Anna Julia Cooper (1858 – 1964) was a visionary black feminist leader, educator, and activist. Born into slavery in 1858, she became the fourth African American woman to earn a doctoral degree when she received her Ph.D. in history. She is considered by many scholars to be the “Mother of Black Feminism”. This is Her Story.
Cooper was born on August 10th in 1858 to Hannah Stanley Haywood an enslaved woman. As a young child, Cooper worked as a servant until her emancipation in 1865. She was an extremely intelligent child and received a scholarship to St. Augustine’s Normal and Collegiate Institute at age 9 in the wake of the Reconstruction era. The aim of the school was to train teachers dedicated to the education of former slaves.
Cooper excelled through her 14 years at the school. While enrolled at Saint Augustine’s, she had a feminist awakening. Cooper realized that her male classmates were encouraged to study a more rigorous curriculum than were the female students. After that early realization, she spent the rest of her life advocating for the education of Black women and devoted herself to the advancement of African Americans.
Oberlin College was Cooper’s next academic leap. She pursued ‘men’s studies’ over what society deemed appropriate for women at the time. Cooper complete both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mathematics.
After graduation Cooper moved to Washington D.C. and began teaching at M Street High School where she later became a principal. A steady stream of superbly qualified students flowed from this school, largely because of her vision as a leader in education.
Cooper published her first book in 1892. In addition to calling for equal education for women, it was a passionate political commentary on black feminism. “A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South” is powerful, compelling and foundational. Cooper advocated for self-determination and self-improvement, specifically of black women, as she believed they were vital to the progress of black communities. This work established Cooper as an activist, and as the mother of black feminism.
At age 56, she started work on a doctoral thesis. At age 66 Anna Julia Cooper became the fourth black woman in the U.S. history to receive a Ph.D. (Her dissertation, in French, was on attitudes toward slavery after the Haitian rebellion.)
Anna Julia Cooper is the only woman memorialized in the United States Passport, and several learning institutions carrying her name. She was a scholar, activist, and feminist that left a brilliant legacy for generations to follow. She overcame every possible obstacle of her time. Anna Julia Cooper knew that she had a powerful voice and that she could use it to change the world. She Made History.
“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