Anna J. Cooper, her school, & her legacy

Isn’t it funny how the intent to research a story can lead down an entirely different rabbit hole?

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Several years ago, I listened to an NPR morning edition about an incredible woman, born in slavery in Raleigh, NC who became one of the most important figures in American education, Anna J. Cooper. Representing an organization founded in Raleigh that supports equal education, it seemed fitting to highlight the voice of such an instrumental African-American woman this February.

But, in researching Cooper, I also learned about the school she gave her heart and soul to.

Morning Edition mentioned that Cooper was ahead of her time in several ways. Cooper thought IQ tests weren’t predictive of performance, and she advocated for extra time on tests and paper for those with special needs. She was the principal of M Street School in 1901, mind you, so these ideas were way before her time (especially considering Congress would not pass an act related to learning disabilities or handicapped children until 1969). But most importantly, she was ahead of her time in advocating for the impact home life has on student performance. Her commitment to this idea was clearly exemplified by the fact that she, as a single African-American woman on a teacher’s salary, fostered 2 children and had 5 adoptive children.


So, what is the story of M Street school? It was the first black high school in D.C., and it was known for its rigor and its famous alumni and administrators. In its early years, Mary Patterson was the acting principal (also born into slavery in Raleigh, NC), and she was the first African-American woman to receive a B.A. Following her leadership, Richard Theodore Greener, the first African-American to graduate from Harvard, served as principal. Then, there is the long list of famous alumni who attended school there: Benjamin O. Davis, the first African-American general in the US military, Dr. Charles Drew, a man who started one of the first large-scale blood banks, to name a few. The school was eventually renamed for the poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and is still a high school in D.C. today.


However, this is where the story takes a turn. Dunbar underwent a drastic change in the 1950s. Economist, Thomas Sowell, attributes the school’s transformation to the ruling that the school must become a “neighborhood school.” Although the school’s racial demographics did not change, soon the social issues and context of the concentrated poverty outside the school became the problems of the classroom. Sowell describes the change in his piece, “Dunbar High School After 100 Years,” stating, “Virtually overnight, Dunbar became a typical ghetto school. As unmotivated, unruly and disruptive students flooded in, Dunbar teachers began moving out and many retired. More than 80 years of academic excellence simply vanished into thin air.”

Sowell points to the same issues that Dr. Gary Orfield of The Civil Right Project at UCLA describes in his chapter called “The Story of Meaningful School Choice” when he says, “"The evidence is clear that good management alone will not overcome the harms of concentrated poverty and lack of political clout that accumulate in poor communities and make these contexts less responsive to the needs of children."


And Orfield’s research seems to echo the same sentiment Cooper fought for years before; the idea that the social and economic issues of our communities are not left outside the classroom when children come to school. These issues are present in the locker rooms and in the hallways.

Consider honoring the legacy of Anna J. Cooper this February by learning more about the ways to fight concentrated poverty and urban blight in order to positively impact students at schools like Dunbar, where 100% of the students enrolled are considered economically disadvantaged. Join us, and learn more here.

More about Cooper here and here // Image sources