The true substance of life: a Black History Month reflection

As we celebrate Black History we would like to give greater visibility to lesser-known black pioneers who were critical in defining and shaping American culture, but don’t usually get the public recognition they so deserve.

Born in 1858 in North Carolina to her enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, and her white slaveholder, Anna Julia Cooper spent her lifetime of over a century redefining the limitations and opportunities for women of color in a society set up for their disempowerment and subjugation. A distinguished scholar and educator, Cooper saw the status and agency of black women as central to the equality and progress of the nation. She famously wrote in her 1892 book A Voice from the South, ―only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.‖ She fought tirelessly throughout her life to re-center and uplift the voice of black women in pursuit of a more just society for everyone.

Cooper‘s political action began at age nine in St. Augustine‘s Normal School and Collegiate Institute, where she protested the preferential treatment given to men as candidates for the ministry and petitioned to take classes traditionally administered only to boys. She continued this trend at Oberlin College, where she declined the inferior ―ladies course‖ in favor of the ―gentleman‘s course.‖ Cooper received her B.A. in 1884, and then returned to earn an M.A. in mathematics in 1887.

After attaining her degree, Cooper moved to Washington, DC and was recruited to work at Washington Colored High School, or M Street School, the only all-black school in DC.

Cooper‘s retirement from M Street School in 1930 was by no means the end of her political activism. The same year she retired, she accepted the position of president at Frelinghuysen University, a school founded to provide classes for DC residents lacking access to higher education. Cooper worked for Frelinghuysen for twenty years, first as president and then as registrar, and left the school only a decade before she passed away in 1964 at the age of 105.

While notable for her long life span, Cooper is most remarkable for the amount and significance of her accomplishments over the course of her lifetime Cooper made no concessions in her fight; believing ―a cause is not worthier than its weakest elements,‖ she decried movements advocating for women‘s rights and racial justice for ignoring black women who were victims of both oppressions. Cooper was critical of black men for hailing opportunities that were not open to black women as markers of racial progress, and openly confronted leaders of the women‘s movement for allowing the racism within it to remain unchecked. She recognized that neither movement could achieve its cause while still being divided by race or gender.

“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, nor the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong. Woman’s wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with all undefended woe, and the acquirement of her “rights” will mean the final triumph of all right over might, the supremacy of the moral forces of reason, and justice, and love in the government of the nations of earth.” –Anna Julia Cooper