Anna Julia Cooper


Anna Julia Cooper, (1858 – 1964)

“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class - it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity”

  -- Anna Julia Cooper


Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (Born Anna Julia Haywood was born on August 10, 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina) was an author, educator, speaker and one of the most prominent African American scholars in United States history.  Upon receiving her Ph.D in history from France’s Sorbonne Unniversity 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. 

 Anna Julia Cooper 1950

Anna Julia Cooper, circa 1950s

She was born into slvery in Raleigh, North Carolina to Hannah Stanley Haywood, an enslaved woman in the home of prominent Wake County landowner George Washington Haywood.  George 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  She 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, which was 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 courses reserved for men, by demonstrating her scholastic ability.  She 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.

M Street School

M Street School

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 in a way, 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.

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.

Anna Julia Cooper A Voice From the South

Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice From the South and Other Important Essays, Papers, and Letters

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.  In this thought pattern, she shared something with Mary Mcleod Bethune.  Cooper stated 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 would 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.

Later years

Former home of Anna J Cooper

Former home of Anna J. Cooper in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The home is located beside Anna J. Cooper Circle.

Cooper was not only an author and educator, but she was als a speaker as well.  Some notable speeches were delivered at the World's Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1893 (in which she was one of three black women invited to speak) and the Pan-African Conference in London in 1900.   In 1914, at the age of 56, Cooper began courses for her doctoral degree at Columbia University, but she was forced to interrupt her studies in 1915 when she adopted the five children of her late half-brother upon their mother's death.  Later on she was able to transfer her credits to the University of Paris-Sorbonne, which however did not accept her Columbia thesis, an edition of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. Over the course of a decade she was able to research and compose her dissertation, completing her coursework in 1924.  Cooper defended her thesis “The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery Between 1789 and 1848” in 1925 (“L’Attitude de la France a L’Egard de L’Esclavage: Pedant La Revolution”).  

At the age of sixty-five, Cooper became the fourth black woman in American history to earn a Doctorate of Philosophy degree.  Although the alumni magazine of her undergraduate alma mater, Oberlin College, praised her in 1924, saying, "The class of ’24 is honored in the achievement of this scholarly and colored alumna," when she tried to present her edition of “Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne” to the college the next year, it was rejected. 

On February 27, 1964, Cooper died in Washington, D.C. at the age of 105.  Her memorial was held in a chapel on the campus of Saint Augustine's College, where her academic career began.  She was buried alongside her husband at the City Cemetery in Raleigh.


"The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class - it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity." - Anna Julia Cooper

Cooper is honored with Elizabeth Evelyn Wright

Anna Julia Cooper, 2009 Commemorative stamp 


A tradition of female intellectuals brought to you by Paris-based African American artist Ealy Mays



 Further reading

  • Collins, Patricia Hill.Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd ed.Routledge, 2000.
  • Cooper, Anna Julia.A Voice From the South.Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Johnson, Karen A.Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Educational Philosophies and Social Activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen BurroughsGarland Publishing, 2000.
  • Lemert, Charles.The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice From the South and Other Important Essays, Papers, and Letters.Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
  • Special section on Anna Julia Cooper inAfrican American Review, 43:1 (Spring 2009):
  • Beverly Guy-Sheftall, "Black Feminist Studies: The Case of Anna Julia Cooper"
  • Vivian M. May, "Writing the Self into Being: Anna Julia Cooper's Textual Politics"
  • Shirley Moody-Turner & James Stewart, "Gendering Africana Studies: Insights from Anna Julia Cooper"
  • Karen A. Johnson, "'In Service for the Common Good': Anna Julia Cooper and Adult Education"
  • Shirley Moody-Turner, "A Voice beyond the South: Resituating the Locus of Cultural Representation in the Later Writings of Anna Julia Cooper"

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