A Passionate, if little Known Voice, Taught Big Lessons

Black and white photograph of a young, handsome Anna Julia Cooper wearing a white high collar blouse with a dark jacket and long skirt, seated in a straight backed chair with a book in her lap,. The background appears to be a map of a pennisula and large body of water

Anna Julia Cooper was born before the Civil war, a slave. After emancipation, she fought tirelessly for an education for herself and others. She was the fourth African-American woman in the US to hold a doctorate and even today remains the only woman, the only woman of color, to be quoted on the US passport. A bright light for racial progress. “The Mother of Black Feminism.” A woman our history books have largely ignored.

Born a Slave

Anna Julia Cooper was the youngest of three children born to Hanna Stanley Haywood on August 10, 1858 (some sources say 1859) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her father was George Washington Haywood (1802-1890) who enslaved her mother, or his brother Dr. Fabius Haywood. Which makes Anna, the granddaughter of North Carolina’s longest-serving state Treasurer, John Haywood. Hannah never clarified Anna’s paternity. George became state attorney for Wake County, North Carolina, and co-owned a plantation in Greene County, Alabama.

Early Education

Anna worked as a domestic servant in the Haywood home until she was eight, when the Civil War ended. The following year, she received a scholarship and began her education at the newly opened Saint Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh.

She worked as a tutor for younger children, which helped her pay for her education and expenses. For fourteen years, Anna excelled in liberal arts, mathematics, and science. Anna fought to be allowed to continue her schooling 

Fight For Further Education

Founded by the local Episcopal dioceses, the Institute’s mission was to train teachers to educate the formerly enslaved and their families. It offered education from primary to high school, including trade-skill training. 

The curriculum at the Institute for young men differed significantly from that of the curriculum for young women. The school’s emphasis was on training young men for the ministry and preparing them for additional training at four-year universities. Young men could take mathematics and sciences and foreign languages. 

The school offered a special higher education track called “Ladies’ Course” for young women, but actively discouraged all women, regardless of their academic achievements, from pursuing higher-level education. Anna couldn’t accept that.

A boy…had only to declare a floating intention to study theology and he could get all the support, encouragement and stimulus he needed…While a self-supporting girl had to struggle on by teaching in the summer and working after school hours to keep up with her board bills, and actually to fight her way against positive discouragement to the higher education.”

Anna Julia Cooper

She organized and held one of the earliest protests at the institute.  demanded admission to the “reserved for male students” courses in Greek and Latin. She won that fight. She completed her studies at Saint Augustine’s in 1877.


That same year, nineteen-year-old Anna married George Cooper, a Greek teacher and technology student at Saint Augustine. George became an Episcopal priest.

Sadly, he died two years later.

After her husband’s death, Anna wanted to continue her education and applied to Oberlin College in Ohio 

Move to Ohio

Anna gained admission to Oberlin College and moved to Ohio in 1881. Attracted to Oberlin by its reputation for music, she enrolled as a sophomore, thanks to her academic qualifications.

There, she had to fight for the right to attend “gentlemen’s” courses. She often took four classes rather than the prescribed three. Her scheduled meant she couldn’t take as many piano classes as she wished.

She earned a BA in mathematics in 1844 and then an M.A. for college teaching in 1887. She was one of the first two black women (with Mary Church Terrell) who received a master’s degree.


Wilberforce University hired her while she finished her schooling. She taught classics, modern history, higher English, and vocal and instrumental music. 

In 1887, she became a faculty member of the prestigious Washington Colored High School (a preparatory high school for black youth established in 1870) and moved back to Washington, DC. She taught mathematics, science, and Latin.

She published an essay in 1890 which argued the benefits of educating Black women in classical literature. (This preceded W. E. B. Du Bois’s similar arguments in Souls of Black Folk,1903.)

The school’s name changed to M Street High School by 1891. 

If her students showed a preference for vocational education, that was fine with Anna. But if they showed an interest in learning, she would give them extra attention. She figured a student’s home life negatively affected their performance at school. Students who were poor and those with little previous exposure to education needed more help than others. She made certain those students had longer deadlines for homework or more time for test taking. 


Shortly after that, Anna joined in the weekly “Saturday Nighters” salon, an important hub of creativity and community for African American women writers.

Anna’s best-known book published in 1892 was A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South,. One of the first books on black feminism, it argues that black women’s “educational, moral, and spiritual progress would improve the general standing of the African-American community.”

Community Service

Anna, along with a group of prominent black women in DC, met and created a service-oriented club that same year. The club, the Colored Women’s League, promoted unity, social progress, and the best interests of the African-American community.

One of only five other African-American woman invited to speak, Anna gave the opening address at the week-long convention for voicing women’s concerns, the World’s Congress of Representative Women held in Chicago in 1893.

She made her first trip to Europe in 1900 to deliver a paper, “The Negro Problem in America,” at the First Pan-African Conference in London.

