The saints of Black History Month

By J. Carleton Hayden

Black History Week, now Black History Month, was founded in 1927 by Carter G. Woodson, chair of Howard University’s history department, in the week that contains the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12), and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). For us Episcopalians, the month contains three remarkable descendants of Africa commemorated as saints of the church.

The first African American to be added to our liturgical calendar was Absalom Jones, a slave who through hard work purchased first the freedom of his wife, Mary, and then his own, founded the Free African Society, America’s first formally organized social welfare association run by blacks, the Episcopal Church’s first black congregation, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, and became, in 1802, this country’s first black priest. For the past 30 years, the Washington Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians has held a diocesan-wide commemoration of Jones, which this year is set for Feb. 14 at Calvary, D.C.

Janani Luwum, the martyred Archbishop of Uganda (feast day, Feb. 17), was recently added to our liturgical calendar. He denounced the brutality of Idi Amin, Uganda’s dictator, and asserted the right of the church to promote justice and protect the oppressed. Summoned to the presidential palace, Luwum went boldly, declaring “I can see the hand of God in this.” Idi Amin ordered him shot as a traitor, with some reporting that Amin himself had pulled the trigger. At the cathedral in Kampala, thousands gathered for a memorial service at an empty grave that had been prepared for Luwum next to that of James Hannington, Uganda’s first bishop. Hannington, an English missionary, also had been martyred in Uganda on Oct. 29, 1885 (feast day, Oct. 29). A statue of Luwum now stands among the martyrs of the 20th Century at Westminster Abbey.

Anna Julia Cooper, a devout Anglican, feminist, educator and civil rights advocate, is currently my favorite Black History Month saint. She was added to the liturgical calendar in 2006. I first became aware of Cooper in 1969 as a Howard University graduate student. After the daily morning Eucharist, her grandniece, Regia T. Bronson, often treated this small congregation to breakfast at Cooper’s stately but decaying residence at 201 T. Street NW, about a half block from St. George’s, D.C. Bronson gave me some of Cooper’s books, which are to me sacred relics, and her papers, which I deposited at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. These contain letters from such notable historical figures as Frederick Douglass, William Still, Alexander Crummell, and Mary Shadd Cary, a leader among African American refugees in Ontario and later America’s first black lawyer.

Anna Julia Cooper was born into slavery on Aug. 10, 1858, in Raleigh, N.C., to Hannah Stanley and her slave master, George Washington Hayward. Cooper praised her mother for her sacrifices and guidance but stated she owed nothing to her white father “beyond the initial act of procreation.” A cradle Episcopalian, she was one of the first students at what is now St. Augustine’s College, established by the church shortly after the Civil War to educate teachers and priests to serve newly-freed slaves. She married her Greek professor, the Rev. George Augustus Christopher Cooper of Nassau, and the young couple labored in the Episcopal mission there until he died of pneumonia in 1897, just two months after being ordained as a priest.

Cooper earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College, the first American college to enroll both women and blacks, and went on to teach at the AME’s Wilberforce University, — which was named for William Wilberforce, England’s anti-slavery champion (feast day, July 30) – and at St. Augustine’s.

In 1886, she read a sensational paper on the need to educate women at a meeting of the Conferences of Church Workers Among the Colored People at St. Luke’s, D.C. The next year, she accepted a teaching position at Washington’s segregated M Street High School, America’s best high school for blacks. She worshipped at St. Luke’s, boarding with several other professional women at the home of her rector, the Rev. Alexander Crummell. She was named principal of M Street High School in 1902. Four years later, she was not re-appointed following allegations by the white director of high schools that her discipline was insufficiently severe and her academic standards too high for black students. She taught at Lincoln University in Missouri and Langston University in Oklahoma, and spent summers at Columbia University pursuing her doctorate, eventually returning to M Street High School as a teacher.

Always an advocate for the rights of women and African Americans and a builder of institutions to prepare them for full equality in American society, Cooper wrote in her best-known book, A Voice From the South by a Black Woman From the South, (1892): “When and where I enter, the whole race enters with me.” A prolific writer, she also penned an autobiography, A Third Step, Legislative Measures Concerning Slavery in the United States, among other works.

At the 1893 Women’s Congress in Chicago, she lectured on the intellectual progress and achievements of African American women. When Crummell founded the American Negro Academy, a forerunner of the NAACP, to counter racism in the U.S., Cooper was its only female member. At the first Pan-African Congress, held in London in 1900, she presented a paper titled, “The Negro Problem in America,” which described the plight of African Americans as pathetic for a Christian nation. Congress attendees included fellow Episcopalians William E.B. DuBois and Bishop James Theodore Holly, of Haiti, the Episcopal Church’s first black bishop. Cooper also prepared the Congress’s memo to Queen Victoria, protesting apartheid in South Africa.

At the age of 55, Cooper’s life changed dramatically when she became the guardian of Regia Bronson and her four siblings after their mother died. She purchased a home on T Street, and became one of the first black residents of Le Droit Park.

At the age of 66, she was awarded her PhD from the Sorbonne, becoming the fourth African American woman to earn that degree. And in 1930, after more than 40 years at M Street, she accepted the presidency of Frelinghuyuen University, a struggling group of vocational evening classes taught by volunteer faculty and meeting in black churches. As finances declined, she moved the classes into her home, accepting neither rent nor salary.

She died peacefully in her sleep on Feb. 29, 1964, at the age of 105, and was buried in Raleigh, N.C. On her tomb were inscribed the words she had chosen, “Somebody’s teacher on vacation… Resting for the fall opening.”

What a blessing that every Feb. 28, we can celebrate her heavenly birthday and ask her to pray for us, her students, always being shaped as disciples waiting for the new school year.

The Rev. J. Carleton Hayden is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington and a professor of history at Howard University. This article first appeared in Washington Window.

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