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Learning Center Experience
By Jennifer Harrison
“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a
race or a sect, a party or a class–it is the cause of human kind, the very
birthright of humanity.”1
published in Anna Julia Cooper’s 1892 A
Voice from the South, emphasizes a point that many twenty-first century
Americans take for granted; however, it is a the subject of discourse from both
Cooper and her contemporary, Ida Wells-Barnett. Sociologists Lengerman and
Niebrugge-Brantley (1998) note that the contributions of both women are
paramount to understanding the intersection between race, class, and gender in
the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries. “First, as a
general social theory created through the lens of race relations...; second, Cooper and Wells-Barnett were not lone voices, but part of an enormous,
segregated tradition of social analysis by African-Americans—including a rich
discourse by African-American
women…; third, Cooper and Wells-Barnett create a social theory morally and
passionately centered in a standard of justice derived from Judeo-Christian
religion and American demographic and republic claims...and fourth, Cooper and
Wells-Barnett produced a theory of the intersection of race, class, and gender….”2 The voices of Cooper and
Wells-Barnett would serve as powerful models for future civil rights activists.
Both women were born
into a life of slavery, Cooper in North Carolina in 1858 to Hannah Stanley and,
presumably, her white master, George Washington Haywood, and Ida Wells in
Mississippi in 1862 to Jim Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton. Both were raised by
families who espoused education, and, once their families received their
freedom at the end of the Civil War, both young women attended school. As a
teenager, Wells would take responsibility for her siblings after the death of
her parents from yellow fever in 1878; she attended Rust College and would
teach in Mississippi before moving to Tennessee to teach and continue her
education at Fisk University. As a child, Cooper attended St. Augustine’s
Normal School and Collegiate Institute, and then became a teacher in her late
teens. She attended Oberlin College in
Ohio where she received her degree in 1884 (and later her master’s degree in
1887), and then moved to Washington to teach Latin and math at Washington High
School, later named the M Street High School. The teaching careers of both
women would prepare them for a life of oration and public discourse on
(she married Ferdinand Barnett in 1895) fought tirelessly to expose heinous
acts of violence against African Americans, and to secure national support for
efforts to publicly counteract white violence towards African Americans,
including publications of the numbers of African Americans lynched each year. Her
experiences teaching in Tennessee would prepare her for a life of advocacy; one
of her earliest mentions of lynching is from her personal diary in September
1886, “…My only plea is the pitch of indignation to which I was carried by
reading an article in the home papers concerning a great outrage that recently
happened in Jackson Tenn. A colored woman accused of poisoning a white one was
taken from the county jail and stripped naked and hung up in the courthouse
yard and her body riddled with bullets and left exposed to view! O my God! Can
such things be and no justice for it? The only evidence being that the stomach
of the dead woman contained arsenic & a box of “Rough on Rats” was found in
this woman’s house, who was a cook for the white woman. It may be unwise to
express myself so strongly but I cannot help it & I know not if capital may
not be made of it against me but I trust in God.”3
critique of mob violence spurned the claims of the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries that lynching was a response to purported sexual violence, and
argued, as historian Mia Bay notes, “…lynching had nothing to do with rape and
everything to do with power.”4 Wells-Barnett would be
labeled as a radical and outspoken, outraging more conservative African
American leaders who were less than thrilled with her assertiveness. What is
most remarkable regarding her crusade for justice is that she did so in the
public eye, in spite of societal expectations regarding women’s proper place as
in the home. Cooper would follow a similar path, speaking in churches and local
meeting halls. Both women recognized that it would only be through equal
political engagement and empowerment that African Americans, specifically
African American women, could be truly free.
1. Anna Julia
Cooper, A Voice from
the South (Electronic Edition.) Original work
published in 1892. Retrieved from Documenting the American South, 120-121.
2. Lengermann, Patricia M.,&
Niebrugge-Brantley, Jill. The woman founders: Sociology and social theory,
1830-1930. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 171-172.
3. Ida Wells-Barnett, M. Willis-DeCosta, and M.
Washington. Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells.
(Beacon Press, 1995), 102.
4. Mia Bay. To
Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009),
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