KEUKA PARK — As a close friend of Keuka College President Jose Díaz-Herrera, Dr. Walter Cooper has visited the scenic Yates County campus several times.
Cooper will be back Friday as the college’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration speaker.
Cooper, a scientist, humanitarian, activist and educator heavily involved in civil rights work in Rochester and the African nation of Mali, will discuss “Education Then and Now: How Historically Underrepresented Groups are Faring in the Current Climate.” The talk, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for 7 p.m. in Norton Chapel.
“The talk will be with respect to African Americans and the history and evolution of education for them,” Cooper said. “It’s been a long journey from where we started to where we are today.”
Cooper received a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Jefferson College in 1951. After briefly attending Howard University, he became the first black to earn a doctoral degree in physical chemistry from the University of Rochester in 1956.
That year, Cooper was hired by Eastman Kodak as a research scientist and promoted to senior research chemist, research associate and technical associate. Named manager of the Office of Technical Communications in 1985, he oversaw the publications and technical reports of 2,300 scientific and research personnel and managed the Office of Research Innovation; he retired from Kodak in 1986.
Cooper served as the Rochester branch president for the NAACP and co-founded the Rochester branch of the Urban League in 1965, serving on the board of directors into the 1970s. He was also a board member of the Baden Street Settlement, a non-profit organization working with northeast Rochester residents to improve the quality of life.
When the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 was passed, Cooper took a leave of absence from Kodak to help form Action for a Better Community, an anti-poverty agency in Rochester. He served as the associate director and then as executive director, and during that time the organization established a local version of the national Head Start program along with other aid programs.
Cooper said his talk will cover early educational opportunities for African-Americans as far back as the Civil War, including schools run by abolitionists. It will include the 1896 Supreme Court decision under the “separate but equal” doctrine, which remained in effect until the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education.
“Separate but equal was often ignored. Separate? Indeed. Equal? No,” Cooper said. “There will also be discussion about the evolution of integration in schools ... and about the slow pace of that integration, particularly in the South.”
Cooper established Rochester’s Sister City program with Bamako, Mali, in 1975, and worked with Rochester Institute of Technology to establish scholarships for students from Bamako. He was named a Knight of the National Order of Mali in 1981.
In 2005, he received an honorary doctorate degree from SUNY Geneseo. Three years later, Cooper received the Frederick Douglass Award from the U of R for lifetime achievement in civil rights.
In 2010, Rochester City School No. 10 was named the Dr. Walter Cooper Academy. The school emphasizes research and interactive learning, the methodology Cooper promoted during his time as a state regent and as the education committee chair of the Urban League of Rochester.
“Some African Americans have had their educational experience in excellent schools, others in mediocre schools, especially in cities. The quality left a lot to be desired,” he said. “That is still the challenge today ... and how we can prepare these students for the global economy.”