The life and legacy of Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke


Hundreds celebrate historic moment as university names classroom building after one of the 'First Five'

Duke pioneer Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke opened heavy doors as a student, said Duke President Vincent Price. Now some of those doors will open to a West Campus classroom building named in her honor.

Price was speaking at a Sept. 24 ceremony to dedicate the Sociology-Psychology Building for the late Reuben-Cooke ’67, one of the university’s first five Black undergraduates at Duke.

“For four decades after this building opened, only white students could take classes here. Only white students passed through this doorway and into these halls,” Price said. “That changed in 1963 when Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke and four Black undergraduate classmates arrived at Duke.”

During her time at Duke, Reuben-Cooke was active in the civil rights movement, including protests in Durham and Chapel Hill. She signed an open letter against the memberships of key Duke administrators and faculty members at the then all-white Hope Valley Country Club.

Reuben-Cooke becomes the first Black woman to have a campus building named after her.

More than 450 people attended the ceremony, which included the unveiling of a Reuben-Cooke portrait painted by noted artist Mario Moore and a permanent historical exhibit installed in the entrance hallway to the building. The ceremony was at times emotional but was filled with a celebration worthy of a long-awaited and historic moment for the university. Many of the people in attendance filmed the entire event on their iPhones, and more than 140 people viewed the livestream. (The full ceremony can be watched below.)

At the ceremony, Gene Kendall ’67, spoke about his own experience as the last surviving member of the “First Five,” which included Mary Mitchell Harris, Cassandra Smith Rush, Nathaniel B. White Jr. and Reuben-Cooke, whom he affectionately called “Mimi.”

“She will never ever be forgotten,” Kendall said. “The story, the decision, the change in history that Duke made in 1963 can never, ever be erased.”

As the first undergraduate students to integrate campus, Kendall said, their attendance at Duke felt like an experiment.

“Today says ‘Conclusions reached,’” Kendall said. “It was worth doing.”

After graduating from Duke, Reuben-Cooke went on to an extraordinary career as an attorney, professor of law and senior administrator at Syracuse and the University of the District of Columbia.

“Mimi was the real deal. She was the superstar among us,” Kendall added.

Speakers included Wilhelmina’s husband Ed Cooke, her sister Lucy Reuben and representatives of several of the many institutions that Reuben-Cooke held leadership roles.

Reuben-Cooke also made significant contributions to Duke as a member of the Board of Trustees from 1989-2001 and served as a trustee of the Duke Endowment until her passing in 2019.

“May each of us live from this day forward, so that like Wilhelmina Matilda Reuben-Cooke, each of us can one day say, ‘I have done my best,’” said Lucy Reuben.

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Duke University names building after a Black woman for the first time in campus history

Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke has now made history at least twice on Duke University's campus in North Carolina.

She was one of the "First Five" undergraduate Black students to enroll at the university in 1963. As of Saturday, her name will be on an academic building, making her the first Black woman to have a campus building named for her, according to the university.

The building that will bear her name -- the sociology-psychology building -- is on Duke's West Campus and will now be known as the Reuben-Cooke Building. The building actually predates campus integration by about 30 years, according to Duke President Vincent E. Price.

"When the building that now bears Professor Reuben-Cooke's name first opened, she would not have been allowed to enter it as a student," Price said in an email. "From this day forward, anyone who passes through its doors will carry on her legacy of accomplishment, engagement and lasting impact."

The renaming comes at a time when the US is reckoning with current and historical racial tension. The repeated deaths of Black people at the hands of police have led to a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for police reform. It has also led many companies, brands and schools to reconsider the images and meaning behind their names or the names of their products.

In a statement, the university said the renaming of the sociology-psychology building "is part of a larger effort launched by Price to have the university engage with its history and identify opportunities to honor key contributors to the university who have been overlooked."

A native of South Carolina, Reuben-Cooke -- who was active in the civil rights movement as a student -- graduated from Duke in 1967 with a bachelor of arts degree, according to the university.

After Duke, she earned a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1973 and became an attorney at the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, DC. She later transitioned to academia where she served as a law professor and administrator at Syracuse University and the University of the District of Columbia.

She also was associate director of Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation, where she supervised litigation before the Federal Communications Commission and federal courts, including the US Supreme Court.

