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Reuben-Cooke Building to Be Dedicated Friday, Sept. 24

Community invited to attend ceremony honoring a pioneering alumna

Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke as a student; the Sociology-Psychology Building on West Campus will be dedicated in her honor on Friday.
Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke as a student; the Sociology-Psychology Building on West Campus will be dedicated in her honor on Friday.

The university community is invited to a public ceremony dedicating the Sociology-Psychology Building on West Campus for the late Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke ’67, one of the “First Five” Black undergraduates at Duke, who went on to an extraordinary career in law, academics and civic engagement.

The renaming of the building will honor a woman who helped shape Duke’s history, first as a pioneering student and later as an adviser and a member of the Board of Trustees. It also recognizes that her influence extended broadly through her leadership in philanthropy, law and higher education.

The ceremony will be held at 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24, on Davison Quad outside the classroom building. Duke President Vincent Price will speak at the ceremony, along with Gene Kendall ’67, a Duke classmate and friend of Reuben-Cooke and the last surviving member of the “First Five,” and others.

All naming ceremonies on campus reflect an important piece of Duke’s history, but this moment is unique on several fronts. The renaming is part of a larger effort launched by Price to have the university engage with its history and identify opportunities to honor key contributors to the university who have been previously overlooked or whose legacies have been under-examined. The naming recommendation came from the President’s Advisory Committee on Institutional History, tasked by Price with identifying members of the Duke community who have made extraordinary contributions worthy of permanent recognition.

Reuben-Cooke becomes the first Black woman to have a campus building named after her, and she now joins historian John Hope Franklin and campus architect Julian Abele as having buildings or grounds named after them. 

Reuben-Cooke was born in Georgetown, South Carolina, on Dec. 13, 1946, the eldest of six children of the late Reverend Dr. Odell R. Reuben and the late Dr. Anna Mays Daniels Reuben. She died at age 72 on October 22, 2019, in Alexandria, Virginia.

While she faced difficult moments during her time at Duke, Reuben-Cooke graduated with distinction from Duke in 1967, having been elected to Phi Beta Kappa and named a Woodrow Wilson Scholar. During her time at Duke, she was active in the civil rights movement, including protesting in Durham and Chapel Hill and signing an open letter against the memberships of key Duke administrators and faculty members at the then-all-white Hope Valley Country Club.

After graduation, she married Air Force 1st Lieutenant Edmund Douglas Cooke Jr. in 1968. They had two daughters, Nilaja and Shani.

Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, and Nathaniel White, Jr. on campus in 2012 as part of a celebration of the anniversary of their arrival on campus. Reuben-Cooke graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1973 and went on to an exceptional career as an attorney, law professor, and university administrator, in each place rising to leadership roles, and worked to create opportunities for marginalized communities.

As associate director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation, Reuben-Cooke argued cases before the Federal Communications Commission and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. She later taught law at Syracuse University and at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), also serving as UDC’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Throughout her career, she retained a close connection with Duke University, and she returned to serve on the Board of Trustees for two terms. She also served on the Board of Trustees of The Duke Endowment.

The respect she earned in all of these roles is reflected by those who plan to travel to Duke for the dedication ceremony, representing many of the institutions she worked with during her career. These include representatives of the University of the District of Columbia and Syracuse University, The Duke Endowment, and leaders of other institutions supported by the Endowment: Davidson College and Johnson C. Smith University.

Members of Reuben-Cooke’s family, including her husband Edmund Cooke and her daughters, will be present.

Following the speeches, visitors will be able to enter the newly-named building and view an interactive exhibit highlighting the many facets of Reuben-Cooke’s life. The exhibit was created by Duke University Libraries exhibit librarian Meg Brown and Tobias Rose of Kompleks Creative. 

At the end of the exhibit, a new portrait of Reuben Cooke, painted by artist Mario Moore, will be displayed. Moore, who will also be at the ceremony, is acclaimed for his portraits, including a series honoring Black service workers on the Princeton University campus

The ceremony will be livestreamed on YouTube.