Antigone introduces Anna Julia Cooper, Mother of Black Classical Education

Anika Prather

I see so much of Antigone in Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964). Here I seek to unveil Anna’s life by focusing on the character traits they do and do not have in common and by telling the story of Antigone, preserved most vividly in the tragedy of Sophocles, first staged in Athens around 441 BC.

Anna Julia Cooper in her early forties (c. 1902).

Character Trait 1: Women of Strength

“Creon is not strong enough to stand in my way.” Antigone [1]

I am amazed that Anna Julia Cooper did not write about the power and beauty of Antigone. In A Voice from the South, she would write about Sappho, Aspasia, the Amazons, and other powerful women,[2] but she made no reference to Antigone. As I journey through looking at these two heroines in parallel, I will seek to find why Anna did not feel as connected to Antigone as other Classical heroines.

I believe that Anna mirrors Antigone in the way that she too stood against male-dominated society in order to pursue what is good and virtuous. In Anna’s life, as she began to grow in her educational journey at St Augustine’s School (in Raleigh, North Carolina) and then at Oberlin College (in Ohio), she begged to take the “gentlemen’s course”, which was nothing more than an intensive experience in learning Classics, complete with Latin and Greek. She shunned the classes that only taught how to care for house and home, and sought to free her mind through the study of Classics. This is how Anna Julia Cooper came to love the subject, a subject which inspired her to become one of the first Black Classical educators in America. Like Antigone she pursued what she wanted in the face of a society where all too often women had no public voice and were encouraged to think that living well meant satisfying the desires of a man.

Antigone in captivity, by Svetlin Vassilev (reproduced with the artist’s permission; © Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain).

Character Trait 2: Women Devoted to Family

“And now you can prove what you are: a true sister, or a traitor to your family.” Antigone [3]

Sophocles’ play Antigone begins with her declaring her loyalty to her brother and her commitment to giving him proper burial. Antigone calls on her sister Ismene to stand with her as she plans to go against Creon’s wishes of not burying her brother and she will bury him.

Antigone was committed to her family and we see this same commitment to family in Anna Julia Cooper who was also born into a close-knit family. Born in 1859, “Annie” was the daughter of an enslaved mother by the name of Hannah Stanley Haywood and her master, George Washington Haywood. Annie did not have a loving relationship with her master/father and she expressed her bitterness to him in the following quotation about her mother: “Presumably my father was her master, if so I owe him not a sou. She was always too modest and shamefaced to ever mention him.”[4]

Illustration from Wilson Armistead’s Five Hundred Thousand Strokes for Freedom: A Series of Anti-Slavery Tracts (W. & F. Cash, London, 1853), accessible here.

Even with the pain of being enslaved and being aware of the physical and sexual oppression of her mother, Anna’s family still maintained cohesiveness. Annie had two older brothers named Rufus and Andrew who were considerably older than her. Together the entire family belonged to the Haywood family of Raleigh, North Carolina. Anna’s maternal grandfather was also a part of her family on the plantation and was a well-known and skilled carpenter who also had a hand in building the State Capitol of North Carolina. Her brothers inherited the same skill as their grandfather and, after gaining freedom, they were able to earn a living as successful carpenters.[5]

Anna does not provide a comprehensive autobiography of herself, so we must speculate about her personal feelings during these early years, drawing on occasional comments about her enslavement and her family. From these we do get the sense that she and her family developed a strong family bond and a mutual respect for each other, which we can see play out in some of her actions after freedom and adulthood. In one quotation, Anna shares her deepest feelings about her mother, from which we can sense that her mother was inspirational to her work:

My mother was a slave and the finest woman I have ever known… Her… self-sacrificing toil to give me advantages that she had never enjoyed herself is worthy of the highest praise and undying gratitude.[6]

“The types of mankind are various: they differ like the waves, but they are one like the sea.” A message from Frederick Douglass (1817-95) from 1889, written in Anna’s autograph album (Howard University Scrapbooks and Albums 1, p.22).

Later in life and after becoming widowed – she was married to George A. C. Cooper, a minister, for just a few years before he died – Anna shows her commitment to her family when she raised her five grand-nieces and nephews.

One main thought seemed to characterize Anna’s memory during her years as a young slave and that was the desire to be free. She tells of the anxiousness she and the other slaves felt over which side would win the Civil War, sometimes waking up in the night to ask each other if anyone knew who would prevail.[7] Anna was so young at that time; even as an adult she did not talk much about her life as a slave. In fact, Anna’s slave narrative is unique in comparison to most others in that there is no harrowing tale of how she and her family followed the North Star to freedom. Instead we learn that she and her family remained enslaved until emancipation. She also remained close to the land owned by those who formerly enslaved her, until she finished most of her early education.

