Traditionally, at the beginning of the school year, I assign a reading to my composition students by Anna Julia Cooper called “The Higher Education of Women,” so that they can have some understanding of the life philosophy of this advocate of African American education. A lot of quotations are used from her work during the course of student orientation, but the story of her life isn’t always conveyed , so I always make sure to address that gap in the first few weeks of class. Cooper was not a participant of The Great Migration, but the paths that she took in her life, from the South to the North may well have inspired those who came after her to follow in her footsteps.
Born Anna Haywood, Cooper was born on August 10, 1858 to a slave mother in North Carolina. It is often thought that she was probably the daughter of a member of the slaveholding family, because she was sent to school when she was quite young. Even during Reconstruction, the idea of sending a former young slave girl away to school was a waste of time because young girls needed to learn more practical activities. Cooper was an exception because she probably had familial connections.
She flourished in her education and at a very young age, was able to complete her course of study and take up teaching younger students. When she was a young teacher, about 19 years old, she fell in love with a fellow teacher, Reverend George Cooper and became his wife. George Cooper died about two years later. As a young widow, she opted not to return to teaching, but to further her education by going to Oberlin College in Ohio. She left North Carolina and obtained both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Oberlin College. With such extraordinary credentials but little choice of a career path, she opted to move to Washington D.C. to teach and eventually become the principal of the first public high school for black students—Dunbar High School.
Her hunger for more education did not stop there. She attended Columbia in the summers to work toward her Ph.D. but when it became clear that they did not intend to award her the doctorate, she transferred to the University of Paris, the Sorbonne to finish her Ph.D. When she obtained the Ph.D. in 1925, she was almost 67 years old. She wrote her dissertation– in French. And still worked as a principal during the school year and raised a few of her nieces and nephews. She died in 1964, having lived a long, long life but never ceasing to fight to educate African Americans in both day and night school.
So at the beginning of each term, I hold up the example of Anna Julia Cooper to my students as an inspirational example of struggle, persistence, flexibility and alternative journeys. I look forward to doing the same in a few weeks.
Is there some historical figure you look to as an inspiration?