Black Liberation through the Voice of Anna Julia Cooper

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Since the days of slavery, people of African descent had been fighting for liberation. Enslaved people rebelled through riots, by attempting to run away, and by killing themselves and their families – specifically their children. During the Civil War, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which essentially freed all enslaved people from the Confederate states, but African Americans wanted more. They wanted citizenship and equal opportunities. Even after the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the United States Constitution in 1868, which officially gave freedom and citizenship to all people in the United States including those whom were enslaved, the social system continued to withhold African Americans from being able to enjoy this governed sense of freedom. Thus, the question became: How could the black community achieve liberation and citizenship?

Many black leaders emerged over the span of years. Ideas circulated, postulating the “correct” path toward blacks gaining citizenship in the United States. Predominantly, we learn and hear about African American and Black men’s theories in relation to the methods fashioned in order to assist the black community inevitably achieve the goal of citizenship and liberation. Yet, there must be an awareness to the fact that, African American women were not silent in this plight. One woman in particular, is Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, an “educator, author, activist and…scholar”[1]. Dr. Cooper was born into slavery around the year of 1858, in Raleigh, North Carolina[2]. Having been born a slave, it can be assumed that Dr. Cooper’s model for black liberation stems for her own personal experience.

For many former slaves, education was essential in having a sense of freedom. During slavery, it was illegal for enslaved African Americans to be taught to read and write. From slave narratives, we learn about the struggles enslaved African Americans faced just to gain access to resources to help them learn how to read and write. In Frederick Douglass’s narrative we learn about the husband of Mrs. Auld and how he scolds her for attempting to teach Douglass how to read. In the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, we learn of his struggles with understanding the “talking book,” which he comes to realize is an advantage whites have with being able to read. With the notion that education seems to be a key element in the freedom for these once enslaved African Americans, Dr. Cooper’s “belief in the power of education as a vehicle to social, economic, and political freedom”[3], comes with no surprise.

As an advocator for education as a path toward freedom and liberation for black people, Dr. Cooper sought to promote higher education. In doing so, she uses her writing as a means to “incite in her readers a desire for social change and personal transformation”[4]. While analyzing the significance of her writing as a key to communicating with the black community, one cannot neglect her overall impact on the innovation she introduced into society; “she envisioned and brought into being a system we know as community college”[5]. This pioneering innovation gives blacks an opportunity to advance in the educational world. As a former slave, and then later an educator, Dr. Cooper wanted to improve the educational system and availability of opportunities for blacks. Relating back to the significance of her writing, “[Dr. Cooper] championed opportunities for black students, believing that, especially in education, they must settle for no less than higher education in the liberal arts”[6]. While she advocated higher education for both men and women, Dr. Cooper especially emphasized education for women. Through her strict detail and attention to the issues pertaining to black women’s path toward liberation and citizenship, she can be categorized as a feminist. In her own literary work, A Voice from the South, Dr. Cooper addresses both the problem America has with race and the negative perception of women.

According to Dr. Cooper, there is no denying that America has a race problem. In fact, in her book she dedicates a section to addressing and theorizing possible solutions for this problem. In an attempt to state and solve the race problem within America, Dr. Cooper writes:

We would not deprecate the fact, then, that America has a Race Problem. It is guaranty of the perpetuity and progress of her institutions, and insures the breadth of her culture and the symmetry of her development. More than all, let us not disparage the factor which the Negro is appointed to contribute to that problem. America needs the Negro for ballast if for nothing else.[7]

Essentially, Dr. Cooper is critiquing the Anglo-Saxon race. She is basically saying that blacks were a chosen target race. We can gather this from the hand-picking selection of slavery and the African continent as a source for slaves. Her last remark stands out in a sense that whites need blacks to create a balance of color, but that’s about it. Throughout this section, Dr. Cooper alludes to literary works and biblical references, alluding to the notion that acquiring some form of education is beneficial.  In terms of women, Dr. Cooper does not neglect the fact that throughout history women have played contributing roles in the making of nations and societies. In a different section than the one concerning the race problem, Dr. Cooper calls women to action. She believes that for too long have women been silenced, when for centuries they have been the back bone to the creation of the world we have currently: “in the era now about to dawn, her sentiments must strike the keynote and give the dominant tone. And this because of the nature of her contribution to the world”[8].

What does higher education have to do with the race problem in America and the advancement of women in society and why was her writing important in her activism? In addressing Dr. Cooper’s view of the importance of higher education, it is important to know that she became the “fourth African American female to receive her PhD degree”[9], but even with this, she still faced many roadblocks. With the understanding that she had obtained higher education, it can be assumed that she was well educated in the field of education; however, being that she was a black women attempting to pave a way for African Americans to be unified with American society, she struggled to fit in with her fellow African American male counterparts who were also arguing the importance of an education. As aforementioned, “African American leaders publicly expressed and implemented widely divergent views about the problems of education for former slaves”[10].  While Dr. Cooper “may have discovered the only practical solutions for the long-term needs of African Americans”[11], her three male counterparts, “beyond doubt, they ignored her views”[12]. However, while her male colleagues rejected her views, she “became a memorable representative of a distinguished group of black women writers, activists, and educators”[13].

