THE GLOBAL AFRICAN COMMUNITY HISTORY NOTES:
A BRIEF NOTE ON THE LIVES OF ANNA JULIA COOPER & NANNIE HELEN BURROUGHS:
PROFILES OF AFRICAN WOMEN EDUCATORS
BY RUNOKO RASHIDI & KAREN A. JOHNSON*
DEDICATED TO DR. ADELAIDE SANFORD
Among the most outstanding African-American educators of the post-reconstruction era of the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century were Dr. Anna Julia Cooper and Ms. Nannie Helen Burroughs. During this extremely difficult and rocky period for African-Americans these dedicated sisters were confronted with the arduous tasks of struggling for racial uplift, economic justice and social equality.
Anna Julia Cooper (the eldest of the two women) was born Anna Julia Haywood on August 10, 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina, the daughter of an enslaved African woman, Hannah Stanley, and her White master. From early on Cooper possessed an unrelenting passion for learning and a sincere conviction that Black women were equipped to follow intellectual pursuits. This thinking ran strongly against the popular opinion of the day. To the contrary, Cooper later said that "not far from kindergarten age" she decided to become a teacher. In Cooper's words, speaking on the lack of the emphasis on formal education for Black girls, "Not the boys less, but the girls more." In 1867 Cooper entered St. Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh. In 1925, at the age of sixty-seven, she earned a Ph.D. from Sorbonne University in Paris, France, becoming only the fourth African-American woman to obtain such a degree. At the tender age of 105, after a lifetime of educating African-American youth, Dr. Cooper died peacefully in her home in Washington, D.C.
Although exceptionally brilliant Anna Julie Cooper was not an isolated phenomenon. Nannie Helen Burroughs, another remarkable sister, was born on May 2, 1879 in Orange, Virginia, to John and Jennie Burroughs. Nannie Helen Burroughs, described as a "majestic, dark-skinned woman," was only twenty-one years old when she became a national leader, catapulted to fame after presenting a dynamic speech entitled "How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping" at the annual conference of the National Baptist Convention in Richmond, Virginia in 1900.
Nannie Helen Burroughs became a school founder, educator and civil rights activist. She identified African-American teachers such as Anna Julia Cooper as important role models. She attended public schools in Washington, D.C., graduated with honors in 1896, studied business in 1902, and received an honorary M.A. degree from Eckstein-Norton University in Kentucky in 1907.
An early pupil and eventual colleague of Cooper, Nannie Helen Burroughs devoted her energies to the uplift of African people. Burroughs was a brilliant and powerful orator. Both in the press and on the lecture circuit she denounced lynchings, racial segregation, employment discrimination and the European colonization of Africa. According to Burroughs biographer Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Burroughs' "verbal attacks were coupled with calls to action. During World War I, criticism of President Woodrow Wilson's silence on lynching led to her being placed under government surveillance. Her uncompromising stand on racial equality included a woman's right to vote and equal economic opportunity."
Like Anna Julia Cooper, Nanny Helen Burroughs lived a full and accomplished life, dying on May 20, 1961 at the ripe age of eighty-two.
Sources: Uplifting the
Race, by Karen A. Johnson & Black
Women in America; An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Dr. Karen A. Johnson is a faculty member of the School of Education at Southern University of New Orleans.
Runoko Rashidi is a historian, public lecturer and research specialist.