Anna was about six or seven years of age when she and her family were emancipated. As with most emancipated people, this was a time of great confusion: Anna and her family had spent their entire lives living and working on the Haywood Plantation and all of their sustenance was gained through their time there.

A profound message from Alexander Crummell (1819-98), a leading campaigner for abolition and black rights (Howard University Scrapbooks and Albums 1, p.19 ). Crummell was also the first African American to study at the University of Cambridge, studyng for the BA pass degree at Queens’ College from 1849 to 1853, in the company of his wife and three children, and while serving as a curate of St Stephen’s, Ipswich (from 1851).

Now, with emancipation, Anna and her family had to figure out how to find their place in the world. It is right at this moment, right at this intersection of enslavement and freedom, that we begin to see Anna’s life-path take shape. But you get the sense that, just as Antigone was inspired by a love for her family, Anna too chose a path for her life that reflected a love and respect for her family’s desire to pursue education as well.

“Any account of the little success I may have achieved would be incomplete without a tribute of grateful acknowledgment of the constant help of noble friends without whom my struggles would have been futile.” A manuscript of Anna’s headed “A Tribute of Gratitude” (Howard University, Anna Julia Cooper, Manuscripts and Addresses 12).

Character Trait 3: Women of Duty

“Perhaps. But I am doing only what I must.” Antigone [8]

Although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, slaves were not actually freed until 1865. Soon after her family was officially freed, Anna entered school at St Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute in 1867. This chain of events unveils a reality that Anna and her family faced: the key to true liberation was through education.

Anna was only about ten years old. Her mother and brothers were well into adulthood, so maybe they felt it was too late for them to get an education. Anna entering school right after emancipation reveals that her family looked to her to be the one to change the legacy of enslavement her family had lived under for generations. Just as Antigone felt a sense of duty to her family by burying her brother, Anna felt a sense of duty to get her education as a way to honor her family.

She proved to be such a motivated student that she was still quite young when the school’s administration began to invite Anna to teach other students. She surpassed everyone, not least in her commitment to pass on to students the education she herself had received. From the moment she started school at around ten years old she was driven to this higher call and remained unshaken, just as Antigone was.

Antigone and Ismene, by Svetlin Vassilev (reproduced with the artist’s permission; © Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain).

St Augustine’s was a Classical school established by the Episcopalian church. Anna remained there for about 14 years, both as a student and as a teacher of Latin, Greek and Math. She clearly enjoyed her time at St Augustine’s but felt frustrated because she was only allowed to take a limited number of Classical classes due to her gender. Originally only male students were allowed to take Greek, but just as Antigone challenged Creon about his unreasonable law not to bury her brother, Anna challenged this rule and was able to “sit in” on the male Greek classes. But she was still frustrated by how male students were freely offered the opportunity to take Greek, whereas she had to beg for the chance just to listen. Anna continued to fight this preferential treatment of male students and eventually Greek classes were offered equally to both male and female students.

The outcome of Anna challenging the preferential treatment of male students is different than the result of Antigone’s rebellion. Perhaps this is why Anna has not explicitly included this woman in her list of heroines. Anna sought to make change and work within the system to help those in powers see the flaws of it. Antigone moved forward in blind rebellion, willing to lose her life, but not making change within the system until it was way too late. Despite these differences, the strength and drive of both women are so clearly parallel.

A promotional advert for a lecture in Guthrie, OH (Dec. 1908).

Character Trait 4: Women of Sacrifice

“Goodbye to the Sun that shines for me no longer.” Antigone [9]

St Augustine’s was set up to educate the newly freed people. Because Anna was so gifted with the Classical education she had received, she was chosen to be a teacher and, although she excelled there, she yearned for more. She was the shining star at the school that also rested on the land of her former masters. It was time to say goodbye to that era of her life in the South. Any memory of her life as a slave had to be put to rest.

Anna wanted to continue her Classical studies, but St Augustine’s could not take her any further. Antigone sacrificed her life in order to honor her brother by burying him. She would never rise again. It must have been hard for Anna to leave her family and all that she had ever known to pursue her life’s work. A part of Anna Julia Cooper also died when she ended her time at St Augustine’s, but just like the sun rises on a new day, a new life awaited her – one that would allow her to carry on her work of activism and education.

