The Magnificent Life of Dr. Walter Cooper

Elaine Spaull interviews the scientist, educator, and civil rights leader you may not know, but should.

At age 86, Dr. Walter Cooper can look at a photo of his first-grade class and remember the full names of his classmates. He can rapidly recite dates, places and details of his life without much thought, going all the way back to his great-grandfather, who was a slave in Panama City, Fla. Dr. Cooper is a retired research scientist—the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Rochester in 1956. He helped create the anti-poverty agencies Action for a Better Community and Urban League of Rochester and also spent his life advocating for children’s education. So we wondered, why had we never heard of Dr. Cooper? Eager to know more, we sent his longtime friend and colleague Elaine Spaull to his home to talk about his life. Here are parts of their conversation.

My parents were wonderful people. My mother was born in 1900 in southwestern Georgia. Her parents were tenant farmers.

She was able to get nine years of education.

In fact, in 1988, I went and took a picture of her old school, which was really a ramshackle garage operation. In those days, there was school segregation, and that was the best that was available. In 1913, when my mother was 13 years old, she plowed fields from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for 50 cents a day. It was post-slavery, but it was essentially a new name for slavery. My father, Alonzo, was born in 1901 in Panama City, Fla. The origin of his family was one that we could trace back to slavery. His greatgrandfather was the offspring of a slave owner and a 15-year-old Cherokee Indian slave.

My father started working in a sawmill at age 8, so he was never able to get an education. He never learned to read or write. That was the basic principle of slavery: A slave was never to be taught to read and write and comprehend because that’s freedom. That’s what I try to convey to kids today. If you don’t learn to read, write and comprehend, you are dooming yourself to a quasi-slavery state. And you’ll never have a quality of life in this society or any society in the world.

I was born on July 18, 1928, at 257 Mitchell Ave., in Clairton, Pa. We had neighbors from Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia. So as a youngster, I lived in a multi-ethnic, multicultural community. People being different—it never bothered me. We had harmonious relations with most of our neighbors.

My dad never earned more than $6,000 per year. But we always had a roof over our head and enough to eat. It wasn’t chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce [laughs]. But we had enough to eat. During the Depression years, we were poor, but on occasions we fed the poor across racial lines.

My mother was the driving force. She was religious, but not overly so. Not a zealot. She had a simple philosophy. I think from my mother I got a sense of kindness that you do not judge people. People at times can be hurtful because of their own insecurities. People will do things that are outside of what one would call the human feeling that you have for others. You must get past that. She read a lot. She was an avid reader. We always had newspapers in the house. So she set the pattern that you learn about the world you live in.

My father loved the outdoors, and he conveyed to us a sense of loving nature. In my elementary school days ... there was a pond that was not too far from our school and in the spring, you would have tadpoles that would develop into frogs, and so ... that kind of sparked my interest in trying to understand nature and science. ... I chose chemistry because I knew black adults who had degrees in medicine and pharmacy, but I didn’t know anyone who was a chemist. So I, in a sense, thought that we should be represented.

I have five sisters and one brother. We were so poor that my brother and I slept in the kitchen. Then we had a very large living room that served as a combined living room-girls’ dorm. And my parents had their own bedroom. My sister Thelma, who was three years older than I, taught me how to read before I started school. She would come home from school, and I had to play school. If I didn’t want to play school, she would threaten to beat me up [laughs]. She was a tomboy. She also taught me the rudiments of football. Having five sisters, I didn’t date because I thought all girls have to be like my sisters.

They had a city manager in those days, and he requested of Kodak [Dr. Cooper was a research scientist at Kodak from 1956 to 1986.] that I be put on leave to set up anti-poverty programs. Kodak was always willing to let me do public service. So I took leave beginning in November of 1964 and became the associate director of the city anti-poverty program. To get funded, you had to write up a summary of the issue and the level of poverty. I can remember I talked about islands of poverty. At that time, the poverty index in Rochester was 28 percent. In 1945, there were only 5,000 African-Americans here. By 1950, there were 7,000. By 1957, 17,500. By 1960, just under 24,000. By 1964, 34,500. The crucial thing in terms of looking at the population surge was that approximately 95 percent of African-Americans came from an agricultural economy, and they had run headlong into a rather sophisticated industrial economy. So the number of jobs available and the amount of training that people had was limited.

In 1943, when I was a sophomore at Clairton High School in Pennsylvania, the football squad was 30 percent African-American.

So my sister Thelma and a few of the other African-American girls wanted to be cheerleaders. The unspoken rule in the physical education department was that black girls could not be cheerleaders. The football squad had won its first four games. Prior to the fifth game against our rival, I gathered the black football players and said, ‘We’re going to boycott practice in protest against this unwritten rule.’ I talked it over with my mother, and she said it was the right thing to do. She said, ‘I’ll make some cookies and such for the athletes as they gather.’ So in school on Monday, we boycotted practice. On Tuesday, you could hear the football coach bellowing up and down the corridor: ‘What do they want? Give it to them!’ We never met with the director of the physical ed department, but four black girls—my sister Thelma Cooper, and Ruby Sears, Hortense Gordon and Jane Moore—all ended up cheerleaders.

