Throughout her more than a century of life, Anna Julia Cooper served as an educator, scholar, activist, multi-linguist, Pan-Africanist and Black feminist.
In the nation’s capital, where she spent a significant portion of her professional journey, Cooper also provided a means by which poor and working-class adults could attain a formal education.
“When we think about education and look back on what Anna Julia Cooper did, we are forced to think more broadly about what constitutes Black education,” said Marya McQuirter, a Washingtonian who featured Cooper in the city’s first official African-American Heritage Trail Guide in 2003.
In McQuirter’s dissertation about D.C.’s social history in the first half of the 20th century, she highlighted Cooper’s role in developing and running Frelinghuysen University, a District-based collection of night schools that provided academic, vocational and religious education to poor and working-class adults for 50 years.
Since its founding in 1906, Frelinghuysen offered a variety of high school and junior college-level courses, including bookkeeping, typing, business mathematics, and elementary banking procedures. Between 1930 and 1941, with Cooper at the helm, the institution averted financial ruin when it moved from 601 M Street NW to Cooper’s LeDroit Park home.
Racist policies by the Washington Board of Education often complicated Cooper’s attempts to keep the university afloat and help it gain accreditation. In her 70s, she even went as far as applying to work at the Education Division of the Public Works Administration.
By the time Frelinghuysen closed in the 1950s, it was known as the Frelinghuysen Group of Schools for Colored Working People with Cooper serving as its registrar.
“It’s fair to say that Anna Julia Cooper was a member of the educational elite,” McQuirter told The Informer.
“At the same time, she and other organizers of Frelinghuysen University were committed to offering truly affordable education to working-class and poor adults who didn’t have other options for formal education in the city.”
When she died in 1964 at the age of 105, Cooper was eulogized on the campus of then-named St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina where she began her academic career.
In the decades following, Louise Daniel Hutchinson, Brittney Cooper, and Treva Lindsey, among others, would document Cooper’s contributions to the field of education.
At the age of nine, Cooper studied at what was then called the St. Augustine Normal School and Collegiate Institute, often fighting her way into the language and liberal arts courses reserved for her male colleagues. After showing academic prowess, she served as a tutor and eventually an instructor at the university, teaching English, science, math and foreign languages.
After her husband’s death, Cooper continued her education at Oberlin College, where she met Mary Church Terrell; they would both go on to acquire their master’s degrees.
By the early 1890s, she moved to the District, where she served as a teacher and principal at the M Street School, one of the nation’s first high schools for African Americans. That’s where she, in following the philosophy of W.E.B. Dubois, advocated for classical education. She also wrote her first book, “A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South.”
In 1900, at the first Pan-African Conference in London, Cooper delivered a speech about race issues in the U.S.
Decades later, as a doctoral student at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, she extensively studied France’s attitude toward slavery. Her research culminated in a dissertation, at the age of 66, about the French Revolution in the context of chattel slavery in Haiti.
However, Cooper’s professional life wasn’t without interruptions.
She started her doctoral courses at Columbia University in 1914 before the death of her late brother’s wife compelled her to pause that journey and return to North Carolina and take care of their five children. A similar situation occurred earlier in her career, during which she had to return to St. Augustine’s as a teacher.
For Kathy English Holt, a native Washingtonian who learned about Cooper 15 years ago while studying her contemporary Nannie Helen Burroughs, Cooper serves as an example to women of her generation and younger who have often struggled to balance their obligations to home and career.
“Anna Julia Cooper had to interrupt her education and career more than once,” said Holt, a healing practitioner.
“She had a keen sense of family. She had her eye on the prize. She was called to be a teacher at nine years old [so] she stayed the course. She pushed against the powers that be and kept cracking open that door. By putting her foot in the door, she pushed it open for someone else,” Holt said.