Pioneer | Richmond Free Press
Bettie Elizabeth Boyers Cooper, who helped end determined efforts in Richmond and Virginia in the 1950s to maintain racially segregated public schools, has died.
The brave plaintiff, who won a little-known federal lawsuit that allowed the first black students to enter the city’s previously all-white public schools, died Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. She was 94.
Affectionately known as “Sister” and “Big Mama,” her life was celebrated Friday, October 21 at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Henrico County.
The New Jersey transplant who grew up in Richmond got fed up with segregation when her daughter, Daisy Jane, had to take a four-mile bus to and from Carver Elementary School rather than attend elementary school Whites-only Westhampton which was within walking distance, said Ms Cooper’s granddaughter, Kelly Johnson-Crowder.
A professional seamstress, Ms. Cooper took action at a time when Massive Resistance was in full swing in Virginia to block the implementation of the 1954 and 1955 United States Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education prohibiting racial segregation of schoolchildren.
Represented by civil rights lawyers from Hill, Tucker & Marsh, Ms Cooper’s battle began in 1958 when she petitioned the state’s new student placement board to assign her daughter to Westhampton.
However, the short-lived board, which reviewed 450,000 placement applications over three years, has never assigned black students to a whites-only school.
Ms. Cooper refused to accept the ruling, and her lawyers filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn it. Two other people who had initially been involved in the case dropped out, but Ms Cooper was adamant in moving the case forward.
His case became a slam-dunk after the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled in a separate case in 1960 that the placement council violated the state and federal constitutions. This led to the state allowing localities to initiate voluntary “freedom of choice” plans that allowed black parents who sought to do so to send their children to previously white-only schools.
It would take up to 11 more years before federal courts would begin requiring school districts to start busing white and black students to achieve integration.
Richmond, whose school board was then headed by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, refused to implement even a voluntary placement policy until Ms Cooper’s case was decided.
It happened a year later, in 1961, when US District Court Judge Oren R. Lewis issued an order in favor of Ms Cooper and other black parents. Ms Cooper’s daughter, aged 12, became the first black pupil to attend classes at Westhampton Junior High School.
A year later, Daisy became the first black student to attend Thomas Jefferson High School, according to a file on file at Virginia Commonwealth University.
A graduate of Armstrong High School, Ms. Cooper sewed athletic pants, suits and coats for 18 years for Jefferson Manufacturing Co., then worked for 17 years for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles before retiring.
A resident of the Westwood community for most of her life, Ms. Cooper has become well known for her efforts on behalf of children in the West End area. Although she never owned a car, she took the children on day trips by public transport, Ms Crowder said.
She often opened her home to relatives, friends and sometimes strangers who needed temporary accommodation, Ms Crowder said.
Ms. Cooper became a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1982 and was actively involved in proselytizing activities.
Besides her daughter, survivors include Mrs. Cooper’s brother, Hamp Anderson; sisters Beatrice Brown, Franceno Diggs and Lenny Thornton; four granddaughters; eight great-grandchildren; and 14 great-great-grandchildren.