In 1881 Anna left St Augustine’s, with no diploma, graduation or grand farewell. She went to Oberlin College in Ohio, with the support of an enthusiastic letter of recommendation from the principal of St Augustine’s, John E.C. Smedes (which can be read below). St Augustine’s had given her a good Classical foundation and it was within Classical studies that she found her passion and calling. Being able to teach at St Augustine’s also awakened her gift for teaching: she found that teaching Classical subjects best served her people. The African American people were illiterate coming out of slavery and it was through Classical education that Anna could help them obtain the literacy they needed to thrive in America. Oberlin was also unique at the time, in that it was more open to women and African Americans obtaining equal education opportunities, yet there were still inequities.

Anna was a Woman of Purpose. As she said:

Only the BLACK WOMAN can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.[10]

Many women were admitted to Oberlin but had to take the “women’s courses”, which focused on building their domestic skills. Classes for women did not require them to take Latin, Greek or Advanced Math. Anna again requested to take the “gentlemen’s courses” and excelled at a full Classical education at Oberlin, graduating with her Bachelors in Math in 1884.

From this she went on to many other opportunities: Classical teacher and Principal in the M Street School in Washington, DC; President of Frelinghuysen University in Washington, which provided education after hours to working African Americans who wanted to finish high school and be prepared for college; to earn a BA and MA in Math from Oberlin, and a PhD in History from the Sorbonne in Paris (in 1925); as a public speaker, speaking on matters of race and gender equality – and so much more. She lived to be over 100 years old, dedicated to serving the African American people through Classical education up to the very end.

Anna at her Washington home in the 1930s – then also the premises of Frelinghuysen University – alongside a bust of Frederick Douglass.

This is where Anna and Antigone separate. Anna lived on to fulfill a higher purpose, challenging the unjust and inequitable laws against women and African Americans, giving them a Classical education in order to prepare them for life as free citizens. She was committed to live through the fight. She was determined to make it to the other side where she would see her efforts make change at a grander level.

Unlike Antigone, whose focus was on simply giving her brother an honorable burial, as opposed to challenging the overall system that supported leaving his body to rot in the open, Anna went beyond just helping her mother, her brothers or her community. Anna Julia Cooper wanted to change the world. She would do it with grace, dignity and by working with the powers that were present. She would stand strong through it all unwavering, paving the way for those who would come after. She knew her call was greater than herself, greater than her family, and greater than her community, but her call was to all of her people and ultimately the world.

Anika Prather has been Professor of Classics at Howard University. She is co-authoring a book on the Black Classical Tradition and Anna Julia Cooper, coming out in 2022 with Classical Academic Press. Her two previous pieces for Antigone explore Aristotelian ideas of friendship and mourn the loss of the Classics Department at Howard.


1 A loose translation of Ant. 48 ἀλλ᾽ οὐδὲν αὐτῷ τῶν ἐμῶν μ᾽ εἴργειν μέτα, literally “But he has no power to keep me from my own.” This passage, and others cited in this article, can be read in Greek and English here.
2 E. Ashley Hairston, The Ebony Column (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN, 2013) 140.
3 A loose translation of Ant. 37–8 δείξεις τάχα / εἴτ᾽ εὐγενὴς πέφυκας εἴτ᾽ ἐσθλῶν κακή, literally “You will soon prove whether you have been born of noble blood or as a bad woman from good stock.”
4 Karen A. Johnson, Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Lives, Educational Philosophies and Social Activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen Burroughs (Studies in African American History and Culture) (Garland, New York, 2000) 34.
5 Johnson, ibid., 36.
6 Louise D. Hutchinson, Anna J. Cooper: A Voice from the South (Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington, DC, 1981) 166.
7 Johnson, ibid., 37.
8 A loose translation of Ant. 89 ἀλλ᾽ οἶδ᾽ ἀρέσκουσ᾽ οἷς μάλισθ᾽ ἁδεῖν με χρή, literally “But I know that I please those whom I must most please.”
9 A loose translation of Ant. 808–10: ὁρᾶτ᾽ ἔμ᾽… τὰν νεάταν ὁδὸν / στείχουσαν, νέατον δὲ φέγγος λεύσσουσαν ἀελίου, / κοὔποτ᾽ αὖθις, literally “You see me setting out on the last journey, looking upon the last light of the sun, and never again.”
10 Anna J. Cooper, A Voice from the South (Aldine Printing House, Xenia, OH, 1892; repr. Oxford UP, 1988) xxix.