Reuben-Cooke served on Duke's Board of Trustees from 1989-2001 and was honored by the university in 2011 with the Duke University Distinguished Alumni Award, the school said.

She died on October 22, 2019, in Alexandria, Virginia. She was 72.

Friends, colleagues remember life and legacy of Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke

One day, Wilhelmina Reuben and Gene Kendall left East Campus to see the new James Bond flick at a local theater. The two grabbed a hamburger after the movie. Suddenly, Reuben realized that she needed to rush back to East. Taking off her shoes, she and Kendall sprinted back to campus. He may have been on the track team, but she still beat him back to campus—in the nick of time.

That scene could easily have been taken place at Duke today with any two students. But Reuben and Kendall’s day took place in the 1960s, when East Campus, the home of the Woman’s College, had a curfew. And Reuben and Kendall weren’t just any two students—they were two of the first five black students at Duke.

Kendall recalled the story at a December memorial service for Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, who died Oct. 22.

Reuben-Cooke, Woman’s College ‘67, had a decorated career, both at Duke and beyond. The Georgetown, S.C., native arrived in Durham in 1963 as part of an effort to desegregate a previously all-white university.

She excelled at Duke, getting elected to Phi Beta Kappa and chair of the Freshman Advisory Council, which “literally shaped new students’ perceptions and commitment to Duke,” said Dennis Campbell, Trinity ‘67, Ph.D. ‘73 and vice chair of the Duke Endowment, at the memorial. Reuben-Cooke was also tapped by the White Duchy society and was selected by her peers in the Woman’s College as the 1967 May Queen, a decision that made it into The New York Times.

After graduation, she enjoyed a stellar career as an attorney, as well as a law professor at Syracuse University and the University of the District of Columbia, where she worked as UDC’s provost. Reuben-Cooke never let go of her Duke ties, however. She served two terms on the Board of Trustees, and in 2011 the Alumni Association awarded her the Duke University Distinguished Alumni Award. A $1 million scholarship fund was announced in 2013 to honor her and the other four first black undergraduates.

‘Go out and live that life’

A wide range of speakers sang Reuben-Cooke’s praises at her memorial service in the Chapel, including her professional colleagues, Duke classmates and family. They shared a mix of fond memories and reflections on her legacy.

Nancy Benner, Woman’s College ‘67, roomed with Reuben-Cooke for three years. She recounted how she and “Mimi”—Reuben-Cooke’s nickname—became addicted to Zero candy bars because the two would get hungry studying late at night, and they could get the bars in the vending machine. In fact, they saved so many wrappers that they earned a free Zero bar T-shirt.

Benner touched on Reuben-Cooke’s civil rights record as a student, as Reuben-Cooke became an active member of civil rights protests in Durham and Chapel Hill.

“There were civil rights protests taking place all over the country, and Mimi completely became a part of them,” she said. “I remember once going to her room freshman year telling her that I was afraid for her safety—I was worried she was going to get arrested. She did not seem very concerned.”

Kendall, after telling the James Bond story, summed up Reuben-Cooke’s virtues with a story about a young girl at a relative’s funeral who was impressed with the kind words said about her relative.

"She said, 'Grandpa, how can I get someone to say nice things about me?' He said to her, ‘Write down all of the things that you would like to have said about you… and go out and live that life.’ Wilhelmina Matilda Reuben-Cooke—'Mimi'—obviously wrote down those things," he said.

Continuing her legacy

In 2013, Duke celebrated the 50th anniversary of Reuben-Cooke and her classmates arriving at the University. There were events in major cities across the country, culminating in an artistic program in Page Auditorium. Keith Daniel, Trinity ‘90, M. Div. ‘05 and D. Min. ‘16, was chosen to be the project manager for the commemoration. Despite briefly working with her, he got to know Reuben-Cooke enough to be moved by her grace and vitality.

“She just always had such a presence around her that clearly inspired me as someone who's now approaching my 30th class reunion this spring from Duke,” he said.

Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, holds up Reuben-Cooke as “the standard-bearer and a model” for students who feel challenged at Duke, due to her desegregating the University and finding ways to contribute in different fields throughout her life.

When asked what students can learn from Reuben-Cooke today, Guinn replied in an email, “never give up.”

