Anna J. Cooper (1858-1964) was born into slavery and became a groundbreaking scholar, speaker, activist, sociologist, and feminist writer.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today we’re talking about an African American author, scholar, speaker, activist, sociologist, and educator who succeeded in an era when nearly all of the cards were stacked against her. Our feminist of the day is Dr. Anna Julia Cooper.
Anna Julia Haywood was born into slavery on August 10, 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina. When Anna was young, she and her two older brothers worked as House slaves in the home of George Washington Haywood. When she was nearly 5 years old, Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation. While life was still incredibly difficult for African Americans in the U.S., especially in the South, new doors slowly opened for children like Anna.
When Anna was 9 , she won a scholarship to attend the new Saint Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute, a school created to train new teachers to educate former slaves.
Anna consistently got good grades, excelling in the liberal arts as well as math and science. She even earned money to help pay for school by tutoring younger students.
Even so, Anna soon realized her opportunities were limited by gender in addition to race. Male classmates were directed towards a more rigorous curriculum than their female peers. Anna fought to take the men’s courses, and eventually succeeded. This fight prompted Anna to dive into advocacy for the education of Black women.
In 1877, Anna married one of her classmates, George Cooper. He passed away just two years later. In the aftermath, Anna dove head first into furthering her education and advocacy. She studiedMathematics at Oberlin College where she continued to take the classes designated for men. By 1888, Anna had earned both a BS and a master's degree.
In 1892, Anna published a book entitled, “A Voice From the South by a Black Woman of the South.” It became one of the first core African American feminist texts. In it, Anna argues that educating black women is the single best investment in the wellbeing and prosperity of her community.
Around that time, Anna also joined the Black women's club movement, a coalition of middle class Black women striving to empower other African Americans. Anna became a popular public speaker for the movement. She gave speeches at gatherings like the National Conference of Colored Women in 1895 and the first Pan-African Conference held in London in 1900. She spoke about the oppression of African Americans, and the importance of empowerment through education.
In 1902, Anna became the principal of the high school where she'd been teaching for years. Under her leadership, the school became known for its academic reputation and its focus on college preparation.
The school’s focus drew no shortage of critics. Many people, including prominent Black speaker and community leader Booker T Washington, believed that vocational classes were more important than academic ones.
The DC Board of Education eventually sided with Anna’s opposition and refused to renew her contract for the 1905 school year.
Still, she continued her work in education, teaching at Lincoln University. In 1910, she was hired to teach at her high school Alma mater, St. Augustine’s.. She stayed there until 1930. She also served as president a university for working adults.
While Anna educated others, she also continued her own studies. By age 67, she earned a doctorate degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, making her the fourth African American woman in history to earn a degree of that level. Her dissertation, called Slavery and the French Revolutionists, was written in French.
Anna was a groundbreaking scholar, educator and feminist writer She was also a hardworking mother, who raised two foster children and five adopted children.
Anna passed away in her sleep at the age of 105.
All month we’ll be covering feminists from throughout history. To be clear, we’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. This month’s group is not an exhaustive list by any means, and we’re sticking to a smaller time range than in other months in our regular weekday episodes. On weekends, we’re going to be highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love and modern feminists brought to you by our sponsor this month Fiverr. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter.
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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.
Talk to you tomorrow!