Photograph from Anna Julia Cooper Collection, Howard University
African American, Education, Activism
Anna Julia Haywood Cooper
Dr. Anna Julia Cooper championed education for Black women and working adults. Among the most educated women of her day, she wrote one of the first statements of Black feminist thought.
Born in bondage in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Anna Julia Haywood attended St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute in 1868. After marrying educator George Cooper in 1877 and becoming a widow two years later, she went on to earn both a BA (1884) and MA (1886) in mathematics from Oberlin College. In 1887, she taught mathematics, science, and Latin at the famed M Street High School (renamed Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1916) in Washington, DC, and from 1902 to1904, served as the school’s principal. After teaching four years at Lincoln University (Missouri), she returned to teach at M Street High School until 1930.
From its founding in 1893, Cooper engaged with the Hampton Folklore Society (1893-1900), one of the first predominately Black folklore societies in the US. She exerted critical influence on the newly emerging field of Black folklore studies and played an active role in the Society’s intellectual life and organizational activities. She submitted materials and correspondences in support of the Society’s work, addressed the Society members about the significance of African American folklore, and served as corresponding secretary for the Washington Negro Folk-lore Society. She also served as interim editor of the Hampton Institute’s Southern Workman in 1894, overseeing the monthly publication of its Folklore and Ethnology column.
In an 1894 address to the Hampton folklorists, Cooper offered one of the earliest statements on the importance of collecting Black folklore and on the nature and function of Black folklore in relation to African American creative expression, social progress, and racial justice. She sought to detach Black folklore from the racists and evolutionary frameworks of the day and argued for a Black folklore practice that did not measure the value of Black cultural traditions against white Western norms or standards. In this early statement, and through her work with the Hampton Folklore Society, Cooper stands as a foundational figure in the intellectual history and development of Black folklore studies.
In 1925 she earned her doctorate from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, becoming the fourth Black woman in the US to earn a PhD. From 1930 into the 1950s, she served as president and later registrar for Frelinghuysen University in Washington, DC, promoting higher education for Black working adults. She is best known for penning one of the first book-length statements of Black feminist thought in A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (1892).
Among her contributions to folklore are:
“Paper by Mrs. Anna J. Cooper.” Southern Workman 23, no. 7 (July 1894): 132-33.