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Letter: In memoriam: Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Duke hero

letter to the editor

Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke had a distinguished career both at Duke and beyond.
Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke had a distinguished career both at Duke and beyond.

In recent weeks, Duke University lost a giant. On behalf of all 8,500 undergraduate, graduate and professional black alumni of Duke University, we mourn the loss of Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke (Trinity, ’67).  

In the fall of 1963, Reuben-Cooke was one of five brave black students who entered the Trinity College of Arts of Sciences. She matriculated alongside Gene Kendall, Nathaniel “Nat” White, Mary Mitchell Harris and Cassandra Rush, thus integrating Duke University’s undergraduate campus.  

This decision could not have been easy. Just a few weeks after they arrived on campus, a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama killed four little girls. A few weeks before, the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech” imploring America and the world to embrace our common humanity and pursue full freedom and economic justice for the black community. However, in the fraught racial climate of the early 1960’s, success—and even their personal safety—at a prestigious university like Duke, was not assured.

Yet, during her Duke career, Reuben-Cooke thrived. She was elected Phi Beta Kappa and was named a Woodrow Wilson Scholar. Outside the classroom, she was active in the local civil rights movement, including protesting in Durham and advocating against Duke faculty and administrators being members of the then all-white Hope Valley Country Club.

Reuben-Cooke had an equally distinguished career after Duke, becoming an esteemed patent attorney and serving two terms on the Duke University Board of Trustees. In 2011, Reuben-Cooke earned the Distinguished Alumni Award. Beyond her accolades and trailblazing example, however, many of us knew her as a dear friend and mentor. Duke University’s light is a little dimmer, but the power of her courage and example lives on. Thank you for your sacrifice to Duke and blazing the trail that we all have followed.

The University will hold an official memorial service for Ms. Reuben-Cooke on Saturday, December 14 at 3 p.m. in the Duke Chapel. All are welcome to attend. 

Sanders Adu (Trinity, ’94) is President of the Duke Black Alumni network.

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