I don't know much about Anna Julia Cooper's life and work, except that she's someone I would love to research. I first heard about her through Melissa Harris-Perry's segment about her, and then when she offered a look at her syllabi for a course she was teaching at Wake Forest through the Anna Julia Cooper Center.
I have a couple of books about her on order through inter-library loan, but have also been reading some of the bios about her life and work available online. She was an amazingly determined and brave woman who never shied away from saying or doing what she felt was right. And this trait was evident from a very early age.
Cooper’s political action began at age nine in St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute, where she protested the preferential treatment given to men as candidates for the ministry and petitioned to take classes traditionally administered only to boys.Much like many other prominent black women of the era, she focused her attentions on raising the next generation of African Americans with high expectations through a thorough education.
Describing her own vocation as "the education of neglected people," Cooper saw education, and specifically higher education, as the means of black women's advancement. She believed "that intellectual development, with the self-reliance and capacity for earning a livelihood which it gives," would supersede any need for dependence on men, allowing women to extend their horizons and have their "sympathies… broadened and deepened and multiplied."And while she understood the importance of women obtaining gainful employment, she did not want them to be limited to the work of maids and teachers. She knew that for any group to take their position as complete citizens they needed a wider range of opportunities.
With her firm resolve in education as tantamount to the progress of people of color, Cooper rejected her white supervisor's mandate to teach her students trades, and instead trained and prepared them for college. Cooper sent her students to prestigious universities and attained accreditation for M Street School from Harvard, but her success was received with hostility rather than celebration from a power structure that was not necessarily interested in the advancement of black youth.It was also during this time that women's societies began to form, linking women from various backgrounds together, giving them the power and support to tackle important social issues. Anna Julia Cooper knew the importance of these affiliations and was on the front line of creating new social opportunities for African American women to work together.
During her time at M Street School, Cooper was also involved in building new spaces for black women outside of the educational sphere. She founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington in 1892, and seven years later helped open the first YWCA chapter for black women, in response to their unwillingness to allow women of color into the organization. She spoke at the Pan African Congress and the Women’s Congress in Chicago, with a speech entitled “The Needs and the Status of Black Women.” It was also in this last decade of the 19th century that Cooper published her landmark text A Voice From the South, in which she dissects the way black women are affected by living at the intersection of oppressions and explains their status and progress as a definitive marker of the status and progress of the nation.The more I learn about her the more I want to know. Rest assured, you will be reading more about her here in the future. In the meantime, I wanted to share this quote. I appreciate her optimism in what must have felt like a chaotic and often depressing time of two-steps forward, one step back of advancement and backlash.
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