On the journey to obtain my Ph.D., I became very interested in finding out who were the first Black women to reach that educational goal. That was when I first learned about Anna Julia Cooper. She was the fourth Black woman to obtain a Ph.D. degree. However, her story to obtain the degree formed a role model for me in persistence.
Anna Heyward was born in North Carolina in 1860. It is believed she was the daughter of an enslaved woman and her master. However, Anna received special treatment. She was educated in the fledgling schools established for Black children in Raleigh. She ended up going to St. Augustine’s and graduating from the courses early. She petitioned for and was able to take the Men’s courses (yes they separated the course material by gender then) and started to teach upon graduation. She fell in love and married George Cooper who died two years later. A young widow, she decided to continue her education at Oberlin College—one of the few institutions of higher learning open to Black students back then. She obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree. She wanted to obtain a Ph.D. and began coursework at Columbia in New York City. Columbia made it clear, however, that she could take all of the courses she wanted, but she would never be allowed to earn a Ph.D.
Undaunted by this racism, Cooper transferred her coursework to the University of Paris, known as the Sorbonne. She took up a job as a teacher and then principal, so she could only do her coursework and writing in the summers. Still, she was so amazing, she produced her dissertation in French. Take that, Columbia! She finally graduated in 1925. When you do the math, that means that she didn’t graduate until she was 65 years old. If Columbia let her earn a Ph.D. she would have undoubtedly been the first Black woman to obtain one.
She lived out the rest of her long-life as an educator and activist for Civil Rights. She died in February 1964 and her house in Washington D.C. is a historic landmark. I always tell my students about her life story so that they might appreciate Cooper’s example of triumph and persistence in opening the doors for Black women to earn advanced degrees.
Piper Huguley’s most recent book Oney: My Escape From Slavery is available now. You can also follow her on Twitter @piperhuguley