“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class – it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”

These are the words of Anna J. Cooper (1858-1964), who lived in LeDroit Park, Washington DC, for 40 years. Open up your passport, and you will find these words, along with quotations from eleven other famous American authors. Ms. Cooper is the only woman among them. 

Anna J. Cooper was an educator, writer, and civil and women’s rights activist who believed that education was essential for African American women and men to achieve equality.

She was born to slaves in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina. She married Mr. George Cooper in 1877 but was sadly widowed two years later. Believing education to be necessary for equality, she enrolled in  Oberlin College in 1884 and received a BA and later, a Masters in Mathematics.

Her life dedicated to academia, she began writing and speaking out publicly on the role of education in achieving equality for young black women.  In 1892, she published a collection of her speeches and essays, “A Voice From the South.”  Word of Ms. Cooper’s work was spreading.

In 1831, she was recruited by Washington DC school officials to teach at the M Street High School (later named Dunbar High School), the first black public high school in the country. In 1902, she was named principal.

Ms. Cooper wanted her M Street High School students to believe that they achieve their dreams by working hard work in high school and continue to college. She structured her curriculum with that end goal in mind. The School Board, however, disagreed. They believed black students were better served learning a vocation or training for service positions, not for college. 

Ms. Cooper’s students did thrive, and many went on to graduate from universities such as Harvard University, Brown University, Oberlin College. M Street High School was even accredited for the first time by Harvard University.

The DC Board of Education was incensed, citing her in 1905 with various offenses, including being too sympathetic to undeserving students and not fostering a “proper spirit of unity and loyalty.”  She left DC but returned in 1910 to care for her brother’s children. 

It was at this time, living in DC, raising her brother’s children at the age of 67, Ms. Cooper successfully defended her dissertation—The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery Between 1789 and 1848—at the Sorbonne University, becoming the fourth woman at that time to hold a Ph.D. 

Dr. Cooper helped found the Colored Women’s League of Washington, a precursor to the National Association of Colored Women, and the Colored Women’s YWCA (now the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA). In the 1930s, she became president of Frelinghuysen University and used her own house in Le Droit Park to teach black students classes. She died at the age of 106

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Photo by Tom Wolff