In 1902, she helped organize the Colored Social Settlement, the first community house built for the social improvement of people of color. 


Also in 1902, M Street High School advanced Anna to the role of principal. Only the second Black woman to be principal, she did not give in to the wishes of the district’s all white, all-male Board of Education. They wanted the school to teach “practical” vocational skills. Instead, she led a rigorous classical and liberal arts program intended to send Black students to elite colleges and universities. 

This brought her into confrontations with local, regional, and national politics during a time the nation obsessed over the debate between her famous friends, activist W.E.B. Dubois and educator Booker T. Washington. 

She believed, as did W.E.B. Dubois, there would come a time when black citizens would be allowed to contribute to the country. So she educated her students so well they could not be denied. 

In 1906, the Board of Education declined to reappoint her as principal. 

Moving On

Anna accepted a teaching position at the Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri. She taught there for four years.

In 1910, M Street High School (renamed Dunbar High School in 1916) rehired her as a teacher and she moved back to DC.

Education Interrupted

She began studying part time for her doctoral degree in 1911.

In 1914, at 56, while maintaining her full-time teaching job, she began her studies at Columbia University. One of her older brothers died in 1915. Anna interrupted her studies and adopted his five children when their mother also died.

Color photo of a two story queen anne house with an concrete block retaining wall holding the elevated lawn above the sidewalk.

She bought her home in the LeDroit neighborhood of Washington, DC, in 1916. 

Anna finished her dissertation, a scholarly translation of Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne in 1917. But she couldn’t complete Columbia University’s residency requirements because of her commitments in Washington DC. (Presumably her employment in order to feed and house her adopted children.)

A Long Road to a Doctorate

Eventually, Anna transferred her credits to the University of Paris-Sorbonne in Paris, France. Sorbonne would not accept the paper she wrote for Columbia, so, still teaching full time in DC, she started over. 

She completed her classwork in 1924 and finished her dissertation “The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery Between 1789 and 1848” in French in 1925. She defended her and won her dissertation in Paris on March 23, 1925, and returned home a month later. Sorbonne shipped her diploma to the US. She received it at a ceremony held at Howard University on December 29, 1925. Only the fourth black woman in the U.S. to receive her Ph.D. Anna was 67.

She continued teaching at Dunbar High School until her age-mandated retirement in 1930. 

Frelinghuysen University

Frelinghuysen University, founded in 1906, provided classes for DC residents lacking access to higher education. Elected to the presidency of Frelinghuysen University in 1929, Anna assumed the role in 1930. 

As president, she advocated for underprivileged students. Once again, she encountered obstacles. The DC Board of Education refused to give the school the authority to grant any bachelor’s degree. Anna asked the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to help fight the Board, but the NAACP declined her appeal. 

When the University had difficulty funding the school, she hosted classes in her LeDroit home.

She stepped down from the presidency in 1941 and became the school’s registrar. 

She worked for Frelinghuysen for twenty years before she retired.

After retirement

It is not the intelligent woman v. the ignorant woman; nor the white woman v. the black, the brown, and the red, it is not even the cause of woman v. man. Nay, tis womans strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear her voice.”

Anna Julia Cooper. A Voice from the South, part 1 (1892).

Anna wrote and edited at least 28 articles that appeared in local newspapers and privately printed a two-volume collection of articles by and about Charlotte Forten Grimké, an educator and activist.


Anna Julia Cooper died at her LeDroit Park home, in her sleep on February 27, 1964. 

They held her memorial in a chapel on the Saint Augustine’s College campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anna’s body is buried in Raleigh, at the City Cemetery alongside her husband.


The cause of freedom is not the case of a race or a sect or a party or a class – it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”

Anna Julia Cooper as quoted on the US passport

Over the course of her life, Anna Julia Cooper exchanged more than two dozen letters with W. E. B. Du Bois. She also wrote many unpublished poems, plays, and journalistic pieces. 

Anna’s former home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It is privately owned.

In 2009, the U.S. Postal Service issued a first class stamp with Anna J. Cooper’s image on it.

The Anna Julia Cooper School is a middle school in Richmond, Virginia. It opened in August 2009 with a Head of School, two lead teachers, and twenty-five students. According to their website, today they have 185 students.  

Final Thoughts

Born enslaved, turned intellectual, scholar, teacher, feminist, writer, and advocate, Anna Julia Cooper was ahead of her time. She was an outspoken critic of systems of oppression and domination and a lifelong unrelenting passion for education for herself and others like her.

Had you heard of Anna Julia Cooper before? What struck you the most about her story?

ETA: Forgive me, I forgot to put the passport quote into this text. It has been added now. -LMB


Stanford University 

Wilberforce University

Oberlin College

U.S. Studies Online

Howard University

Oprah Daily

National Museum of African American History & Culture


Smithsonian Libraries


Image Credits

Top photo: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Second photo: AgnosticPreachersKid at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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