Anna J. Cooper is one of the most important women in African American history that you never heard of. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1858, she shattered all stereotypical and social molds to become one of the foremost thinkers and advocates for African American and women’s rights.
Anna J. Cooper was born Anna Julia Hayward. She was the child of enslaved woman Hannah Stanley Hayward and prominent slave owner George Washington Hayward.
After the Civil War, religious organizations set up schools in an attempt to train teachers to educate the large number of newly freed African Americans. In 1868, when Cooper was ten years old, she began her journey into the world of education after receiving a scholarship to attend the newly formed Saint Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, founded by the Episcopal Diocese. It was the result of Christian missionary work by northerners in the Reconstruction-era South.
Women in this time were discouraged from seeking higher education levels. They were instead encouraged to settle into motherhood roles in American society. She would have none of that. Although, she would get married to George C. Cooper in 1877, she continued to pave a path towards educational excellence. After graduating St. Augustine, Cooper went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in 1884. This was the time where she began speaking and writing with authority. One of her more notable published works was A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South in 1892. In this collection of essays her role as one of the premier voices of Black Feminism is most evident.
Anna J. Cooper believed that Black women would play a prominent role in shaping the future for Black people. She almost seemed fearless with her advocacy for Black equality. She was known to chastise white women for their lack of support for her brand of feminism and women’s suffrage.
Never undaunted by the challenges she faced, Cooper became a principal for the famed M street Colored High School (later named Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School). After placing emphasis on academic preparation over vocational training akin to W.E.B. Du Bois, she was forced out by the supporters of the powerful Tuskegee Machine.
At the age of 54, Anna went back to begin her journey towards her Ph.D. at Sorbonne in Paris. She became the 4th Black women in American history to earn a Doctorate of Philosophy degree.
She was an active member of the NACW, NAACP, and YWCA. She died in 1964 at the age of 105.
Anna J. Cooper was a champion of equality and should be celebrated not only by Black Americans but all Americans. Her philosophy could be summarized in her quote:
“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.”