Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Feast of Anna Julia Haywood Cooper
Anna Julia Haywood Cooper was born in slavery in 1858, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, was a slave and her father, George Washington Haywood, was the slave owner. Anna was an academically gifted child, showing much promise at an early age, and at the age of nine years she earned a scholarship to attend St. Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute, a school established by the Episcopal Church to educate recently freed ex-slaves, both men and women, as teachers and clergy. She became a member of the Episcopal Church. While at St. Augustine’s she forced her way into a Greek class for male theology students. She must have made a great impression on the instructor, the Rev. George A.C. Cooper, because she married him in 1877. Father Cooper, a West Indian, was the second man of African descent to be ordained to the priesthood in North Carolina. They were only married for two years before Father Cooper died. While this was a tragedy for his young wife, it also opened up an opportunity for her, because now she could become a teacher. In those days no married woman, white or black, could pursue a career as a teacher. She received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in mathematics from Oberlin College, and in 1887 she was recruited to teach at M Street High School the only Black High School in Washington, D.C. She became its principal in 1902. Her educational philosophy was considered controversial for the time; the educational philosophy of Booker T. Washington was dominant, and he believed that Blacks needed to work their way up through society, starting with manual labor, so a technically based education was the best path for African-American students. Cooper disagreed with this philosophy; she insisted on preparing her students for university, and her students attended Harvard, Brown, Oberlin, Yale, Amherst, Dartmouth, and Radcliffe. The elite of Washington, D.C., could not stand the thought of African-American students attending the best universities in the United States at that time, the Ivy League, and they made her life miserable. In 1905 the D.C. Board of Education fired her for minor infractions. Apparently, she was also in trouble for renting a room in her house to a male boarder. She was victimized for being a black woman fighting against the White Status Quo, and because she was an ambitious woman. She refused to lower her educational standards and believed that African-American students deserved the same educational opportunities as did white children. She was invited back to the school to teach Latin in 1910.
In 1915, she adopted the five orphaned grandchildren of her half-brother. She was not a young woman at that time, she was in her mid-fifties, and she had to interrupt her Doctoral studies at Columbia University. Ten years later, she received her Doctorate from the University of Paris. She was the fourth African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. She served as president of Frelinghuysen University in Washington, D.C. from 1930-1942. She cared about the advancement of Black youth through education, and she also cared deeply about the advancement of women. In 1912 she helped to found and organize the “Colored” Young Women's Christian Association in Washington, D.C. The segregationist policies of the YMCA and YWCA of that time limited the funds and resources available to Cooper’s group, but the efforts of Cooper and her colleagues "built an organization that was the epitome of efficiency, self-reliance, and resourcefulness that was cited as a model for the nation". She also assisted in the formation of the Colored Women’s League.
Anna Julia Cooper was a scholar, writer, educator, and activist, and she fought against the racism and sexism which was used to keep African-American women from reaching their full potential as Christians and human beings. She was able to balance all those vocations, and raise the five orphaned children of her nephew, and earn a Ph.D.! She died at the age of 105 in 1964. Her life spanned the years from the end of slavery to the years of the Civil Rights Movement. We celebrate her as a saint of the Church because she took the commandments of Jesus seriously. She realized that God calls all of us to reach our potential, and she knew that a decent education was what would help raise the children of recently freed slaves to become the people God called them to be. We still need to fight for decent education and for opportunity for all children, not just black children,but indigenous children, for poor children, for children living in the war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Africa, and for the children living in the war zones which are our inner cities. Anna Julia Cooper is a model to us because she did not allow the racism and sexism of her time to hold her back. She fought for justice and righteousness, she lived a Christian life of selflessness and caring for others, she lived a life of commitment, even accepting public censure on behalf of her students, and she was willing to stand up and speak the truth to those in power, she was willing to stand up for the oppressed. When the great African-American educator Booker T. Washington was convinced that blacks should have only a technical education, Anna Julia Cooper stood up and said that black youth were just as smart and just as deserving of preparation for a University education as the children of the majority, as the children of whites. She would not let her students be ostracised and be treated as second-class citizens. In this time when some are calling us to exclude members of the Church because of their sexuality, when some Primates of the Church demand that we ignore the pastoral needs of our GLBT brothers and sisters to meet their reading of scripture, we need to remember the example of Anna Julia Cooper. We need to remember her example, listening and responding positively to the words of Wisdom “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
I See You!
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