In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anna Julia Cooper

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Special Journal Issues
  • Primary Works
  • Archival Collections
  • Anthologies
  • Comparative Readings and Analysis
  • Societies and Public/Intellectual Projects Related to Cooper

American Literature Anna Julia Cooper
Shirley Moody-Turner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0153


A renowned educator, author, activist, and scholar, Anna Julia (Haywood) Cooper (b. 1858–d. 1964) was born into slavery on 10 August in Raleigh, North Carolina, to mother, Hannah Stanley, who was enslaved to Cooper’s white father, Fabius Haywood. Cooper lived 105 years, during which time she pursued multiple careers, making profound contributions to intellectual history, educational theory and praxis, and social and political theory. From 1868 to 1877 Cooper attended St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute, earning her high school diploma in 1877. That same year she married George Cooper, who died just two years later. Cooper never remarried, but raised, at various stages in her life, two foster and five adopted children. Cooper earned a BA (1884) and MA (1887) both in Mathematics at Oberlin College before being recruited, in 1887, to teach at the prestigious Washington Preparatory High School (or “M Street” and later Dunbar High School) in Washington, DC. Throughout the 1890s Cooper rose to prominence as a celebrated educator, orator, scholar, and community activist, addressing audiences at numerous national and international conferences and conventions. She also worked with or helped found several community organizations, including the Phyllis Wheatley YMCA, the Washington Negro Folklore Society, and the Colored Settlement House, and served as an editor for The Southland magazine and interim editor for “Folklore and Ethnology Column” of The Southern Workman. During this time, Cooper published the work she is most known for: her 1892 collection of speeches and essays, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South. In the text, Cooper delivered an incisive critique of patriarchal power, white supremacy and domination, and imperialist expansion, while arguing for an intersectional, situated analysis of racialized sexism and sexualized racism. In 1901 Cooper was promoted to principal of M Street High School, a position she held until the Washington, DC school board failed to reappoint her for refusing to teach the inferior “colored” curriculum. She spent from 1906 to 1911 teaching at Lincoln Institute in Missouri before returning to M Street where she taught until her retirement in 1930. During this time, Cooper studied at La Guilde Internationale, Paris, and enrolled from 1914 to 1917 as a doctoral student at Columbia University. At sixty-six years of age, she earned her PhD in history from the Sorbonne, University of Paris. In 1930 Cooper assumed the presidency of Frelinghuysen University, a collection of community schools for working-class African Americans, and remained active with the school until at least 1950. Cooper continued to write and publish well into the mid-20th century, publishing in Paris both her translation of Le Pelerinage de Charlemagne and her dissertation, L’Attitude de la France à l’égard de l’esclavage pendant la Révolution, contributing two essays to The Crisis and edited and privately printed Life and Writings of the Grimké Family (1951). Through efforts mainly of black feminist scholars, Cooper is now regarded as one of the most important black women intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th century. Cooper died in Washington, DC, on 27 February 1964 at the age of 105.

General Overviews

The best overview of Cooper’s oeuvre is May 2007. This text provides the most sustained engagement with the widest range of Cooper’s writings and makes an important critical intervention in Cooper studies by refocusing attention on Cooper’s intellectual and philosophical contributions rather than focusing on her biography, which much earlier criticism tends to do. Lemert 1998 predates May 2007 and provides an important review and assessment of earlier criticism on Cooper. Lemert 1998 also works to refocus attention on Cooper’s contributions to social theory, through it does present a problematic construction of Cooper as a solitary, isolated figure.

  • Lemert, Charles. “Anna Julia Cooper: The Colored Woman’s Office.” In The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice from the South and Other Important Essays, Papers, and Letters. Edited by Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan, 1–43. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 1998.

    In this introduction to one of the first collections of Cooper’s writings, Lemert reviews the varying approaches to and criticisms of Cooper’s work, while also providing the traditional biographical overview. While Lemert does rehearse some of the problematic and now largely discredited constructions of Cooper as a lone, isolated figure, he also offers an important reading of Cooper’s feminist politics and recognizes her formulation of “universal regard” and reciprocity as part of her contributions to social theory.

  • May, Vivian. Anna Julia Cooper: Visionary Black Feminist: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2007.

    May’s account of Cooper’s activist work and philosophical contributions constitutes one of the most comprehensive studies in Cooper criticism. In her careful attention to works across Cooper’s oeuvre, including but also moving beyond A Voice from the South, May details Cooper’s contributions to theories of oppression and domination, intersectional analyses of race, class and gender, and theories and praxes of agency and liberation.

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