Melissa Harris-Perry | February 23, 2013
>>> out, take a moment, look at pages 26 and 27. there you will find an image of the statue of liberty and you will find these words written across the top. 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. any guess on the author of these words? jefferson, kennedy? nope. this is the one and only quote in the u.s. passport that belongs to a woman. they are the words of anna julia cooper , born into slavery in north carolina in 1858 , cooper lived 105 years, passing away just months before the 1964 civil rights act was signed into law. during her century of scholarship and activism, cooper became a visionary political theorist, activist, orator, educator and human rights advocate. in 1925 she became the first black woman to earn a ph.d. at the sorbonne in paris. cooper is author of "voice from the south, a foundational text of black feminism " where she argues 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. she described her vocation as the education of neglected people. she fought to ensure access for her students but her success was received with hostility rather than celebration from a power structure that was not necessarily interested in the advancement of black youth. my guest this morning is allison stewart. she writes extensively about cooper in her new book, "first class, the legacy of dunbar, america's first black public high school ." so nice to have you here.
>> it is nice to be with you.
>> talk to me about cooper as an educator and what she was trying to do.
>> one of her favorite proverbs was where there is no vision, the people perish. so her sense of vision was as you said, the neglected and in her mind, it was the whole negro race but women specifically. a lot of times people would ask her well, what about the boys. she would say not the boys less, the girls more. it was from her own personal experience, as you mentioned. born into slavery, went to school, became a teacher, married at 19, widowed at 21. so as a 21-year-old, what did she decide to do? not stay and teach grammar school which is an excellent profession, but she decided she wanted to go to college. that was radical.
>> can you imagine being born into slavery and then having the audacity of self to say no, i'm going not only to college but to graduate school , and then to become a leader, an education leader.
>> she had to fight her whole way through, had to get fight to get people to recommend her to go to overland. she whizzed through the classes allowed for women, had to let her take greek, math, latin, all of which she aced. one of her biggest issues was secondary education for african-american, for colored boys and girls . that's how she ended up the principal of m street , the predecessor to dunbar, this book. it was a powerhouse school, produced some of the greatest african-american scholars of the 21st century . she was the principal and refused to let the power structure there roll back the curriculum.
>> which they wanted to do because they had this vocational perspective, right? it was this okay, what we need to teach these young colored kids to do is to get these sort of narrow set of jobs and she says no, we must educate their whole selves and their minds.
>> absolutely. she said we are educating not men and women, we are educating the race. at one point they wanted her to trade in shakespeare for treasure island . she called it the wearing that handkerchief moment of othello. lend me thine handkerchief that you've given me, desdemona. and she says there are people here wearing that handkerchief. that's all you could understand.
>> so she lives 105 years.
>> can you imagine what she experienced in her life?
>> to go from slavery to the civil rights movement , to live just before the '64 civil rights act . she's not just parochial. her world is not just the u.s. she also is an international woman.
>> that was interesting. she was a high school teacher and principal and spoke at the pan-african conference. it was interesting, there aren't melissa harris-perrys or nprs where people got the word out and talked about intellectual thoughts. what they did, they went on long speaking tours and she would publish papers and speak at conferences just to get this message out that we must put the african race forward, the african- american race forward through education.
>> and let's talk just momentarily also about the fact that for her, it was the race but also at the intersection of gender. she is really our black feminist foremother, the one who says you can't talk just race, if you ignore the ways that gender cross-cuts it.
>> she also would not back down in any way. often, debois would quote her and not give her credit, which is interesting. she had that sort of strength and would not back down to the detriment of her career. she was run out of her job for not backing down. her job as principal, for not backing down.
>> i love that you brought up the point about debois who many of us know sort of the contributions, we have been silent about the contributions of anna julia cooper . thank you for bringing her back to us in your new text.
>>> if you would like to learn more about anna julia cooper , in my day job , the thing i do during the week, i am the director of anna julia cooper project on gender, race and politics in the south at tulane university . learn more about cooper at cooperproject.org.
>>> coming up, wawa, apple pie and my letter of the week. congressman duncan, this one's for you. this is so