Anna Julia Haywood Cooper used every minute of her life to make the world a better place, which is probably why the universe granted her a remarkable 105 years here. Her incredible story began in the least likely of places, as the daughter of an enslaved woman and her master in antebellum Raleigh, North Carolina.
This was the year 1859 and the nation was just on the cusp of the Civil War. It was in the midst of these tensions that a great champion of individual liberty was born. Haywood showed academic promise from an early age and was thus granted a scholarship to attend the St. Augustine Normal School and Collegiate Institute at just nine years old. This would begin Haywood’s intimate relationship with both formal education and the Episcopal Church that sponsored the Institute. Both relationships would literally persist for a century.
Haywood attended the Institute for fourteen years, excelling in all subjects and even lobbying successfully for the right to take courses typically reserved for men. This was among the first of many courageous acts Haywood would take on behalf of women. She proved more than equal to the opportunity. Haywood performed so admirably in her education that she eventually served as a tutor to many of the African American school’s younger student. She also married a fellow student, George A.C. Cooper in 1877. Sadly, he passed on just two years later.
Paving the Way
Widowed at just twenty-one years of age, Anna immersed herself in education, graduating from the Institution and becoming a member of its faculty. She also had a brief tenure instructing at the prominent HBCU Wilberforce College before going to Oberlin College and pursuing a Masters in Mathematics. On her path to the degree, Anna once again pushed her way into courses traditionally available only to men.
Of course, Cooper’s struggle was not merely to be recognized as a female scholar in a man’s world but as a black scholar in a white world. She was therefore instrumental in the founding of numerous organizations and institutions aimed at improving educational opportunities for people of color and, in particular, women of color. Her efforts included helping to found the Colored Women’s League and establishing the first Colored Settlement House in Washington, D.C.
After the turn of the century, she also served as the president of Washington D.C.’s M Street High School, the only African American high school in the nation’s capital. During her tenure there, Cooper was an outspoken critic of the lower standards that afflicted her school. It might even be suggested that this disposition resulted in her denied reappointment in 1906.
By this time though, Cooper had become a renowned figure in the early movements for both black liberation and women’s suffrage. She wrote and spoke extensively on the plight and prospects for women of color in America. She also continued to serve the cause by example, earning her doctorate from the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1925, thus becoming only the fourth PhD-holding African American woman in the world.
Returning to the D.C. area, Cooper was named the second president of Frelinghuysen University, an institution formed in 1917 to provide academic, vocational, and religious education for African American working-class adults. Frelinghuysen was a unique institution, holding many of its classes in private homes and businesses, Cooper’s among them. Frelinghuysen became an accredited degree-granting institution in 1927 but could only hold this distinction for a decade. Following the loss of its accreditation, Cooper transformed the school into the Frelinghuysen Group of Schools for Colored Working People and pressed tirelessly to advance the professional prospects of black Americans. Her tenure lasted from 1930–1942.
Century of Civil Rights
Frelinghuysen would be defunct by the late fifties but Cooper’s influence loomed enormous for the generation of young black students who would lead the charge against segregation. Incredibly, Cooper, who was born a slave, passed away in February of 1964, just months ahead of the historic legislation that would finally, at long last, give equal rights to all Americans regardless of race.
At 105, Cooper had outlived her husband and Frelinghuysen College, but she also outlived slavery and Jim Crow. And she herself would be central in seeing to their demise.
Learn more about the lesser-known heroes and legends
behind many of our most-loved educational institutions!