“Be ever mindful and intentional in your efforts to cultivate individuals to follow in your footsteps even as you are unsure of where the path will lead you,” she added. “Walk with your head held high, demonstrate dignity in your doing and dealings and be sure to secure the crown.”

Marcus Benning, Trinity ‘14 and Law School ‘17, had the chance to meet Reuben-Cooke during the commemoration as president of the Black Students Association. He explained that her legacy is most visible in the organizations created after her graduation, such as the Afro-African Society—the precursor to the Black Students Alliance, the Presidential Council on Black Affairs, Black Students Association Invitational and all of the black student groups that exist today.

"When you think about the fact that BSA came the year that she graduated, and there were only five students in the first class, you could see that her community of students were really focused on institution building,” he added.

Benning said that Reuben-Cooke’s death exemplifies that in the midst of losing many post-civil rights era leaders and trailblazers, there is still plenty of work that needs to be done beyond commemorating their legacy. He referenced the noose found hanging in the Bryan Center Plaza in 2016, just three years after the 50th anniversary commemoration, as an example of why students today need to continue the work of people like Reuben-Cooke.

“Based on the work that her family has done, which has always been forward-looking to increase access to the University, I think it's really incumbent upon us to view her work as incomplete and ongoing, and now that we no longer have her to contribute, that we pick the baton up and move the mantle forward,” he said.

Source: The Chronicle - Duke Univerity


Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, one of the first five African Americans undergraduate students at Duke, died Oct. 22 at age 72.

Reuben-Cooke entered Trinity College of Arts and Sciences in 1963 along with Gene Kendall and Nathaniel "Nat" White, Mary Mitchell Harris and Cassandra Rush. With Reuben-Cooke’s death, only Kendall and White remain as surviving members of the original five.

Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, and Nathaniel White, Jr. on campus in 2012 as part of a celebration of the anniversary of their arrival on campus.

Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, and Nathaniel White, Jr. at Duke in 2012 as part of a celebration of the anniversary of their arrival on campus.

She graduated in 1967, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and named a Woodrow Wilson Scholar. Her election as Duke’s May Queen was noted in the New York Times. During her time at Duke, she was active in the civil rights movement, including protesting in Durham and Chapel Hill and signing an open letter against the memberships of key Duke administrators and faculty members at the then all-white Hope Valley Country Club.

After graduating, Reuben-Cooke had a distinguished career as an attorney, but she remained connected to Duke after graduating, serving two terms on the Duke University Board of Trustees. In 2011, Reuben-Cooke earned the Duke University Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor granted by the Duke Alumni Association for her exemplary service. In 2013, a $1 million scholarship fund was established to honor Wilhelmina and the four other first black undergraduates at Duke.

Wilhelmina Matilda Reuben-Cooke was born in Georgetown, South Carolina on December 13, 1946. She was the eldest of six children of the late Reverend Dr. Odell R. Reuben and the late Dr. Anna Mays Daniels Reuben. She was named in honor of her parents’ mothers.

On June 22, 1968, Wilhelmina Matilda Reuben married Air Force 1st Lieutenant Edmund Douglas Cooke, Jr. of Springfield, Ohio. They had two daughters.

A descendant of a long line of missionaries and educators, Reuben-Cooke always placed a premium on spiritual foundation, family life, community service and promoting educational opportunities. She and her husband were founders of and remained leaders in the Covenant Christian Community. Her extended family looked to her wise, gentle leadership and her model of grace, generosity and achievement in the pursuit of Christian service.

After graduation from the University of Michigan Law School (1973), she was an Associate Attorney at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering working in communications, antitrust, tax, securities, criminal and general corporate law.

She also was a professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) David A. Clarke School of Law, after serving as UDC’s Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. Previously, she was Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Syracuse University’s College of Law. Earlier, as Associate Director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation, Reuben-Cooke engaged in and supervised litigation before the Federal Communications Commission and federal courts, including the US Supreme Court.

Reuben-Cooke attained numerous other honors, including the Sojourner Truth Award from the Syracuse University chapter of The National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the C. Eric Lincoln Distinguished Alumni Award from Duke’s Black Alumni Council, and the Black Citizens for a Fair Media Annual Award for Public Interest Advocacy.

Reuben-Cooke served on numerous community, civic and professional boards, including The Duke Endowment.