looking back

Looking Back: Sarah B. Cooper

By Kinen Carvala

How can a children’s educator have roused passions so much during her lifetime, but her monument today is so easily overlooked?

Sarah Brown Cooper was born Sarah Brown Ingersoll in Cazenovia, New York on Dec. 12, 1836. She had two sisters. Her mother died when Sarah was young; she was later adopted by her great aunt. In 1853, she graduated from Cazenovia Seminary, the first U.S. co-educational institution, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, where Leland Stanford also attended. The two remained long-time friends. She organized her first Bible class in a village a few miles away.

A monument to Sarah B. Cooper, a proponent of kindergarten education in the 19th Century. It is located just west of the Carousel near Robin Williams Meadow in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Michael Durand.

After attending Troy Female Seminary around the age of 18, she moved to Augusta, Georgia to be a governess in Gov. William Schley’s household, where she taught the Bible to slaves. In Augusta, she married Halsey Fenimore Cooper. He worked as a surveyor and inspector at the Port of Chattanooga, before joining the IRS. The Coopers had two sons and two daughters; only Harriet survived to adulthood. The Coopers moved to San Francisco in 1869. Cooper’s early life is mentioned in her obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle and Cornell University’s chronology of her life.

Cooper believed that establishing kindergartens, accessible to the poor, was key to promoting good character development in children. If impoverished children were not timely placed in nurturing kindergartens, they were at risk of becoming “flotsam and jetsam” in poverty. Government schools only admitted children starting at 6 years old, which Cooper felt was too late, as she wrote in “The Kindergarten as a Child-Saving Work” in the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association fifth annual report for 1884. 

The kindergarten movement, started by Frederick Froebel in Germany in the 1840s, reached California in the 1860s. Before then, younger children simply did not attend school, according to Insa Raymond at Michigan State University Extension. The belief was that instilling good habits early would be preferable over rehabilitation. Cooper also saw kindergarten as key in religion. As she said in a speech in the Woman’s Building of the 1893 World’s Fair, as recorded in Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle’s compilation of speeches: “Above all, the true kindergarten aims at the cultivation of the heart and soul in the right direction, and leads them to the Creator of all life and to personal union with Him.”

She raised $450,000 for the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association of San Francisco that she founded in 1884 to organize her kindergartens in the City since 1879. John Sweet in 1911 wrote that Phoebe Appleton Hearst and the wife of Leland Stanford were among those persuaded by Cooper to financially support education for the poor. Cooper was also active as an officer in other organizations, as listed by Mae Silver: “Century Club, Women’s Press Association, World Federation of Women’s Clubs, S.F. Associated Charities board and West Coast Woman’s Congress board.”

But Cooper’s work was not without critics.

Deacon James B. Roberts considered Cooper a dangerous teacher of Bible classes at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco because she was not sufficiently orthodox. Roberts accused Cooper of attending Unitarian Church services, according to the Oakland Tribune. (While Presbyterians and many other Christian groups understand God in a particular way known as “the Trinity,” Unitarians do not concur.) Roberts also accused Cooper of telling him that she would prefer living in hell with non-Christian free thinker Robert G. Ingersoll (a cousin of Cooper’s) than in heaven with Roberts. Roberts wanted classes focused on a particularly Presbyterian view of Christianity, in contrast to Cooper’s inclusive classes. Cooper told an Examiner reporter in an interview published Sept. 18, 1881, that her kindergarten classes avoid “distinctive sects and faiths” because “we have many Jews and Catholics in the classes…. The kindergarten system is founded on religion and must lead to religion.” Roberts claimed Cooper taught prayers without the name “Jesus” in them, according to a letter to the magazine Unity, signed by an “N. E. B.” Cooper said Roberts had never observed her class.

Regional leaders in the Presbytery voted 13 to 8 to sustain the complaint according to the letter in Unity, but the matter was “remanded back to the sessions of Calvary Church,” according to Cooper.

Afterwards, Cooper left the Calvary Presbyterian Church for the First Congregational Church and occasionally attended a Unitarian church. Her husband, Halsey, lost money in mine speculating, and died by suicide on Dec. 6, 1885, according to a University of New York report. 

Sarah B. Cooper and her daughter, Harriet, were found dead at home due to lack of oxygen on Dec. 12, 1896. Gas jets in their Vallejo Street home had been left turned on.

The Sarah B. Cooper memorial with a child figure standing by a pool sculpted by Enid Foster (with funds raised by the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association) was dedicated on April 4, 1923, 26 years after Cooper’s death. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that attendees at Golden Gate Park included: 

• George Barron, de Young museum curator, representing the Park Commission;

• Charles A. Murdock, former supervisor, and;

• Golden Gate Kindergarten Association committee.

Foster became prominent in the Sausalito art community, having a profile in the Independent Journal on July 29, 1961. Today, the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association is more commonly known as Phoebe A. Hearst Preschool Learning Center, located at 1315 Ellis St. A Sarah B. Cooper Child Development Center is at 940 Filbert St.

Jack Moxom (1913-2004) had done drawing but no sculpting when he agreed to create a replacement sculpture for the Cooper memorial in the 1930s. In a 1965 interview, Moxom said “water just filled the semi-circular, lunette-shaped fountain” but didn’t flow. He was “to replace a ruined fountain” but his own work had flaws, including use of a sandstone that turned blood red when wet. Moxom’s replacement sculpture was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a government work program of the Great Depression. The replacement Cooper memorial was featured in the 2015 poster series by Robert Minervini on behalf of the SF Arts Commission.

The memorial site is on a knoll west of the carousel at Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park. The knoll has two observation decks; the memorial is next to the higher observation deck.

Find an archive of Kinen Carvala’s Looking Back columns at RichmondSunsetNews.com.

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