Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke: Law educator who broke color barrier remembered for life of service, grace


Dedicating her life to service, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke was a teacher, mentor and caretaker, as well as a daughter, mother, wife and friend.

Born on Dec. 13, 1946, in Georgetown, she was the oldest of six children born to her father, Odell Reuben, and mother, Anna Mays Daniel Reuben.

With her father being the seventh president of Morris College, Wilhelmina was surrounded by academics growing up, as she grew up in the middle of the college campus. She attended Sumter public schools until the end of junior high, when she attended Mather School, a boarding school in Beaufort.

"She grew up in an academic family," Edmund Cooke Jr., Wilhelmina's husband, said. "The family valued education and more importantly valued intellectual development. Wilhelmina was challenged from day one."

Edmund said Wilhelmina was the type of woman who would learn and research things for herself. She even read the entire dictionary once to prove a point to her mother, according to Edmund.

After graduating from Mather School, her life changed significantly when she was one of the first five black undergraduates to attend Duke University in 1963, breaking the barriers for students of color.

While at Duke, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, awarded a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship and elected Duke's first black May Queen in 1967. Above all else, Wilhelmina would say she found the best man, her husband, at Duke.

After graduating from Duke in 1967, Edmund and Wilhelmina were married in Sumter in June 1968. Wilhelmina continued to expand her knowledge at the University of Michigan Law School, while also being a mother to two daughters, Wilhelmina Nilaja Cooke IV and Shani Malika Cooke.

"She was a mother, but to all of us, she was a friend," Shani, her youngest daughter, said. To Shani and many others, her mother was the kind of woman who put others before herself while caring for her children, husband and career. "She took them under her wings in a way that I don't know how she had time for everything she did."

After being the first black woman to get her PhD at the University of Michigan Law School in 1973, Wilhelmina moved to Washington, D.C., with her family and began her legal career with Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering working in communications, antitrust, tax, securities, criminal and general corporate law.

In 1986, Wilhelmina was offered a teaching opportunity that she couldn't refuse at Syracuse University's College of Law.

"She taught at Syracuse Law School for 15 years," Edmund said. "She then came back to Washington, D.C., and became the provost at the University of the District of Columbia; she also taught at the D.C. law school."

Wilhelmina fell in love with helping students in their academic life.

"Being close to students and being a part in their development was something she took very seriously," Shani said. "I mean, that's why she was a professor. She got these awards not because she sought them but because she was doing her best, and the school recognized that. She was doing what she believed in."

Wilhelmina later served as a trustee of Duke University for two terms, and she held numerous honors, including the Duke University Distinguished Alumni Award and the Sojourner Truth Award from the Syracuse University chapter of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs.

"The lesson of my mom is you just live your life," Shani said. "To be successful in life and in what you do is to ask how you can be of help to someone else," is what Wilhelmina would always tell her daughters.

"She was the mother that I need, and she was the mother that Shani needed," Wilhelmina IV, her oldest daughter, said. "I was so proud of her, that she would extend that love."

"She made the world a better place by simply being herself," Shani said. "She had an endless well of love to give."

"She was a unique human being," Edmund said. "I was very fortunate to have spent 55 years with her. We were married 51 and a half, but I counted from when we first started dating."

In the late '90s, Wilhelmina had some challenging health conditions, but she didn't let them slow her down. She kept pressing on until she died on Oct. 22, 2019, at age 72.

"I felt truly blessed to have had a woman like that be my mother, to have that type of role model," Shani said. "She did it with grace, love and compassion."

"She was so graceful in everything she did," Wilhelmina IV said. "The way she moved through life; she was always so gracious, graceful. That word, whatever meaning you can derive from it, that was my mother."

Edmund, Wilhelmina IV and Shani all agreed that Wilhelmina was thoughtful, loving, genuine, gorgeous and, at times, witty.

"People thought mom was very serious, but she would come out with the funniest things, and you wouldn't expect it," Shani said. Wilhelmina would always "zing" her daughters and husband whenever she got the chance.

"All of a sudden she would just come out and say something, and you'd be like, 'Did you just zing me?'" Shani laughed.

"She would be so proud of herself too," Wilhelmina IV laughed.

"I would constantly get zinged," Edmund said. "She kept me on the straight and narrow."

"There was just some inner light that just made mom glow and made her very witty," Shani said. "She had a way with words and a sense of humor that came out of nowhere."

Edmund said after Wilhelmina passed, they received phone calls and letters from all over the world. From across North America to Nigeria, Zimbabwe, London and more, she touched many lives, and her family couldn't believe the impact Wilhelmina had on the world.

"I always knew she was amazing and special to me, but her history, she never really spoke about," Wilhelmina IV said.

Her daughters said their mother was never one to brag about awards or talk about her history. It wasn't until later in life they learned about their mother's history. Wilhelmina was always being herself around them, their mother.

"I graduated from Duke Law School in 2018," Shani said. "I entered Duke Law School in 2013, which was the 50th anniversary of the year that she integrated Duke with the four others, so that made me the third generation in our family to go to Duke."

During Shani's graduation in 2018, her mother was able to hood her during the ceremony, and Shani will never forget that moment with her mother.

"I know that it was special for her to be able to hood me simply because I was graduating," Shani said. "That Duke connection was very important to her."

Duke University will be holding a memorial service for Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke on Saturday, Dec. 14, to remember and cherish her memory.

"She did everything with extraordinary grace and extraordinary beauty," Edmund said.