For more than a century, Anna Julia Cooper has been an educator, scholar, activist, multilingual, Pan-Africanist and black feminist.
In the country’s capital, where she spent a significant part of her professional travel, Cooper also provided a means by which poor and working-class adults could receive formal education.
“When we think about education and look back on what Anna Julia Cooper has done, we are forced to think more deeply about what constitutes black education,” said Marya McQuirter, a Washington native who named Cooper in the first official African-American Heritage Trail Guide presented to the city in 2003.
In McQuirter’s dissertation on the social history of DC 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, professional, and religious instruction to poor adults and workers since 50 years.
Since its inception in 1906, Frelinghuysen has offered a variety of courses at the high school and junior college level, including accounting, writing, business mathematics, and elementary banking. Between 1930 and 1941, with Cooper at its helm, the institution averted financial ruin when it moved home from 601 M Street NW in Cooper’s LeDroit Park.
The Washington Board of Education’s racist policies often hampered Cooper’s attempts to keep the university afloat and help it gain accreditation. In her 70s, she even applied to the Public Works Administration Education Department.
When Frelinghuysen closed in the 1950s it was known as the Frelinghuysen Group of Schools for Colored Workers, of which Cooper was the 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 Frelinghuysen University organizers are committed to providing truly affordable education to workers and poor adults who have had no other formal education options in the city.”
When she died in 1964 at the age of 105, Cooper was lauded on the campus of what was then St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she began her academic career.
In the following decades, Louise Daniel Hutchinson, Brittney Cooper and Treva Lindsey would document Cooper’s contributions to the education sector, among others.
At the age of nine, Cooper studied at what was then St. Augustine Normal School and the Collegiate Institute, often battling his way into the language and liberal arts courses reserved for her male counterparts. After proving academic ability, 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. both would get their Masters degrees.
In the early 1890s she moved to the district where she worked as a teacher and principal at M Street School, one of the first high schools in the country for African American people. There she advocated classical education based on the philosophy of WEB Dubois. She also wrote her first book, “A Voice from the South: From a Black Woman from the South.”
In 1900, Cooper gave a speech on racial problems in the United States at the first pan-African conference in London
Decades later, as a doctoral candidate at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, she studied in detail France’s attitude towards slavery. Her research culminated in a dissertation on the French Revolution in the context of slavery in Haiti at the age of 66.
However, Cooper’s professional life was not without interruptions.
She began her PhD at Columbia University in 1914 before the death of her late brother’s wife forced her to stop this trip and return to North Carolina to take care of their five children. A similar situation occurred earlier in her career when she was returned to St. Augustine as a teacher.
For Kathy English Holt, a Washington native who learned about Cooper 15 years ago while studying under her contemporary nannie Helen Burroughs, Cooper is a role model for women of her generation and younger who have often struggled to balance their home and career commitments bring to.
“Anna Julia Cooper has had to interrupt her education and career more than once,” said Holt, a naturopath.
“She had a strong sense of family. She had the price in mind. When she was nine years old, she was called to teach [so] She stayed on course. She pressed against the forces and opened this door again and again. By putting her foot in the door, she pushed it open for someone else, ”said Holt.