Anna Julia Cooper was an American educator, scholar, and activist. She was born in 1858 to an enslaved woman in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her father is thought to be her mother’s white master. After the Civil War, in 1867, Anna at age nine was able to attend the Saint Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute, a coeducational school for former slaves. She began teaching mathematics part-time at the young age of ten. Anna received a high school diploma and continued teaching until she married George A.G. Cooper, a fellow teacher. She was no longer allowed to teach as per the custom of the times. Her husband died two years later, and Anna decided to pursue a college education.
In 1884 she received a bachelor’s degree and in 1887 a master’s in mathematics, both from Oberlin College in Ohio. Anna returned to Raleigh to teach but was then invited to teach math and science in Washington, D.C. at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (later known as M street and today as Dunbar High School). At that time, she became involved in the black women’s club movement, which consisted of educated middle class women who believed it was their duty to help less fortunate African Americans. Anna became a public speaker to promote these rights.
She became a principal of M Street High School and during those years completed her first book, Voice of the South by a Black Woman of the South, which was published in 1892. The theme was to build a vision of self-determination through education and that the educational, moral, and spiritual progress of Black women would improve the general standing of the African American community. Anna spoke of this at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the National Conference of Colored Women in 1895, and the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900.
Unfortunately, Anna’s college prep curriculum ran afoul of the school board’s thinking including Booker T. Washington who favored vocational education for blacks. She left the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1906 to teach at Lincoln University, a black college in Missouri. However, she returned as a teacher to M Street, renamed Dunbar High School in 1916, where she taught until 1930. She also taught at Frelinghuysen University, an adult education school for working African Americans and served as president from 1930 to 1940.
Anna attempted to work toward a doctoral degree in 1911 at Columbia University, but had to take time off to care for her brother’s five grandchildren. In 1925, at the age of 67, Anna received a Doctorate in Philosophy from the Sorbonne.
On February 27, 1964, Anni died in Washington, D. C. at the age of 105. She was an advocate for African Americans from slavery up through the civil rights movement.
Anna is the only woman quoted on the current U.S. Passport. The quote is, “[t]he 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.”