On this day in 1858, Anna J. Cooper was born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina. She went on to earn her PhD and became one of the most prominent African-American scholars in U.S. History. Her mother was a slave and her owner, George Washington Haywood, allegedly fathered Anna as well as her six sisters. Anna also had two older brothers. A scholarship at the age of nine granted her education at the Saint Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute. The school had a “Ladies’ Course” reserved for woman, but Anna fought against the regulations by excelling in her school work and they allowed her to take a men’s course. She proved her intellect in math and science as well as English literature, and languages like Latin, Greek, and French.
She remained at the school as a teacher following her graduation. Though she was not listed as faculty, she taught modern history, classics, higher English, and music. She married a fellow former student, but their marriage only lasted two years until his early death. In a way this actually contributed to her ability to keep teaching. Had she remained married the school likely would have told her to withdraw from teaching and become a proper housewife. Following the unexpected death of her husband she attended Oberlin College and took the male course of study again at her own insistence. She returned to St. Augustine’s in 1885 and then earned her M.A. in Mathematics at Oberlin in 1887.
Anna Cooper completed her first book while working as a teacher and principal at M Street High School in Washington DC. A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South, published in 1892, is one of the first written expressions of Black feminism. The work focuses on numerous topics including racism and the socioeconomic issues faced by black families. The thesis of her work was that the advancement of black women would improve the African-American community on a whole. She spoke of how the “violent natures” of men were against the goals of higher education, and suggested we foster women intellectuals instead. The idea received criticism as too similar to the “cult of true womanhood” but still became one of the most important black feminist arguments of the 19th century.
Her abilities as a speaker were also prized. She delivered her paper “The Negro Problem in America” at the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900, and was one of only three black women invited to speak at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1983. In 1914 she began studying at Columbia University to earn her doctoral degree, but stopped after the death of her mother in 1915. Anna adopted the five children of her late half-brother upon her mother’s death. She later transferred to the University of Paris-Sorbonne, only to find that they wouldn’t accept the thesis she had started at Columbia. Anna worked for ten more years to research and compose a new dissertation. She completed and defended The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery Between 1789 and 1848 in 1925. Anna was 67 when she became the fourth black woman in American history to earn a Doctorate of Philosophy.
She lived until she was 105 years old and died on February 27, 1964. Among her many legacies is a quote by her found on pages 26 and 27 of every U.S. passport. “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.”