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  • "In Service for the Common Good":Anna Julia Cooper and Adult Education
  • Karen A. Johnson (bio)

The man who is both colored and poor finds himself left out of the educational reckoning and surely in need of those agencies for college extension and higher education which may be initiated by the resourceful sympathies of his own leaders.

—Anna Julia Cooper ("College Extension for Working People" 38)

The phrase "in service for the common good" is taken from a brief essay written by Anna Julia Cooper in the foreword section of the Decennial Catalogue of the Frelinghuysen University. For Cooper, adult education for the African American working poor was a necessary "doctor and unfailing remedy" that would not only lift them from illiteracy and poverty but also prepare unlettered and continuing education adults for the "solid foundations of a more satisfactory and serviceable adjustment to the duties and responsibilities of life" (Cooper, "College Extension" 36; Decennial 8). From Cooper's perspective, college extension and adult education were not about providing "charity" to the "unprivileged classes," as she states, but rather these forms of continuing education played a crucial function as community-based uplift vehicles that would serve in the "universal betterment" of humanity and in overall societal transformation ("College Extension" 35).

Cooper, who lived to be 105 years old, witnessed several critical periods in U. S. history—from the antebellum era to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Driven by a deep commitment to helping her race, gender, and the economically marginalized through education, Cooper rose to head one of the most prestigious African American high schools in the nation's capital—the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (later known as the "M" Street School and later renamed for Paul Laurence Dunbar), by 1902. Decades later, in 1930, Cooper served as second president of Frelinghuysen University, an independent school for working-class African Americans. By the time Cooper was in her mid-sixties, she had earned her Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in 1925, thereby making her the fourth black woman in this nation to receive a Ph.D. at that time.

Heralded as an educator, feminist, social critic, and author, Cooper devoted her entire life to the education and empowerment of African American youth and adults through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her commitment and passionate belief in education as an instrument to social, economic and political empowerment was a driving force in her life. As a classroom teacher, high school principal, and a college extension president, Cooper implemented pioneering educational reforms that reflected her distinctive approach and philosophy regarding education for African Americans. Cooper's theory and praxis of education contested the prevailing discourse regarding how African Americans should be educated by offering alternative options for educating this disenfranchised group.

Although there is burgeoning scholarship that discusses Cooper's social, literary, and feminist views, her adult education work and beliefs about the field have not been thoroughly examined.1 Still, Cooper and many other African American women educators before and after her have been "the backbone of their community and nowhere have their contributions been more pronounced than in [every facet of] education" (Peterson 5).2 Adult education has indeed played a key part in ameliorating [End Page 45] the lives of African Americans in the U. S., and the activities of African American women adult educators such as Cooper are significant to the story of adult education and the black experience. Historical research reveals that African Americans have been involved in literacy and adult education work commencing with the antebellum era.3 As adult educational scholars Leo McGee and Harvey Neufeldt explain, "From the time [the enslaved] were forced on the American scene … their education has been at an absolute premium. When [the enslaved] first entered the new world they had to become educated for sheer survival and to carry out their labor assignments" (ix).

During the Reconstruction years and into the civil rights struggle, educators such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Alain Locke, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Anna Julia Cooper, Jesse Lawson, and Septima Poinsette Clark were a few of the many African Americans who provided informal and formal literacy training and...


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