Educator Paul P. Cooke, who helped revitalize D.C. Teachers College, dies at 93

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; B05

Paul P. Cooke, 93, a Washington educator and civil rights activist who was credited with reinvigorating the D.C. Teachers College during his tenure as president in the 1960s and 1970s, died July 4 of kidney failure at his home in Washington.

D.C. Teachers College was a racially integrated school created in 1955 with the merger of Miner Teachers College (for black students) and Wilson Teachers College (for whites). Before Dr. Cooke took the helm in 1966, enrollment had stagnated and the school, which trained a quarter of the city's public school teachers, had lost its national accreditation.

Dr. Cooke, who had taught in the city's public schools and served as a professor of English at Miner, saw teacher training as a way to revolutionize failing schools long before that became fashionable in education reform circles.

During his eight-year tenure at D.C. Teachers College, enrollment tripled and the school began taking on an expanded role in the community, sponsoring street patrols to ensure residents' safety and operating a youth recreation program.

The college regained its accreditation, and Dr. Cooke hired a part-time publicist to help raise its profile. Dr. Cooke left D.C. Teachers College in 1974, just before it was absorbed into the University of the District of Columbia.

"He was a trailblazer in education for black people," said D.C. councilman and former mayor Marion Barry in an interview Wednesday. "He led the effort to train thousands of black teachers. . . . He's just the kind of person that you want to have hundreds of because of the work he did."

A graduate of the District's racially segregated public schools, Dr. Cooke was an enduring voice in Washington for civil rights and racial equality.

In 1948, when he was teaching English at Miner, he and colleagues held protests at local theaters that forbade African Americans from sitting in the audience. The following year, he sat on a biracial citizens commission tasked with improving race relations in Washington.

In the early 1950s, he was part of a group of black educators and lawyers who successfully fought to ensure that deaf African American students could -- like their white peers -- receive a public education in the District, rather than being sent to a school in Maryland.

Dr. Cooke also served as the local and national chairman of the American Veterans Committee, a veterans' organization that advocated racial equality. With that organization, he pressed for an end to housing discrimination in the early 1960s and was invited to serve as a pallbearer in the funeral for Medgar Evers, a black civil rights activist who was killed by a segregationist in 1963.

That year, nearly a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education had deemed segregation unconstitutional in public schools, housing patterns in Washington meant that its schools were still separated by race.

He said at the time that he supported busing children outside their neighborhoods to speed integration.

"To expect any real crack in housing discrimination in the next decade," he said, "is impractical."

Paul Phillips Cooke was born June 29, 1917, in the New York neighborhood of Harlem and grew up in Washington. His grandfather and father sold milk and bread to zookeepers at the Smithsonian who kept animals such as tigers as live models for the museum's taxidermists.

He graduated in 1933 from Dunbar High School, where he was the first baseman on the varsity baseball team, and in 1937 from Miner.

He received two master's degrees, one in education from New York University and another in English language and literature from Catholic University. He received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1947.

Dr. Cooke joined the Miner faculty in 1944, interrupting his tenure there to serve in the Army Air Forces from 1945 to 1946 and in the 1960s to lead an experimental inner-city school program that was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

After retiring in 1974, Dr. Cooke wrote and spoke widely about the history of Washington. He was the director of international programs for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and served as a consultant to Howard University, the University of the District of Columbia, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and the World Peace Through Law Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that did work around the world with USAID grants.

He was a parishioner at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Washington and a member of the Catholic Interracial Council, the Cosmos Club and the local chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He was inducted into the D.C. Hall of Fame in 2001.

In 2003, tragedy struck Dr. Cooke's family. His son and daughter-in-law, Paul and Margaret Cooke, were fatally shot by their son, Joshua Cooke, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Dr. Cooke's wife of 63 years, Rose Clifford Cooke, also died in 2003. Their daughter Kelsey C. Meyersburg died in 1997.

Survivors include two daughters, Anne E. Cooke and Katherine Cooke Mundle, both of Washington; a granddaughter; and two great-grandchildren.

Dr. Cooke's students at Miner said he was a warm and approachable professor who was known on campus for putting on plays and emphasizing personal relationships with those he taught.

"You could feel comfortable in his presence," said Lawrence E. Graves, a Washington native who graduated from Miner and went on to a 32-year career in D.C. public schools. "We loved him."

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