Pathways through Lent

Ordinary Lives Lived in Extraordinary Ways

Anna Cooper

Most often, we think of Saints as the celebrity class of Christians – the martyrs and other heroes of the faith, most of them ordained.

Instead, I urge the definition by Richard McBrien, maverick Roman Catholic theologian and professor at the University of Notre Dame: “[Saints] are signs of what it means to be human in the fullest and best sense of the word … lay people who lived ordinary lives in extraordinary ways….”

An example is Anna Julia Haywood Cooper who had an extraordinary impact on the education of African-Americans in Washington, D. C.

Born in North Carolina in 1858, her white father (and also the father of her siblings) was her enslaved black mother’s owner. At age 10, Anna received a scholarship to study at an Episcopal school (now Saint Augustine’s College) that prepared African-Americans to be teachers and clergy, successfully demanding to be admitted to courses reserved for men seeking ordination.

Anna’s husband died in 1879 after only two years of marriage. Anna continued her education at Oberlin College before moving to Washington, D. C. She taught at the Preparatory High School for Negro Youth (now Dunbar High School) and in 1902 was appointed its principal. In 1906, the Board of Education did not reappoint her because she refused to lower academic standards. While she continued to teach there, she wrote A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South, an early treatise of African-American feminism.

At age 55, Anna adopted five children of a relative. Ten years later in 1925, she became the fourth African-American woman to earn the Doctor of Philosophy degree, granted by the University of Paris – Sorbonne. She delivered speeches in this country and in Europe about African-American women and their need for appropriate education.

Over the years, Anna was instrumental in establishing or developing Washington institutions for African-Americans: The Colored Women’s League, the first Colored Settlement House, and Frelinghuysen University (located in the Shaw neighborhood) serving as President of the last from 1930 to 1942.

Anna Cooper’s home was in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of Washington, where the nearby circle is named for her. She died there in 1964 at age 105.

Is your ordinary life lived is such an extraordinary way?

-The Rev. Dr. Theodore William Johnson