Duke University names building after a Black woman for the first time in campus history

Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke has now made history at least twice on Duke University’s campus in North Carolina.

She was one of the “First Five” undergraduate Black students to enroll at the university in 1963. As of Saturday, her name will be on an academic building, making her the first Black woman to have a campus building named for her, according to the university.

The building that will bear her name — the sociology-psychology building — is on Duke’s West Campus and will now be known as the Reuben-Cooke Building. The building actually predates campus integration by about 30 years, according to Duke President Vincent E. Price.

“When the building that now bears Professor Reuben-Cooke’s name first opened, she would not have been allowed to enter it as a student,” Price said in an email. “From this day forward, anyone who passes through its doors will carry on her legacy of accomplishment, engagement and lasting impact.”

The renaming comes at a time when the US is reckoning with current and historical racial tension. The repeated deaths of Black people at the hands of police have led to a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for police reform. It has also led many companies, brands and schools to reconsider the images and meaning behind their names or the names of their products.

In a statement, the university said the renaming of the sociology-psychology building “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 overlooked.”

A native of South Carolina, Reuben-Cooke — who was active in the civil rights movement as a student — graduated from Duke in 1967 with a bachelor of arts degree, according to the university.

After Duke, she earned a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1973 and became an attorney at the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, DC. She later transitioned to academia where she served as a law professor and administrator at Syracuse University and the University of the District of Columbia.

She also was associate director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation, where she supervised litigation before the Federal Communications Commission and federal courts, including the US Supreme Court.

Reuben-Cooke served on Duke’s Board of Trustees from 1989-2001 and was honored by the university in 2011 with the Duke University Distinguished Alumni Award, the school said.

She died on October 22, 2019, in Alexandria, Virginia. She was 72.

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