Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Feb. 28 - Two Great Black Educators: Anna Julia Haywood Cooper & Elizabeth Evelyn Wright

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858–1964) [photo on right above] was an author, educator, and one of the most prominent African American scholars in United States history. Anna was born in Raleigh, NC, in 1858 to Hannah Stanley, a slave, in the home of prominent Wake County landowner George Washington Haywood, who is believed to be the biological father of Stanley's seven daughters. Anna had two older brothers, Andrew and Rufus Haywood. In 1868, Anna received an award to attend the newly opened St. Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute, founded by the local Episcopal Diocese in order to train teachers to educate former slaves and their families. She spent 14 years at St. Augustine's, distinguishing herself as a bright student who showed equal skill in both liberal arts and analytical subjects like math and science. At this time, St. Augustine's primary emphasis was on training young men for the ministry, and preparing ambitious men for additional training at four-year universities. The special track, dubbed the "Ladies' Course", was reserved for women, who were actively discouraged from advancing to higher-level courses. Nevertheless, Anna fought for her right to take courses reserved for men, such as Greek, by demonstrating her scholastic ability. She also worked as a pupil-teacher, enabling her to pay for her schooling. Even after completing her studies, she remained on as an instructor.

It was at St. Augustine's that Anna Haywood became an Episcopalian, and married George Cooper, one of her instructors, who was the second African American ordained as an Episcopal priest in North Carolina.

During her years as a teacher and principal, Cooper completed her first book, A Voice from the South: By A Woman from the South, published in 1892. It is widely viewed as one of the first articulations of Black feminism. In her book Anna held up a vision of self-determination through education and social uplift for African American women. She believed that their educational, moral, and spiritual progress would improve the general standing of the entire African American community. She saw it to be the duty of educated and successful black women to encourage and support their underprivileged peers in achieving their goals.

In 1914, at the age of 56, Cooper began courses for a doctoral degree at Columbia University, but was forced to interrupt her studies the next year when she adopted the five children of her late half-brother after their mother's death. She later transferred her credits to the University of Paris-Sorbonne. It took her 10 years to research and write her dissertation, and she completed her coursework in 1924. Anna's   thesis, which she successfully defended in 1925, was entitled The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery Between 1789 and 1848. At the age of 65, Cooper became the fourth black woman in American history to earn a Ph.D. degree.

Anna Haywood Cooper died in 1964 in Washington, D.C. at the age of 105. Her memorial was held in the campus chapel at Saint Augustine's College, where her academic career began. She was buried alongside her husband at the City Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.

Pages 26 and 27 of every new United States passport contain the following quote: "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." - Anna Julia Cooper. In 2009, the United States Postal Service released a commemorative stamp in Anna Cooper's honor.

Elizabeth Evelyn Wright (1872-1906) [photo on left above] was born in Talbotton, GA, the seventh child of John Wesley Wright, an African American, and Virginia Rolfe, a Cherokee woman. She attended school held in the basement of St. Philip's AME Church.

In 1888, having completed her requirements at St. Philip's, Elizabeth entered Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, taking classes at night while working in the cafeteria during the day. Olivia Washington, Booker's wife, noted her promise and strength of character, and made it possible her to take day classes. Elizabeth, or "Lizzie", as she was called, once gave a speech to the Alabama Teachers Association titled: “What Should the Women of Our Race Do to Become Stronger?" Lizzie had developed the reputation of being bright, dependable, trustworthy and caring. The Tuskegee students loved her. During her senior year in 1892, she had to drop out because of illness. She was known to be sickly and frail throughout her school days.

After recuperating for several months, Lizzie was contacted by Mrs. Almira Steele, a white trustee at Tuskegee, about teaching at a school in Hampton County, SC. Although she hadn't completed her senior year, Lizzie agreed and arrived in Hampton County in October, 1892, to begin her dream of teaching black children. This experience helped to mold Lizzie’s ambitions of one day operating a school of her own. Her tenure at the McNeil School was cut short when, in April, 1893, white arsonists burned the school to the ground.

Later that year, Lizzie re-enrolled at Tuskegee to complete her education. The McNeil experience helped her to become more focused in her desire and commitment to help educate poor black children. She graduated from Tuskegee in 1894, and soon after returned to Hampton County to restart her school. After two more incidents of arson, Lizzie and her other teachers, Jessie Dorsey and Hattie Davidson, decided to move to a friendlier area in rural Bamberg County, near Denmark, SC, in 1897. There, with the support of some influential people in the community, she founded the Denmark Industrial Institute, modeled after Tuskegee Institute, over a store.

Lizzie approached Elizabeth Rodman Voorhees, wife of Ralph Voorhees, philanthropists from Clinton, NJ, about her struggle to educate African-American students in the south. Voorhees was moved by her story and donated $5000, enough to save the college, which was then renamed the Voorhees Normal and Industrial School in Mrs. Voorhees' honor. In 1902 Voorhees Industrial School opened for male and female students at the elementary and high school levels, and Lizzie Wright was the principal. The school, which served as an agricultural, industrial, and teaching school, has undergone many evolutions. Ralph Voorhees provided additional gifts during the next few years, and the General Assembly incorporated the school in his name. For years this was the only high school for blacks in the area.

In 1924 the American Church Institutes for Negroes, which was part of the Episcopal Church, agreed to support the school. It was the beginning of a long relationship between the school and the church, an affiliation that continues today. In 1947, the school became Voorhees School and Junior College. In 1962, it was accredited as a four-year institution, Voorhees College.

In June, 1906, Elizabeth Wright married Martin A. Menafee, a Tuskegee graduate, and treasurer of Voorhees College. Shortly after her marriage, however, she became ill with fever and gastritis and went to the well-known Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan for medical treatment. She died there on December 14, 1906, and was buried on the Voorhees College campus.

The Voorhees College website makes this observation about its history: "Inspiration, determination, imagination, faith. All four have been pillar principles in Voorhees College's century-long history of changing minds and changing lives. That history started with Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, who at 23 was only a little older than today's Voorhees students when she came to Bamberg County...Wright had found her inspiration while studying at Booker T. Washington's famed Tuskegee Institute. She said
time at Tuskegee gave her a mission in life: being 'the same type of woman as Mr. Washington was of a man.'...The original partnership between the Church and Voorhees was based on the fact that the Church alone cannot nourish and strengthen people without the help of Christian institutions of learning. At the same time, the college cannot effectively guide, educate and shape young minds without the spiritual influence of the Church. Those long-held values set the standard by which the college judges its teaching, scholarship and service programs today. For the Church, Voorhees [College] is both a ministry and investment, as well as a huge benefit to society. The college strives to balance practical career training with a well-rounded background in the liberal arts. Dating back to Wright's era, there has been debate between those who follow the philosophy of Dr. Booker T. Washington and advocated education aimed at teaching jobs skills and those who believe, as Dr. W.E.B. Dubois did, that a liberal education would help young adults develop as leaders. The Voorhees curriculum today is a mix of the two views."

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