Sumter County has been fertile soil for producing a rich crop of persons of historical significance, who have been the first to break barriers and to transcend social, educational, economic and political mores of their respective times. From Mary McLeod Bethune, James T.McCain, Ernest A. Finney, the honorable James Clyburn, Jim Felder and numerous other unsung heroes and sheroes who remain unidentified, uncelebrated, below the radar screen of history.
Yet, the recent transition of Sumter native daughter Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke was felt on a deeply personal level. Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke was one of the first five African-Americans to attend Duke University. She was the first African-American woman and the first person of color from our community of Sumter to enter and graduate from Duke. While there, she was able to shine both academically (Phi Beta Kappa and Woodrow Wilson Scholar) and socially as her election as May Queen made The New York Times while protesting the segregated Hope Valley Country Club and other segregated facilities. The significance of her journey, our family ties and personal connection in the trajectory of time will forever be remembered, respected and honored. She was a legend in her time and was legendary to all who followed in her footsteps on the hallowed grounds of Duke University. To have known her, her professional and personal accomplishments, her philanthropic endeavors, (especially to her alma mater), she was a role model for "walking the talk."
So many owe their successful matriculation to her quiet, steady, supportive guidance and unwavering presence. She was a strong, successful role model, an inspiration source ("Because she did, we could too" was our mantra). It does not seem real that she existed and that these "firsts" were made in my lifetime.
As a child, I remember everyone gathering at the foot of the South Main bridge in preparation for the annual Morris College Thanksgiving parade down Main Street en route to the football game which celebrated the best of HBCU football in our community. President Odell Reuben Sr. was presiding at the helm of leadership of Morris College at that time. His beautiful family was an extension of strong, intelligent, talented families that was an example of what an accomplished family looked like that was filled with academic excellence and achievement. In 1967, his firstborn daughter, Wilhelmina, broke the color barrier by entering Duke University, not just as a racial experiment, but as a fully qualified, competitive candidate who had earned her right to be admitted.
At the time of her entrance, East Campus was the home of all women at Duke University; it was known as the Women's College. Her presence transcended and expanded the exposure and mindset of those whose only exposure to persons of color were the maids and drivers who worked in their homes or other perceived subordinate positions in the larger society.
The significance of her presence on Duke University's campus, as an equally qualified scholar, cannot and should not be treated as mundane. It is especially not mundane to those whose parents planned their children's college funding (and hopeful acceptances) on her paving the way for those who would come in the future.
For those to follow from Sumter, it was a long and arduous journey. She opened the doors of opportunity for only a select handful of African-American students from Sumter County during the '60s and '70s to attend and graduate from Duke University. The students were: Bill Bultman, Beatrice Jones, John Wiley, Eric Bultman and yours truly (not in this order).
Wilhelmina, her life and legacy, has been a source of great pride, a beacon of light for the possibility of what a Duke education can mean and the doors it can open. She broke barriers wherever she went. Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke was a walking legend whenever her feet touched Duke's campus and beyond its borders. When I attended the 50th Reunion of Blacks at Duke University, her entrance and the celebration of her significant accomplishments brought tears and ovations. She received her accolades and sweet, fragrant flowers while she lived and for that, all of us who followed in her footsteps are forever grateful.
I remembered her father's leadership as the president of Morris College and his untimely death, as my late father conducted his funeral service. I remember that her mother, Dr. Anna Reuben, was a soror and worked closely with my mother in breaking down racial and gender barriers through the YWCA on both local and national levels.
I remember that Wilhelmina attended a boarding school, called Mather Academy in Beaufort, and I attended a boarding school called Mather Academy in Camden. I remember when the Reuben family became our neighbors in the Runnymede community. I reflect on the monumental milestones she accomplished while at Duke University, with only the cafeteria staff to comfort her; not knowing that there would be an Allen Building takeover in protest; or a protest for Duke to divest in South Africa or an eventual election of an African-American student body president; or the revelation that the architect of the Duke University Chapel and campus was the brainchild of an African-American, Julian Abele; that academic giants would inhabit the faculty such as Samuel Dubose Cook, C. Eric Lincoln, John Hope Franklin, Thavolia Glymph and countless others who visited and shared their brilliance.
The presence of Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, as she walked through the open door, which opened the door for countless other qualified candidates who earned their degrees and made and are making their respective significant contributions, through countless communities, our nation and other nations, should be remembered, honored and celebrated.
In August of 1974, I became a member of the undergraduate student body, graduated in December of 1977 and returned to march with my classmates in May of 1978. I remember reminding myself that I was walking where Wilhelmina had walked, that she had set the table and that I was dining at the table, a plentiful table at that. All of my experiences, while at Duke, including the fights for social justice, were made possible because she was among those who made my entrance possible.
May she join the angels and ancestors who continue to touch the lives and memories of those who follow.
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