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Born into slavery, Anna Julia Cooper had the odds stacked against her but rose above her circumstances. Today, 54 years after her passing, is the 160th birthday of the Black feminist icon, activist, and scholar.

Anna Julia Haywood was born to a slave mother and their owner in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1858. She attended high school at what is now known as St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh before entering Oberlin College and earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Mathematics. She worked at Wilberforce University and St. Augustine’s before heading to Washington, D.C. to teach high school. In 1877, she married George Cooper, who died when she was just 21.

It was in Washington that Cooper crossed paths with Mary Church Terrell, the co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women. In 1892, alongside Helen Appo Cook, Cooper co-founded the Colored Women’s League. That same year, Cooper released her first book, A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South and became a notable civil and women’s right champion.

It was during this period that Cooper became perhaps the most vocal advocate for equality for Black women, stating that the nation would become stronger on the backs of educational fortification for the oppressed segment of the population.

At the age of 67, Cooper became just the fourth African-American woman to earn a Ph. D. from the University of Paris in France. The AKA sorority sister also performed several speeches and wrote dozens of essays related to her life’s work.

She also became aligned with the Black Liberation movement, among several other academic and social pursuits. Cooper is also the only woman quoted in the U.S. passport book, with this quote:

 “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.” – Anna Julia Cooper

Professor, author and former MSNBC personality Melissa Harris-Perry founded The Anna Julia Cooper Center on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Anna Cooper lived to the age of 105, passing in February 1964 in Washington, D.C.

 

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