A Child Of Slavery Who Taught A Generation

Mar 12, 2015
Originally published on March 13, 2015 1:15 pm

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.

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If you have a relatively new U.S. passport, you will notice quotes from great Americans on each page. Only one of those quotes belongs to a woman. That woman, Anna Julia Cooper, was one of the first women in this country to earn a Ph.D. Before that, she headed an all-black high school in Washington, D.C., that produced some legendary graduates. Dr. Cooper is the latest installment of our 50 Great Teachers series. And NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has her story.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: I visited Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in northwest Washington on a day that was cold enough to make your eyes water. But inside, the school's sunny, open foyer is warm and noisy. Students are rushing up the stairs to class or to the cafeteria for lunch. Principal Stephen Jackson, ramrod straight in a sharp three-piece suit, guides me through this swirl of teen energy. He's happy to school me about Dunbar's significance.

STEPHEN JACKSON: This is not only the first public high school in D.C., but more importantly it's the first public African-American high school in the country. So people all over the country know Dunbar because of its history.

BATES: And because of the students who graduated from here - Benjamin O. Davis, the U.S. military's first black general, Dr. Charles Drew, who organized one of the early large-scale blood banks, jazzman Billy Taylor.


BATES: And D.C. Congressional Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke all have places of honor on the school's soaring wall of fame. At its height, Dunbar High School was an intellectual powerhouse, turning out some of the country's finest black minds. And its ascendancy, says Principal Jackson, can be traced to one woman.

JACKSON: If it were not for Anna J. Cooper, the school would not have become one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

BATES: Born to an enslaved mother and her white employer in 1858, Anna Julia Haywood went to local private schools in Raleigh, N.C. She was married at 19 and widowed at 21. Then she received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Oberlin College. Her book, "A Voice From The South," spoke for the rights of black women. Cooper firmly believed that if African-American women succeeded, they would be the portal for the uplift of the entire race.

ALISON STEWART: She was an activist teacher. She was a black feminist intellectual. And all of this played into Dunbar's evolution because she was such a force to be reckoned with.

BATES: That's journalist Alison Stewart. Do you think it's fair for me to characterize her as bad[expletive] in a genteel sort of way?

STEWART: I used that exact word.

BATES: Stewart spent several years researching Dunbar for "First Class," a history of the school. Much of it focuses on Anna Julia Cooper's years there when it was called the M Street School, first as a teacher then as an administrator. Stewart says as principal, Cooper spent a lot of time battling with the all-white, all-male D.C. Board of Education. The board was firmly convinced that vocational training for domestic and manual jobs was the appropriate path for M Street's students. Cooper, Stewart says, wasn't.

STEWART: She thought that was fine and admirable work, but not at the expense of trying to help these Negro and color students pursue all that they could be intellectually.

BATES: So Anna Julia Cooper insisted that her students learn advanced math and science. Foreign languages were mandatory. So was classical literature. Her students were so well prepared, says Alison Stewart, that Cooper could approach elite colleges with this argument.

STEWART: You can no longer say there aren't qualified Negro candidates because I have them and I've trained them and I've had trained my teachers to train them.

BATES: Dunbar students went to Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth in the early 1900s, less than 50 years after the Civil War. Dana Goldstein is author of "The Teacher Wars," which chronicles the history of teaching in America. Goldstein says not only were many whites put off by Cooper's vision for her students, some of the district's more conservative black residents were, too.

DANA GOLDSTEIN: They thought this was an impractical type of education.

BATES: Cooper got her way, but at great personal cost. She was publicly accused of sexual impropriety with the young adult nephew she'd raised after her brother's death. Goldstein says the scandal, probably untrue, was front-page news for months.

GOLDSTEIN: And it wasn't about Anna Julia Cooper. What it was really about was what she stood for.

BATES: Which was equal educational opportunity for black children. The board forced Cooper to resign. After that, she moved to Paris, enrolled at the Sorbonne and earned her doctorate at age 66. Eventually, Dr. Cooper returned to Dunbar as a teacher, where she again made academic studies a priority. She retired in 1930. Dana Goldstein says many of Cooper's ideas that were once considered radical are now common, like insisting students should be able to not just read but analyze what they've read and giving students with special needs more time to complete tests.

GOLDSTEIN: And I think she also would have liked today's emphasis on rigor and high standards for poor children. That was something she believed in very strongly.

BATES: Anna Julia Cooper left her stamp on American education, and in 2009, the government returned the favor. It honored her by releasing a postage stamp bearing her portrait, a first-class stamp, of course. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.