Born into slavery on August 10, 1858, Anna Julia Cooper was the daughter of a slave owner and slave, who nonetheless inspired Cooper to excel as a scholar, educator, writer and activist. At the age of ten, Cooper was awarded a scholarship to attend St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute for the Colored. She not only successfully argued for admittance into courses that were typically offered only to male students, Cooper went on to teach at the school as well. Years later, fellow instructor and theology student, George A.C. Cooper, became her husband. They were married for nearly two years when the George Cooper died suddenly. Anna Cooper never remarried.
In 1881, having taken college preparatory classes at St. Augustine’s, Cooper was again awarded a scholarship, this time to Oberlin College in Ohio, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. She returned in 1885 to St. Augustine’s to teach math, Latin and German. In 1887, Cooper taught at M Street High School in Washington, D.C., the only school in the city at that time for black students. During her tenure as principal, she designed a rigorous curriculum to help her students compete successfully with white students. Because of her high teaching standards, Cooper was harshly reprimanded by the school board and was eventually demoted. Once a new school board was elected, however, Cooper was invited back to M Street High School where she remained until the 1930s. The first African American woman to earn a doctorate degree, Cooper received her diploma from the University of Paris in 1924 when she was sixty-six years old. Because Cooper strongly believed that women, particularly black women, deserved access to higher education, she spoke freely on their behalf. As an activist, she advocated for social change through her writings, all the while serving as a foster mother to seven children, teaching high school full-time, and working in a leadership role for social justice. In 1892, a collection of her essays, letters, and speeches were was published as A Voice From The South And Other Important Essays, Papers, and Letters. Copper was 106 years old when she died in 1964. She was buried alongside her husband in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Roxanne Andrews)