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Celebrating North Carolina’s African American History: Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and the History of Black History Month

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Celebrating North Carolina’s African American History:  Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and the History of Black History Month

This month we honor and celebrate our country’s African American heritage. And just a few weeks ago a fellow librarian shared the name of an extraordinary North Carolina woman I had never heard of – and that NCpedia was missing among its entries on African Americans and women: Anna Julia Haywood Cooper. I was grateful to learn this and to be able to add her biography to NCpedia thanks to Ansley Wegner at the Office of Archives and History.

Portrait of Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, from her "Voice from the South," published 1892 by the Aldine Printing House, Xenia, Ohio

Portrait of Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, from her “Voice from the South,” published 1892 by the Aldine Printing House, Xenia, Ohio

Living to a remarkable 96 years of age, Anna Cooper was born a slave sometime around 1858 in Raleigh, her mother a slave in the home of Dr. Fabius Haywood. Anna Cooper attended St. Augustine’s Normal School after the Civil War and then received an M.A. in Mathematics from Oberlin in 1887. In addition to a teaching career, she became a brilliant and outspoken advocate for African American history, culture and education and feminism.

As a federally recognized observance, African American History Month first began by Presidential Proclamation of Gerald Ford in 1976, coincidentally the country’s bicentennial. More significant, 1976 was the 50th anniversary of the celebration of Negro History Week, begun in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson as an outgrowth of his founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in Chicago in 1915. An historian, journalist, and advocate for systematic research into the neglected and buried history of African Americans, Woodson had put the event in motion in 1924 by urging members of his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, to organize Negro History and Literature Week, which became Negro Achievement Week.

In 1925, the 50th anniversary of Emancipation, the ASNLH organized the national celebration to take place in February 1926. February was chosen for its association with two February birthdays historically celebrated in Black Communities: Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14. Although Woodson apparently originally intended the week in February as a one-time celebration, the event quickly spurred the growth of organizations and community groups who responded with annual celebrations. By the 1950s, Negro History Week was celebrated in cities and communities across the country.  And building on the heels of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and the 50 year history of Negro History Week, President Gerald Ford made the first federal proclamation of African American History Month in 1976. All presidents since have issued the February proclamation.

Explore these resources:

Wegner, Ansley. “Anna Julia Haywood Cooper.” NCpedia.

Cooper, Anna Julia Haywood. Voice from the South.  Xenia, Ohio: Aldine Printing House, 1892.

Gerald Ford, Message on the Observance of Black History Month, February 1976.

Barak Obama, Presidential Proclamation — National African American History Month, 2015.

NCpedia resources on African Americans and African American History in North Carolina.

African American Education, North Carolina Digital Collections,

Works by and about Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, from WorldCat (searches the holdings of libraries around the world),

Kelly Agan, NCpedia Digital Media Librarian, Government & Heritage Library

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