A Child Of Slavery Who Taught A Generation : NPR Ed Anna J. Cooper was a remarkable student and, later, a legendary teacher and principal of the first public high school for black students.

A Child Of Slavery Who Taught A Generation

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If you have a relatively new U.S. passport, you will notice quotes from great Americans on each page. Only one of those quotes belongs to a woman. That woman, Anna Julia Cooper, was one of the first women in this country to earn a Ph.D. Before that, she headed an all-black high school in Washington, D.C., that produced some legendary graduates. Dr. Cooper is the latest installment of our 50 Great Teachers series. And NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has her story.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: I visited Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in northwest Washington on a day that was cold enough to make your eyes water. But inside, the school's sunny, open foyer is warm and noisy. Students are rushing up the stairs to class or to the cafeteria for lunch. Principal Stephen Jackson, ramrod straight in a sharp three-piece suit, guides me through this swirl of teen energy. He's happy to school me about Dunbar's significance.

STEPHEN JACKSON: This is not only the first public high school in D.C., but more importantly it's the first public African-American high school in the country. So people all over the country know Dunbar because of its history.

BATES: And because of the students who graduated from here - Benjamin O. Davis, the U.S. military's first black general, Dr. Charles Drew, who organized one of the early large-scale blood banks, jazzman Billy Taylor.


BATES: And D.C. Congressional Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke all have places of honor on the school's soaring wall of fame. At its height, Dunbar High School was an intellectual powerhouse, turning out some of the country's finest black minds. And its ascendancy, says Principal Jackson, can be traced to one woman.

JACKSON: If it were not for Anna J. Cooper, the school would not have become one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

BATES: Born to an enslaved mother and her white employer in 1858, Anna Julia Haywood went to local private schools in Raleigh, N.C. She was married at 19 and widowed at 21. Then she received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Oberlin College. Her book, "A Voice From The South," spoke for the rights of black women. Cooper firmly believed that if African-American women succeeded, they would be the portal for the uplift of the entire race.

ALISON STEWART: She was an activist teacher. She was a black feminist intellectual. And all of this played into Dunbar's evolution because she was such a force to be reckoned with.

BATES: That's journalist Alison Stewart. Do you think it's fair for me to characterize her as bad[expletive] in a genteel sort of way?

STEWART: I used that exact word.

BATES: Stewart spent several years researching Dunbar for "First Class," a history of the school. Much of it focuses on Anna Julia Cooper's years there when it was called the M Street School, first as a teacher then as an administrator. Stewart says as principal, Cooper spent a lot of time battling with the all-white, all-male D.C. Board of Education. The board was firmly convinced that vocational training for domestic and manual jobs was the appropriate path for M Street's students. Cooper, Stewart says, wasn't.

STEWART: She thought that was fine and admirable work, but not at the expense of trying to help these Negro and color students pursue all that they could be intellectually.

BATES: So Anna Julia Cooper insisted that her students learn advanced math and science. Foreign languages were mandatory. So was classical literature. Her students were so well prepared, says Alison Stewart, that Cooper could approach elite colleges with this argument.

STEWART: You can no longer say there aren't qualified Negro candidates because I have them and I've trained them and I've had trained my teachers to train them.

BATES: Dunbar students went to Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth in the early 1900s, less than 50 years after the Civil War. Dana Goldstein is author of "The Teacher Wars," which chronicles the history of teaching in America. Goldstein says not only were many whites put off by Cooper's vision for her students, some of the district's more conservative black residents were, too.

DANA GOLDSTEIN: They thought this was an impractical type of education.

BATES: Cooper got her way, but at great personal cost. She was publicly accused of sexual impropriety with the young adult nephew she'd raised after her brother's death. Goldstein says the scandal, probably untrue, was front-page news for months.

GOLDSTEIN: And it wasn't about Anna Julia Cooper. What it was really about was what she stood for.

BATES: Which was equal educational opportunity for black children. The board forced Cooper to resign. After that, she moved to Paris, enrolled at the Sorbonne and earned her doctorate at age 66. Eventually, Dr. Cooper returned to Dunbar as a teacher, where she again made academic studies a priority. She retired in 1930. Dana Goldstein says many of Cooper's ideas that were once considered radical are now common, like insisting students should be able to not just read but analyze what they've read and giving students with special needs more time to complete tests.

GOLDSTEIN: And I think she also would have liked today's emphasis on rigor and high standards for poor children. That was something she believed in very strongly.

BATES: Anna Julia Cooper left her stamp on American education, and in 2009, the government returned the favor. It honored her by releasing a postage stamp bearing her portrait, a first-class stamp, of course. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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