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A Child Of Slavery Who Taught A Generation

Anna Julia Cooper was the fourth African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a doctoral degree.
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Anna Julia Cooper was the fourth African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a doctoral degree.

Some great teachers change the life of a student, maybe several. Anna Julia Cooper changed America.

Cooper was one of the first black women in the country to earn a Ph.D. Before that, she headed the first public high school for black students in the District of Columbia — Washington Colored High School. It later became known as the M Street School and was eventually renamed for poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Dunbar was a citadel of learning in segregated Washington, a center for rigorous study and no-holds-barred achievement. Its graduates over the years include:

  • The U.S. military's first black general — Benjamin O. Davis.
  • A medical pioneer who established one of the first, if not the first, large-scale blood banks — Dr. Charles Drew.
  • An artist whose work is part of the permanent collections of some of the world's most prestigious museums — Elizabeth Catlett.
  • A steady stream of superbly qualified students flowed from this school, largely because of the vision of one educator.

    "If it were not for Anna J. Cooper, the school would not have moved in the direction it did," says Stephen Jackson, Dunbar's current principal. He has made it his mission to restore Dunbar to its glory days. Cooper insistently pushed to make sure her students had an academically focused curriculum that would put it on par with the best white private schools.

    She knew it could be done because she had her own life as a powerful example.

    Anna Julia Haywood was born in 1858 in North Carolina to her enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, and the white man who owned them both. She was an avid learner, first at the Episcopal-run private school she attended while at home, and later as a stellar student at Oberlin College in Ohio.

    There, she would earn both her bachelor's and master's degrees, in curricula normally offered to male students.

    Education As The Portal To Progress

    Shortly after graduating, Cooper moved to Washington and began the work she would be known for, at the school that would become Dunbar. She insisted that her students be exposed to classic literature and foreign languages. Math was not just sums, but advanced mathematics. She resisted giving in to the District's all-white, all-male Board of Education, which wanted the school to teach the students vocational skills, feeling those were more practical.

    Cooper's insistence on an academic education for her students was not a diss of vocational work, says journalist Alison Stewart, the author of First Class, a history of Dunbar High.

    "She thought (that was) fine and admirable," Stewart explains, "but not at the expense of helping these Negro and colored students be all that they could be intellectually."

    And it wasn't just the school board that was upset. At the time, Washington, like many other black communities across the country, was riveted (and riven) by the feud between activist W.E.B. Dubois and educator Booker T. Washington.

    Dubois maintained that the "talented tenth" of the race should be the ones who would lead black America to its place alongside — not behind — its white peers. Washington, ever-conscious that slavery had only recently ended, wanted to concentrate on the other 90 percent, who would need jobs to feed and clothe their families. Domestic work and skilled manual labor, he believed, would do that.

    Cooper was friends with both men but knew the time would come when black citizens would be allowed to contribute to the country's growth.

    So she educated her students so well that they could not be denied. And it worked: Less than 50 years after the conclusion of the Civil War, Dunbar students went to schools like Harvard, Mount Holyoke and Brown.

    And they weren't all from elite backgrounds. Cooper was aware, says Stewart, that some students might need more help than others. Students from poor families, who'd grown up with little previous access to education, might need more time for tests or a longer deadline for schoolwork.

    "If she thought a student had a spark," Stewart says, "she would work with them until the spark would ignite."

    Success Creates Scandal

    But being willing to do that came at a terrible personal cost, says Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession. "A scandal was ginned up against her and brought to the local press," Goldstein says, "accusing her of having a sexual affair with her young adult foster son."

    The young man was one of five siblings Cooper began raising when her brother had died suddenly years before. Goldstein says the charges were laughable. Prominent people came forward to testify for Anna Cooper's impeccable morals. Nevertheless, the rumors remained on the front pages of the local papers for months.

    Eventually, Cooper was forced to resign her principal's post. She moved to Paris, enrolled at the Sorbonne, and, at age 66, became the fourth black woman in the U.S. to receive a Ph.D. (Her dissertation, in French, was on attitudes toward slavery after the Haitian rebellion.)

    Eventually Cooper returned to Washington and to Dunbar as a teacher. And in her classroom, rigor reigned. She retired in 1930 and would remain active — and an activist — on matters educational and racial for several more years. She died in 1964 at age 105.

    A Lasting Legacy

    Many of the things that Anna Cooper practiced a century ago were considered radical in her day, but are common now, says Goldstein. Such as eschewing IQ tests, which Goldstein says, were not really predictive of achievement.

    And Cooper was ahead of her time in acknowledging that "children's performance at school is impacted by their home lives." And giving students with special needs extra time to complete tests and papers. And considering how a student's home life may affect performance in school.

    Today she's considered one of the most important figures in American education. Important enough that in 2009, the U.S. Postal Service honored Anna J. Cooper by issuing a stamp with her likeness on it.

    A first-class stamp, of course.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.