Do You Know This Hidden Figure? Meet Legendary Black Educator and Resister Dr. Anna Julia Cooper

“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class-it is the cause of human kind, the very birthright of humanity.” 

A multitude of hidden figures silently loom in our shadows, yet those who know understand that as Black people we stand on the shoulders of the giants who paved the way.

Dr. Anna Julia Cooper is one of those people. She was a Black pioneer, the daughter of an enslaved woman, who demonstrated high expectations and produced results for our youth generations ago.

This woman, who died at the age of 105 on this day (February 27th) in 1964, was emancipated when she was 4, then she earned a scholarship and began outworking and outperforming her peers. She is a legend and she created a path that every conscious and activist educator should work to emulate.

Why We Do This Work

No one quite captures the pursuit of Black excellence like freedom-fighting educators.

Many people (like a certain senator from my home state) discount what Black students can accomplish. But there has always been a steady force in our country demonstrating that despite the hurdles purposely placed in front of them, Black youth can and will achieve.

Children are like that, they reach whatever bar is placed before them. Some educators set this bar high, as high as they would for their own children. Others, whether in pity or malice, set the bar low and undermine any efforts for students to aspire higher.

Many of these heroic educators aren’t trying to prove anything to their detractors, they are working on behalf of their students. They are doing it to ensure the next generation of Black citizens can navigate their world and lead and serve in their communities.

Dr. Cooper embodied this spirit of service. Despite the segregation policies in the District of Columbia at that time, her students achieved at the highest levels in Washington’s first public high school for Black children. Her all-Black school, now named the Paul Lawrence Dunbar school, produced scholars and pioneers. Her students consistently outperformed their White peers. She insisted on the expectation that her students were going to be college bound and immensely successful.

A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Cooper was ahead of her time in so many ways, and her work can inform many of the education debates we have today.

Today, many claim Black children cannot learn in all-Black spaces and schools. They spout that for Black children to learn at high levels, they must be in White schools.

But as Cooper knew then, we know now: Black excellence can be achieved at the highest levels in all-Black schools.

This is not a rant against inclusive schools. It is a stance against a mindset persuading Black folks that Black excellence doesn’t exist on its own, that it must stand propped up by and in proximity to Whiteness.

Cooper also recognized that trauma and poverty play a role in student achievement, but with time and resources, students can overcome these challenges. She supported students with accommodations like extended time for tests and completing assignments, displaying the deep belief in her students, regardless of their backgrounds.

Fortunately, today, many schools are taking a more comprehensive approach to supporting students in poverty—but in states like my own, these efforts are thwarted by deliberate underfunding of the education of those same students.

Cooper fought against the systemic efforts to lower standards. When the board of education (comprised of all White men) insisted that she change her curriculum to reflect a “more appropriate” vocational education, she resisted. She knew that rigorous vocational education was fine, but she recognized that Black children were disproportionately pushed to “work with their hands” and given the lowest levels of vocational curriculum. Cooper insisted that her students be exposed to intellectually rigorous courses and stood firm.

Dr. Cooper was a resister and an educator who operated with a social justice lens, relentlessly pursuing Black excellence. As educators, parents and community members, may we all hold ourselves accountable for helping our Black students achieve Black excellence.

You can learn more about Dr. Anna Julia Cooper from Dana Goldstein’s book, The Teacher Wars, or if you prefer listening, you can find past episodes on NPR’s Morning Edition or Jennifer Binis’ Education History 101 podcast.

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About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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