August 10, 2012

Birth of Cooper and the birthright of humanity

She was born on August 10, 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina and named Anna Julia Haywood; the last name came from George Washington Haywood, who owned hundreds of enslaved people, and may have been Anna Julia's father. After Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, she went to school and shocked her teachers by her interest in math and science (subjects most often reserved for men at the time).

In fact, young Anna was a brilliant student and, by age 8, was already a teacher's assistant. She went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Oberlin College in 1884, a master's degree four years later and, eventually, two PhDs (in French and Philosophy). She taught at various schools, including Wilberforce University and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, DC. She was appointed principle for a time, until her disagreement with the local school board resulted in her demotion. She later became the president of a university which offered night courses specifically for working African Americans.

Throughout it all, Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (as she was known after her marriage) was an outspoken advocate in particular for black women to seek higher education. Her most famous book, A Voice from the South, criticized the role that African American characters played in literature. However, in her 105 years, she wrote several other books and essays, and offered several public speeches.

In her later life, she reflected, for example, on the importance of her home, which she built "like the proverbial beaver." She noted it must be "not merely a house to shelter the body, but a home to sustain and refresh the mind, a home where friends foregather for interchange of ideas and agreeable association of sympathetic spirits." Cooper's words are today published on American passports in the form of a quote: "The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class — it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity."

*I am indebted to the encyclopedic African-American Writers (part of the "A to Z of African Americans" series), compiled by Philip Bader and revised and republished in 2010.

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