying the inalienable title to life, liberty, and pursuit of hap­piness,— then is mastered the science of politeness, the art of courteous contact, which is naught but the practical application of the principal of benevolence, the back bone and marrow of all religion; then woman’s lesson is taught and woman’s cause is won— not the white woman nor the black woman nor the red woman, but the cause of every man or woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong….Her wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with all undefended woe, all helpless suffering, and the plenitude of her “rights” will mean the final triumph of all right over might, the supremacy of the moral forces of reason and jus­tice and love in the government of the nation.


from “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women in the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation: A Response to Fannie Barrier Williams” (Portable 475).

I speak for the colored women of the South, because it is there that the millions of blacks in this coun­try have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history, and there her destiny is evolving.