Education pioneers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

One measure of a society is the degree of educational opportunity afforded its minorities. In a two-part series marking Black History Month, the Monitor examines the experience of three gifted black women of 100 years ago and of today. In 1862 Oberlin College in Ohio became the first to grant a BA degree to a black American woman. Since then the school has graduated several hundred black women. Today's article examines three such graduates from the class of 1884. Tomorrow's will focus on three members of the class of 1984.

Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida Gibbs Hunt graduated from Oberlin at a time when fewer than 50 black women in the entire United States held the coveted BA degree. After graduation in 1884, these three left the ivory tower for a world characterized by segregation in both public education and public accommodations, and an electoral process that did not permit women to vote.

Meeting at their 68th college reunion in 1952, these three sat down and compared notes on their lives. Talking of their personal triumphs against racism and sexism, they decided that the obstacles they encountered ''as mere females of a recently freed race only made the triumphs sweeter.''

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All three women were born in the Civil War era. Only one of them was the daughter of free parents - Ida Gibbs Hunt. Anna Cooper was born in slavery, while Mary Church Terrell was born the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, 1863.

Public schools were segregated then. Miss Cooper attended a black secondary school, St. Augustine's, in North Carolina, today an Episcopal college. But the two others prepared for college in the public schools of the town of Oberlin, in northern Ohio.

When they arrived at college they discovered Oberlin required Latin, Greek, and higher mathematics for a BA degree. Most women students then selected a course of study that did not require these subjects, receiving instead a ''Ladies Literary Degree.'' But these three enrolled in the ''Gentlemen's'' program.

Anna Cooper was told Greek was a ''man's subject,'' but she decided to major in it anyway. Mary Church's family told her no man would marry a woman who knew higher mathematics. She said she would ''run the risk.'' (She later married Judge Robert Terrell.)

After graduation, they pioneered as teachers at the college level.Miss Cooper and Mrs. Terrell taught at Wilberforce University, a black college in Ohio, while Ida Hunt taught at Florida A&M, also a black school. For Mrs. Terrell and Mrs. Hunt, it was their first experience in a segregated college environment.

All three were living in Washington, D.C., by the 1890s. Two of them taught at segregated M Street High School, predecessor of the famous Dunbar High School. Mrs. Terrell, newly married, was the second woman - and first black woman - to be appointed to the District of Columbia School Board. Her vote counted there years before women were allowed to vote in federal elections.

A decade after graduation, these women were keenly aware of racism and sexism as major obstacles in their paths. Miss Cooper's ''A Voice From the South,'' published in 1892, explains how young black women were ''confronted by both a woman question and a race problem,'' and seemed to be ''an unknown or unacknowledged factor in both.''

Mrs. Terrell soon became a factor in both by organizing the National Association of Colored Women, touring the country to speak up for woman suffrage. She also became a founding member of the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Miss Cooper, principal in the early 1900s of M Street High School, was not as politically active as Mrs. Terrell. But she made her mark as well. Personally opposed to the philosophy of manual education for black Americans espoused by Booker T. Washington, she contacted Ivy League colleges and universities to arrange for admission and scholarships for her school's graduates. She was also one of the first black American women to receive a doctorate, completing her studies at the University of Paris in 1925 at the age of 67. (Her dissertation was on French attitudes toward slavery, 1789-1848.)

All three women remained active in their retirement years. Ida Gibbs Hunt published essays on black history. And she raised funds for the Washington Conservatory of Music, founded in the District of Columbia for young blacks by her sister, Hattie Gibbs Marshall. Mary Church Terrell challenged racism in the Washington branch of the Association for University Women. She also chaired a committee to integrate Washington restaurants and lunch counters. At 89 she was out on the picket line. And Miss Cooper founded Frelinghuysen University, a night school in Washington for black men and women. She served as its president for a decade.

These women were active internationally as well. Mrs. Terrell lived in Europe for three years, and Mrs. Hunt lived in France for 20 years as the wife of an American consul. Miss Cooper studied in Paris. She attended the first Pan African Conference in London (1900), while Mrs. Terrell spoke at the International Congress of Women in Berlin (1904), at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Zurich (1919), and before the United Nations Human Rights Commission (1949).

Two of these women lived into their 90s, and Miss Cooper passed on at 104. In ''A Colored Woman in a White World,'' Mary Church Terrell spoke for her classmates as well as for herself when she said her autobiography showed ''what a colored woman can achieve in spite of the difficulties by which race prejudice blocks her path, if she fits herself to do a certain thing, works with all her might and mind to do it, and is given a chance.''

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