The three African American male colleagues which whom is being discussed are Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Charles W. Chestnutt. Booker T. Washington basically believed in the improving economic positions for African Americans. Former slaves were accustomed to manual labor and were good at it. With this knowledge, he felt as though training African Americans in trade work, although it delayed many of the rights that African Americans were arguing for, benefitted African Americans in the long run in terms of achieving citizenship. On the other hand, there was W.E.B. DuBois, who shared similar values as Anna Julia Coopers. He believed in higher education and essentially the “talented tenth,” which expressed a higher learning to African Americans in a breakdown of learning. Charles W. Chestnutt, was neither for vocational education nor higher education. Instead, he believed that African Americans held the power in possessing the suffrage. In having this as a possession, he thought that doors would open, including doors to institutions and, eventually, higher education. Yet, while these African American males crafted ideas in the area of education, it is Dr. Cooper who seemed to have the only resolution for these dilemmas[14], which is why in her own writing she critiques the value black men have on women:

It seems hardly a gracious thing to say, but it strikes me as true, that while our men seem thoroughly abreast of the times on almost every other subject, when they strike the woman question they drop back into sixteenth century logic. They leave nothing to be desired generally in regard to gallantry and chivalry, but they actually do not seem sometimes to have outgrown that old contemporary of chivalry–the idea that women may stand on pedestals or live in doll houses, (if they happen to have them) but they must not furrow their brows with thought or attempt to help men tug at the great questions of the world. I fear the majority of colored men do not yet think it worth while that women aspire to higher education.[15]

The rejection from African American male leaders towards the higher learning of African American women, explains Dr. Cooper’s desire to promote higher education for women. This does not mean that Dr. Cooper excluded the advancement of higher education of African American males; in fact, she advocated for the progression of higher education of all African Americans because “opportunities for African Americans to receive a college education prior to the Civil War were virtually nonexistent”[16].  Through her own personal experiences, Dr. Cooper went on to promote her beliefs in serving as a “professor, high school teacher, school principal, community volunteer, and college president”[17].  Dr. Cooper fundamentally believed that all people deserved to have equal access to resources and opportunities in order to reach their fullest potential. In her belief, she used the “Black experience as a yardstick” and understood that unless everyone, including the black race, was given the opportunity to advance in society, America’s promise of liberation could not be fulfilled.[18]  Cooper contributes to the element of social theory through her writing.

While working as an educator, Dr. Cooper also wrote. Her novel, A Voice from the South, is compilation of essays that contribute to the awareness of injustice. The novel, is primarily a feminist text, advocating for the higher learning of women, as well as promoting the idea of leadership roles alongside men. At the same time, the text speaks to the black race and what can be done in the educational world to advance citizenship. Dr. Cooper realized, however, that the economic survival was dependent upon the labor of black women, making educational learning imperative. She emphasizes this point when she states:

Our meager and superficial results from past efforts prove their futility; and every attempt to elevate the Negro, whether undertaken by himself or through the philanthropy of others, cannot but prove abortive unless so directed as to utilize the indispensable agency of an elevated and trained womanhood.[19]

At the same time, Dr. Cooper was aware of how society operated in terms of opportunities for work. Race and gender mattered in the working world, and for blacks, knowing a trade was chiefly a necessity:

Education is the word that covers it all–the working up of this raw material and fitting it into the world’s work to supply the world’s need–the manufacture of men and women for the markets of the world. But there is no other labor which so creates value. The value of the well developed man has been enhanced far more by the labor bestowed than is the iron in the watch springs.[20]

Having experienced some of her life as a slave, and acknowledging her mother as an enslaved woman, Dr. Cooper is aware of the labor that is associated with being a person of color. Slavery meant manual labor for the black person, and coming out of that, manual labor was still a practice that white society tried to promote for the black community. Although Dr. Cooper wanted more for the black community, she was also realistic in her beliefs.

