Born in North Carolina, likely the daughter of her mother's enslaver (the source of her last name Haywood), she was able to attend school as a young girl and later married George Cooper, who died only a couple years into their marriage. She went on to graduate from Oberlin College in 1884; four years later, she earned a master's degree in mathematics. She eventually earned a PhD in French literature, too. Much of her professional career was spent as a teacher at a school in Washington, D.C., soon renamed after Paul Laurence Dunbar. Her career as an educator and as an advocate for the rights and education of black women was a long one; she died at the age of 105 on February 27, 1964.
In her book A Voice from the South, Cooper criticizes the role that black characters play in American literature. Often relegated to caricature or comic relief, black characters are too often presented as villainous or subservient, she writes. Though, as William Dean Howells once noted, all men can "range from angel to devil," her concern is that these villains are meant to represent authentically the race as a whole based on an inaccurate understanding by white writers who do not know better:
Our grievance then is not that we are not painted as angels of light or as goody-goody Sunday-school developments; but we do claim that a man whose acquaintanceship is so slight that he cannot even discern diversities of individuality, has no right or authority to hawk "the only true and authentic" pictures of a race of human beings. Mr. Howells' point of view is precisely that of a white man who sees colored people at long range or only in certain capacities. [A reader] will see colored persons only as boot-blacks and hotel waiters, grinning from ear to ear and bowing and courtesying for the extra tips... He has not seen, and therefore cannot be convinced that there exists a quiet, self-respecting, dignified class of easy life and manners (save only where it crosses the roughness of their white fellow countrymen's barbarity) of cultivated tastes and habits, and with no more in common with the class of his acquaintance than the accident of complexion.
Cooper identifies as a major exception Albion Tourgee, "foremost among the champions of the black man's cause through the medium of fiction." She also notes that Joel Chandler Harris has made himself famous for simply writing down the stories he hears black people tell. In response, Cooper says: "What I hope to see before I die is a black man honestly and appreciatively portraying both the Negro as he is, and the white man, occasionally, as seen from the Negro's standpoint."