Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) was a celebrated educator, civil rights activist, and prolific writer most known for her 1892 Black feminist text, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South. At the age of 66, she became the fourth African American woman to earn her PhD. She spent many years as an educator challenging the Jim Crow educational system in Washington D.C.
Anna Julia Cooper (1858 – 1964) was a visionary Black feminist leader, educator, intellectual, and activist. She rose to prominence as one of the country’s most eloquent and outspoken advocates for race and gender equality.
Born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1858, Anna Julia Cooper followed the path of many post-Emancipation African Americans, grasping hold of the educational opportunities created by the Freedmen’s Bureau in the brief window of Reconstruction. With the support of her mother, Hannah Stanley, Cooper worked her way through St. Augustine’s Normal School, founded in 1867 for formerly enslaved African Americans. At age nine she petitioned successfully for admission into the school’s Greek and Latin course. She then went on to Oberlin College where she joined a small group of influential African American educators and leaders, which included fellow activist Mary Church Terrell. She earned a BA and MA in Mathematics, but again had to protest for admission into the “Gentlemen’s classes.”
She was recruited to the nation’s capital to teach, and later serve as principal, at what would become the most prestigious secondary school for African Americans in the country–M Street, later, Dunbar High School. She taught for almost four decades at Dunbar High School, serving as principal for five of those years. While principal, she waged a “courageous revolt” against attempts to assign to Black students inferior “colored” curriculum. In Washington, Cooper also helped found important social, civic, and cultural institutions. She worked with other prominent “clubwomen” to unite the hundreds of local and state groups into the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the longest standing Black civic organization in the country.
In 1892 Cooper published her most well-known work, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South. In it she identified how systems of oppression and domination converge around issues of race, class, and gender. She also argued for the central place of Black women in the battle for civil rights. In 1925, she became only the fourth Black woman in the US to earn her PhD, when she completed and defended her dissertation at the University of Paris, Sorbonne.
At age 72, she took on the presidency of Frelinghuysen University, a group of community schools for Washington DC’s working Black residents. When she retired from her position as president in 1940, she continued to serve as the school’s registrar until well into her 90s. Cooper died in 1964, and is buried next to her husband, George Cooper, in Raleigh City Cemetery.
As we revisit Cooper’s writings and archive we ask: What did it mean to live a life devoted to fighting injustice and creating opportunities for African Americans? What was it like to be an intellectual, activist, and educator during the era of Jim Crow segregation? What was the lived experience of such racial and gendered realities? What strategies did Cooper devise to address these challenges? And how did Cooper’s deep and abiding commitment to Black communities and Black lives influence the choices she made, the knowledge she produced, and the legacy she leaves behind?
Origins of the Anna Julia Cooper Project
The Anna Julia Cooper Digital Project is a community-based, collaborative project that brings to digital life the writings and work of visionary black feminist Anna Julia Cooper. The Cooper Digital Project believes that through community engagement and broad-based partnerships, we can bring to light the buried histories of black women’s organizing and activism. The project began in 2017 as a partnership with the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center through which we launched the Anna Julia Cooper Digital Collection. Through our work in the classroom, and with our many partners, we helped digitize Cooper’s archive, introduce broader audiences to her digital collection, promote pedagogical and scholarly access to her work, and re-imagine digital collections as spaces for community engagement. On February 14, 2020, we continued that work in partnership with Douglass Day and the Colored Conventions Project as groups from around the world come together to transcribe, teach, and read Cooper’s writings and to consider the meaning of her work.
In 2020, the Anna Julia Cooper Digital Project joined the Center for Black Digital Research/#DigBlk, at Penn State University as part of the Black Women’s Organizing Archive.