Throughout the course of her life, Dr. Cooper experienced many roadblocks in her goal toward black liberation. While she faced the adversity of being not only black, but also a woman,

Invariably, Cooper remained optimistic that Americans would recognize the contradiction in what they promote and what they actually practice. For her, struggle meant using education as a conduit for securing citizenship rights for African Americans. Thus, her social theories both inform and were informed by her role as an educator.[21]

She faced the rejection of her three male colleagues, as well as the rejection of white society. While her writings explained her social theories for African Americans and women, she also practiced her beliefs. As an educator, she tried to instill in her students a motivation for achieving a higher education”[22]. A project she got involved with that was “an adult-education university for employed colored persons” was Freylinghuysen. According to Dr. Cooper, the Freylinghuysen concept was “an innovation of American education”[23]. However, Dr. Cooper’s investment with this program truly acts as a demonstrator of evidence for her desire to advocate for both African American men and women through higher education.

Previously, Dr. Cooper’s envision of a system we know today as community college was mentioned. The Freylinghuysen University did not discriminate against sex nor race. Dr. Cooper acted as a president of this university, which was dedicated to the working class of people, playing a vital role in its advancement. For Dr. Cooper, “beyond doubt, this endeavor…presage the community college and state college systems of a later day, in which many black and white students work as they learn”[24]. Her strong mind and determination enabled a catalyst for all people who wanted to continue their education through the system of community college. She manifested a way for black men and women, and impoverished people, to have equal access to a higher education, which thus forced society to “see” them. In other words, she found a way to provide blacks and women with a way to achieve citizenship.

The life of Anna Julia Cooper was hectic. She was born a slave, but overcame slavery to earn her PhD degree. At the same time, while trying to earn her degree, she faced several roadblocks and was forced to finish overseas. Although Dr. Cooper’s experience as an enslaved woman catapulted her desire to achieve a higher education, she also grew a yearning to promote higher education as a key benefactor for African Americans becoming citizens. In terms of being a feminist, her feminist beliefs most likely stem from the hindrance she encountered from both white society and black men. Her black male counterparts, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Charles W. Chestnutt, all believed in some form of education as a crucial element in black liberation and citizenship; however they publicly rejected the beliefs and theories of Anna Julia Cooper. While it seemed as though the odds were stacked against her, Dr. Cooper prevailed. She was an educator and proved to be a vital leader in the institutions in which she worked. She used her writing to further emphasize her social theories and get her voice out to the public world about the hypocritical ways of society. Nevertheless, Anna Julia Cooper was an activist who should not be discredited for her efforts and accomplishments. She ultimately believed in higher education for African Americans to achieve citizenship, as well as for women to hold a place of leadership in society. Anna Julia Cooper was an African American trailblazer and pioneer in the world education for all people.

[1] Brian Zollinhofer. “About Anna Julia Cooper.” Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. http://annajuliacooperepiscopalschool.org/aboutajc

[2] Vivian M. May. “Writing the Self into Being: Anna Julia Cooper’s Textual Politics.” African American Review 43, no. 1 (2009): 17-34. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27802556.

[3] Karen A Johnson. 2009. “Gender and Race: Exploring Anna Julia Cooper’s Thoughts for Socially Just Educational Opportunities.” Philosophia Africana 12, no. 1: 67-82. Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost

[4] Vivian M. May. “Writing the Self into Being: Anna Julia Cooper’s Textual Politics.” African American Review 43, no. 1 (2009): 17-34. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27802556.

[5] Frances Richardson Keller. “An Educational Controversy: Anna Julia Cooper’s Vision of Resolution.” NWSA Journal 11, no. 3, Appalachia and the South: Place, Gender, Pedagogy (1999): 49-67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4316681

[6] Ibid

[7] Anna Julia Cooper. “A Voice from the South.” Documenting the American South. 1892. http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cooper/cooper.html

[8] Ibid

[9] THANDI V SULÉ. 2013. “Intellectual Activism: The Praxis of Dr. Anna Julia Cooper as a Blueprint for Equity-Based Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 23, no. 3: 211-229. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost

[10] Frances Richardson Keller. “An Educational Controversy: Anna Julia Cooper’s Vision of Resolution.” NWSA Journal 11, no. 3, Appalachia and the South: Place, Gender, Pedagogy (1999): 49-67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4316681

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Anna Julia Cooper. “A Voice from the South.” Documenting the American South. 1892. http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cooper/cooper.html

[16] THANDI V SULÉ. 2013. “Intellectual Activism: The Praxis of Dr. Anna Julia Cooper as a Blueprint for Equity-Based Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 23, no. 3: 211-229. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Anna Julia Cooper. “A Voice from the South.” Documenting the American South. 1892. http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cooper/cooper.html

[20] Ibid

[21] THANDI V SULÉ. 2013. “Intellectual Activism: The Praxis of Dr. Anna Julia Cooper as a Blueprint for Equity-Based Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 23, no. 3: 211-229. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost

[22] Frances Richardson Keller. “An Educational Controversy: Anna Julia Cooper’s Vision of Resolution.” NWSA Journal 11, no. 3, Appalachia and the South: Place, Gender, Pedagogy (1999): 49-67.

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

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