By Paul Kiefer
On September 25, the Duke University Board of Trustees voted to rename a classroom building after one of the school’s most noteworthy Phi Beta Kappa graduates, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke. Reuben-Cooke came to Duke in 1963 as one of the first five Black undergraduate students and later returned as a trustee for the university. The move to rename a building served two purposes: to recognize Reuben-Cooke’s tremendous legacy and to honor her memory after her passing in October 2019.
Reuben-Cooke was born to a family of educators and ministers in Georgetown, South Carolina, in 1946 and raised on the campus of Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina. Her family’s reverence for education figured prominently in Reuben-Cooke’s upbringing. Her mother, Anna Mays Daniels Reuben, was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and her father, Odell R. Reuben, was the seventh president of Morris College.
As the civil rights movement gained momentum following the landmark sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in April 1960, Reuben-Cooke’s family—beginning with her uncles in the ministry—stepped into roles as activists. Though she was still a student at the Mather School (a prominent private school for Black students established in Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1867), Reuben-Cooke likewise tested the waters of activism. “We were raised in a Christian service tradition,” said her sister, Lucy Reuben. “So to our family, protest was a part of our Christian service to our community and to our country. Our father had to be more reserved for the sake of his job, but our parents let Wilhelmina join marches in Sumter—although in hindsight, they seem very tame.”
Reuben-Cooke’s decision to attend Duke was reflective of the same missionary and activist principles. The choice was far from obvious; according to her sister, the most obvious paths would have taken her to the long-integrated Oberlin College in Ohio or to a historically Black college or university (such as her mother’s alma mater, Fisk). “Our family went back and forth on whether to go to HBCUs or historically white schools,” her sister said, “but that moment in time called for some personal sacrifices—for her, that meant integrating the colleges. It was a part of our Christian service to our country and to our communities.”
The decision to attend Duke was not entirely her own. Just before Reuben-Cooke became one of the first Black undergraduates at the university, her father became one of the first Black students to attend Duke’s Divinity School. Despite her father’s presence, Reuben-Cooke’s first years at Duke were marked by loneliness. “There were plenty of students at Duke who didn’t want her there,” her sister said, “but she inherited [our] father’s patience—she may have been Divinely chosen for that role.”
She made a name for herself as a vocal and empathetic student leader, ascending almost immediately into student government while simultaneously remaining involved in the civil rights struggle. Reuben-Cooke was a signatory of an open letter criticizing members of Duke’s faculty and administration for their membership in an all-white country club, and as a junior, she was arrested at a sit-in in Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, Reuben-Cooke maintained a bond with Duke’s Black housekeeping and dining staff. “The people who cleaned the dorms, the people who cooked—they kept an eye on her, and she cared about them,” said her husband, Ed Cooke. “On the day she showed up, the housekeeping staff promised her grandmother they would be there for her, and she always made sure to show them her gratitude.”
Reuben-Cooke graduated from Duke in 1967 and went on to lead a remarkable career as an educator and legal scholar. Her first job after graduation, however, was as a history teacher at a public high school in Orlando, Florida. “She was only there a year, and that was all the time she needed to be elected teacher of the year,” recalled her husband. After earning a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1973, Reuben-Cooke took on professorial positions at Syracuse University’s College of Law and the University of the District of Columbia, where she also served as provost and the vice president for academic affairs. In her career as an attorney, Reuben-Cooke also took part in and supervised litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Reuben-Cooke also showed an enduring loyalty to Duke, returning not only as a trustee, but as a frequent source of wisdom when the University confronted its institutional biases and shortcomings. “She went back to Duke hoping to accelerate its improvements,” her husband said. “And she was willing to be critical—she was never a shrinking violet. If she was asked to be on a committee, they were going to have to listen to her thoughts. And she knew how to make people listen.” Her dedication to encouraging progress at her alma mater persisted as she struggled with an autoimmune disease near the end of her life. “When the 50th anniversary of her arrival came around, Wilhelmina was struggling intensely with her health,” recalled her husband, “but she still insisted on giving the energy she had to wherever it was needed.”
Her contributions extended well beyond her service on the Board of Trustees and committees; according to her sister and husband, Reuben-Cooke was a generous source of support for Black students who arrived after her. A fellow Black Duke graduate from her South Carolina hometown expressed as much in an op-ed published in the Sumter Item shortly after her death, commenting that Reuben-Cooke had left a “plentiful table” for the Black students who came after her— including five others from Sumter in the decade following her graduation.
The renamed building is the latest of several honors given to Reuben-Cooke for her hand in the school’s development. In 2013, she and the four other Black undergraduates who arrived in 1963 were honored with a $1 million scholarship fund.
Paul Kiefer earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College, where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2020. Pomona College is home to the Gamma of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.