Civil Rights Tour: Education - Anna J. Cooper, Trailblazing Educator

201 T Street NW

“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.”

These words, written by Anna Julia Hayward Cooper (1858-1964), who lived in LeDroit Park for 40 years, are found inscribed in the pages of every U.S. passport along with quotations by eleven other famous American authors. Cooper, the only woman of the select group, was a prolific writer and a civil and women’s rights activist who saw academic education as essential to achieving equality for African American women and men.

Born into slavery, Cooper first came to Washington in 1887 to teach at the acclaimed Preparatory School for Colored Youth (now Dunbar High School). As the school’s principal from 1902 to 1906, Cooper defied her white supervisor’s demand that her students be trained for vocational, rather than academic pursuits. Instead, she sent several students to the Ivy Leagues, and during her tenure at the school,  Harvard accredited it.

It was also during this period that Cooper helped found the Colored Women’s League of Washington, a precursor to the National Association of Colored Women, and the Colored Women’s YWCA (now the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA). Both organizations advocated for black education and access to employment during a period when white supremacy and racial segregation were intensifying in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision which declared “separate but equal” as the law of the land.

At age 57, Cooper adopted her brother’s five children, motivating her purchase of this gracious Queen Anne house at 201 T Street NW in 1916. She later completed her doctoral studies at the Sorbonne. Cooper was also instrumental in sustaining Frelinghuysen University, a night school for poor and working-class adults founded in 1906 and originally located in a private home on Vermont Avenue NW. Around 1930, Cooper became the second president of the university, which she operated out of her home here after the school lost its lease on a building downtown.

Cooper is perhaps most remembered for her 1892 publication, A Voice from the South, a collection of her speeches and essays promoting black women’s equality. “Her belief that the status of black women is the only true measure of collective racial progress” wrote literary scholar Mary Helen Washington, was central to her work. Anna J. Cooper lived to the age of 105, a more than full life, dedicated to fighting for the rights of African Americans and women.