Reputation of excellence

Published 5:00 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2024

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SUNBURY – Motorists on NC 32 passing by T.S. Cooper Elementary School can now take note of a new addition to the front lawn of that educational facility.

Benjamin C. Saunders Jr. admires the marker after unveiling it on the front lawn of the school located just outside of Sunbury. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

During a ceremony held Saturday afternoon (March 23), a historical marker was unveiled honoring the legacy of the school’s namesake – Thomas Settle Cooper. The Bertie County native was appointed in 1919 as the principal of Gates County Training School. Under his leadership, the school became an accredited high school, and was the first high school for African-Americans in Gates County. He retired in 1948 and the school was renamed in his honor several years later.

The newly erected highway marker was the work of the Gates County Historical Society.

“Thomas Settle Cooper was not just a principal and an educator, but a beacon of hope, a pillar of strength, and a visionary who saw far beyond the constraints of his time to become a champion for education and empowerment for African-Americans in Gates County,” said Benjamin C. Saunders Jr. who presided over Saturday’s event.

“Gratitude also extends to the Gates County Historical Society whose dedication in preserving our local history made today’s event possible. Their efforts to show the stories of our struggles and triumphs will inspire future generations,” Saunders added.

Saunders enlightened the audience of Cooper’s impact on education in Gates County, especially people of color prior to the end of segregated schools. In addition to his work as a principal, it was noted that Cooper also worked to raise matching funds to qualify for Rosenwald Funds. Eight years later (1927-28), a new school was built with Rosenwald Funds – the last Rosenwald School built in Gates County.

Lovie Rascoe, current principal at T.S. Cooper Elementary School, stressed the historical significance of the day.

“The unveiling of this marker not only celebrates the location of the first Black high school in Gates County, but we also celebrate the enduring legacy of those who worked tirelessly for education and equality,” Rascoe remarked.

“May Mr. Cooper’s legacy remind us of the progress we have made and inspired us to continue striving for a future of education that’s open to all, regardless of background or circumstances. Let us continue to uphold his vision of a community where learning is a beacon for hope and empowerment for generations to come,” Rascoe added.

Dr. Althea Riddick, chair of the Gates County Board of Commissioners, centered her remarks on Cooper’s middle name….Settle.

“Mr. Cooper did not settle on just having a primary education, he took advantage of opportunities to further his education and acquired advanced training and degrees,” Riddick said. “He did not settle for just being a teacher, he became a principal, an important figure and role model for the Black community. He did not settle for being average, he became an impactful administrator that led him to be on the Board of Trustees at what is now Elizabeth City State University. He did not settle for the status quo, but collaborated with other entities to raise matching funds to qualify for Rosenwald funds that led to building a new school, the last Rosenwald School built in Gates County, which is now T.S. Cooper Elementary School.”

Riddick said, like Cooper, the Gates County Board of Commissioners will not “settle for anything less when it comes to providing a quality education for all the children of our county.”

Dr. Barry Williams, Superintendent of Gates County Public Schools, stated that the placement of this historical marker is a powerful way to commemorate Cooper’s work as well as the important history of the school that bears his name.

“We pay homage to Mr. Cooper’s dedication, commitment, and success as a pioneer of education who paved the way for the students of Gates County,” Dr. Williams said. “His grit and determination set the foundation for T.S. Cooper Elementary School educators, administrators, and staff to offer students with the social and academic resources to be successful in life.

Shown here is just one of the interesting artifacts displayed as part of the marker dedication ceremony. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

“I’m excited to be part of continuing the heritage of this school by securing funding to make necessary upgrades and renovations to this school. This funding ensures this school’s rich and educational history will continue,” Dr. Williams added.

Susan Ward served for eight years as principal at T.S. Cooper Elementary School. She noted that upon her arrival in that position, the school has already established a reputation of excellence.

“That reputation began back in the early 1900s when Thomas Settle Cooper had the determination to provide a school of excellence for the children of Gates County, particularly Black children of our county,” Ward noted. “When I became the principal here in 2003, I felt not only the weight of Mr. Cooper on my shoulders, but also the responsibility placed on me by those serving between Mr. Cooper and me….Mr. Hollis Creecy, Mr. William Beamon, and my mentor, Mr. Benjamin Saunders Sr. Every morning when I opened this building, I would walk past the portraits of Mr. Cooper and Mr. Saunders hanging in the hall and I would say, out loud, I’m doing the best I can. I would feel them lifting me up to make it through the challenges of that day.”

Ward continued by saying, “Mr. Cooper left a legacy for all of us to follow…having respect for all, hard work and dedication, and sense of community.”

She encouraged those in attendance to support a local effort currently underway in the county to renovate the old Corapeake Rosenwald School.

Marva Bond, a former student and educator at T.S. Cooper Elementary School, said her late grandparents, Timothy and Francis Eason, were once students at Gates Training School. Her mother, Evelyn Eason, was the valedictorian of the Class of 1956 at T.S. Cooper High School.

Bond recalled her time at T.S. Cooper School, saying her teachers inspired her to become an educator.

“In 1989, I returned here as a teacher,” she said. “It was like coming full circle. I even taught in the same classroom where I once sat as a student. That’s what Mr. Cooper stood for. He wanted to make sure that Black students were equipped to lead productive lives in any profession they chose. He is so well deserving of the honor being bestowed upon him today.

Linda Holfer, a member of the Gates County Historical Society, encouraged the audience to share any history or artifacts they have about the history of education in the county.

Also taking part in the event was Rev. Dr. Claude Odom, pastor of New Middle Swamp Missionary Baptist Church, who thanked God for the energy and the synergy gathered in the room on Saturday, people who “made this happen through their blood, sweat and tears.”

Additionally, the St. John AME Zion Church Men’s Chorus performed two gospel songs.

After the marker was unveiled outside, attendees returned to the school library to enjoy refreshments and to browse through several artifacts that celebrated the school prior to integration.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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