I grew up when racial discrimination and segregation was real. In 1950, when I finished at the bachelor’s level at Washington & Jefferson College, I was called to the recruitment office by a recruiter from DuPont. When I arrived, I could tell by his body language that he was surprised to see a black person. He said, ‘You have performed academically, you were a star football player, you were an officer of your class, a member of the chemistry honorary society ... but we do not hire blacks in our research facility in Wilmington, Del.’ That was a lesson. ... But even when I was receiving my Ph.D. in 1956, no oil company and very few chemical companies would even give you an interview if you were black.

Whenever I felt things were wrong, through legitimate protest, I would protest it. When I was in ninth grade, a representative from the Arabian American Oil Co. came, and he showed a movie. This movie actually showed the laboring skills. The darker Arabs had the menial tasks, building railroads and so forth. And the lighter they became, the more sophisticated the skills became. So I’m sitting there, and I’m getting angry because it’s discrimination. Here I am in ninth grade, and I have that feeling. So when the national anthem was played, I decided to not stand up. Now this is during World War II, and so my teacher sent me to the principal’s office.

What I think people have to understand is, you can’t eliminate all bigotry. I think you live a life trying to understand other human beings. Whenever I see an individual, firstly I see their humanity. Because of that fact, there is certain dignity and respect that I will always accord them because they are human beings.

I think I’ve always had an overriding belief in the fundamental humanity of people. And that crossed racial, ethnic, religious lines.

It’s very hard for me to say the most difficult. The passing of my wife [Helen]. We were together 15 days short of 52 years. And my mother’s death. I was very close to my mother. She died six days before Christmas, in 1956. She was only 56 years old....But it’s OK. I’ve never had what I call a mythical dream about living. I always felt that challenges will always come, whether you create your own or others create them for you.

Sometimes I kid people and say, ‘I’m not dealing with adults. My energy and time will go to the young because they represent the future.’ The future for young people is my big concern. This country cannot move ahead in a global society unless we have better-trained young people. I think what has happened is a dissolution of family and those virtues that can emanate from a family—that nourish and encourage achievement by a young generation. In the 1950s, 80 percent of black children lived in two-parent families, and we had a family identity. Now less than 30 percent of black children live in a family with two adults, and they have no family identity. Our children are forced to take on a community identity. ... But there is always hope. I tell young people, whatever you want to become, maintain a focus and prove that you are able. Put forth an honest effort, and people will come forward to help you.

“I think from my mother, I got a sense of kindness that you do not judge people.”

There were many. When I was in the eighth grade, the American Legion in the community used to give an award to an outstanding student in each grade based on academics and extracurricular activities. I had a 96 average for the year. I lettered in junior high football, basketball, and track and field. In eighth grade, I set an outdoor 50-yard dash record at 5.8 seconds. But when the nominees were listed, my name wasn’t even up for the award. I had a very great homeroom teacher. Sara Patterson. Room 213. She recognized my disappointment and said, ‘Walter, don’t allow some bigoted white man to destroy your interest in becoming a prominent trained professional. Don’t let it destroy your ambition because you have a lot to offer to the world.’ Sara Patterson and I maintained communication up until a year ago. She was a wonderful woman.

I don’t go to church anymore even though I’ve studied religious philosophy. ... I am disappointed in the black churches because while they have a rich legacy, they have no memory. They don’t understand that education is the only way to get out of poverty, and yet very few black churches have an educational mission.

I’ve lived longer than my peers, like Dr. Kenneth Woodward, Dr. William Jacob Knox, Tom Boyde—the real heroes. Unfortunately, I don’t think this community has valued their stories. I think their lives provide really essential things which a new generation should know and appreciate and use to pattern their own life. It is difficult for young men. There are rich stories. The thing about it is you name a street, you name it after a black preacher who never did anything of significance. Why isn’t there a street named after Tom Boyde? Or Knox or even Ken Woodward? He [Woodward] was the father of community health.

I look back with pride, sorrow, but no anger. I’ve had the opportunity of travel, and I’ve seen places in the world where a young person, no matter what their ambition, has no way out. I don’t think most Americans actually recognize how fortunate they are to live in a society where, on your own initiative—and there may be stumbling blocks—but if you’re willing to maintain a focus and be disciplined and work hard, you can achieve almost anything. And that’s what my life was.

Dr. Cooper donated his papers to the University of Rochester Department of Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation, as a permanent resource for teaching and research. His activism continues in the community, especially at Rochester City School No. 10, which was named the Dr. Walter Cooper Academy in 2010 in his honor.