On this day in 1858, Anna Julia Cooper entered the world in North Carolina. Few people transform a country for the better, let alone when they have the cards stacked against them the way she did as a Black woman and former slave in the mid-1800s Southern United States.
But that’s what Cooper did.
Her life had the arc of an epic novel. Try to wrap your mind around it.
Cooper was born a slave, three years before the Civil War was declared. Her father was the man who owned her mother. She suffered no nonsense even as a child, which led her to push (as a 9-year-old kid) for her school to let her take classes that had previously only been taught to boys. She got a master’s degree in mathematics before her 30th birthday, something that she probably would have done a lot sooner if she hadn’t been born a slave.
By the age of 34, she had published a book that became a cornerstone of educational and civil rights thought, “A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South.” She became a principal of a school in her 40s, where she pushed to teach her students of color everything rather than pushing them into trades like she had been told to do. She was one of the first Black women in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D.
Cooper understood her students’ potential and always stood up for it. When the all-White-male board of education said that she should shift her curriculum to focus on vocational training for her pupils, she said that wasn’t going to happen.
Those are just some of her accomplishments—and not even all of them. That doesn’t even take into account the fact that she lived from the presidency of James Buchanan until the Lyndon Johnson administration, a span of 105 years. She saw the invention of the telephone, television, airplane and more.
The World Is Better Because of Her
But on this, her birthday, let’s just sit in awe of her words for a bit. Take them in, think about them and let them work their magic.
While speaking to the World’s Congress of Representative Women in 1893, Cooper laid down the truth on equity.
We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritisms, whether of sex, race, country, or condition.
The colored woman feels that woman’s cause is one and universal; and that not till the image of God, whether in parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won—not the white woman’s, nor the black woman’s, not the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong.
Those words would have made her a leader in 2017, which means Cooper was extremely ahead of her time.
It’s sad to think that we still must have the conversations Cooper started during her career more than a century ago, but it only makes the fight for equitable education that much more urgent now.