Anna J. Cooper at Home in Le Droit Park

Visual Culture Studies 2.0

Anna J. Cooper, 1934. Photo: George Scurlock. Collection of the Smithsonian Institution

In The Scurlock Studio, Picturing the Promise and Black Washington, historians Deborah Willis and Lonnie G. Bunch III say that the Studio's photographs were an integral part of the New Negro Movement and an effective Anna J. Cooper, photograph from her book, A Voice from the Southcounter-narrative to racial imagery about blacks prevalent in early to mid-20th century media.

Geroge Scurlock's 1934 photograph of educator, feminist and race leader Anna J. Haywood Cooper (1858-1964) in her 76th year, was taken in her finely-appointed home in Washington’s Le Droit Park, a neighborhood near Howard University, which was home to Washington’s African American elite.

The sculptures on pedestals and crystal in the sitting room, the leaded glass windows, the French doors and stone columned porch of her large home represent the vast social distance from her enslaved childhood as well as comforts enjoyed by a long-time educator during the Great Depression. Cooper’s simple linen dress is cut in the loose style worn by women in the 1920s, before the introduction of the uplift brassiere.  Although matronly, the style was a liberating release from the corseted attire of the previous era. Touching one of several potted plants on the sunny porch, she seems to reveal an aspect of her nurturing nature. Childless and only briefly married, she required a large house because she adopted the five children of her late half-brother upon their mother's death. An outstanding teacher and principal, she nurtured generations of young people.

Looking through the French doors into the sitting room, one can imagine it filled with the “Saturday Nighters,” the group of black Washingtonians who met there to discuss politics, literature and the arts.

Unseen in George Scurlock’s genteel portrait of an elderly woman is the fierce intellect that fueled innumerable public speeches, battles and debates about education and the uplift of the race.  

It is a portrait of determination — the dogged persistence that led Cooper, at age 67 in 1925, to become the fourth African American woman earn a PhD; the degree was from the University of Paris in France.

In the person and life of Anna J. Cooper, George Scurlock found a formerly enslaved subject who would live until the year that the Civil Rights Act was enacted — 1964. The act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

She is most well-known for her book, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South which, at a time when most southern African American women had little formal education — 1892, contended that their education was integral to the advancement of African Americans as a whole.