Willie Cooper broke the color line at the University of North Carolina in 1964. He paid a heavy price for making history.
Cooper, just 18 then, was the first African-American basketball player for legendary Coach Dean Smith, playing on the freshman team before leaving the squad after a year. While in school, Cooper bore the weight of discrimination at what he recalls many at the time considered to be a “liberal oasis of the South.”
“It pains me,” Cooper said. “Every time it comes up, it brings back bad memories.”
With his mother in poor health after his father died, Cooper was taken in by a foster family when he was 10. The family instilled in Cooper a love for learning that fueled him to be competitive both in the classroom and on the court.
His talent, high test scores and a veteran survivors’ scholarship took the Elm City, NC, star to Chapel Hill, where he walked onto the freshman team.
One of just 18 black students in his class, Cooper dealt with racism every day in college. He was pushed around by teammates and insulted by audiences. During team road trips, he was not served at certain restaurants. Once, he was even left behind by the team on a trip to South Carolina to avoid conflict.
In one of Cooper’s darkest days on campus, he was asked to leave the athletic dormitory because his white roommates did not want to live with him. Shortly after the incident, Cooper made the difficult decision to step away from basketball and focus on his pursuit of a business degree. While giving up his dream hurt, he earned a diploma in 1968.
Cooper went on to serve in the U.S. Army for three years, including one tour of duty in Vietnam, before accepting a job with IBM. He became an operations manager in Mobile, Ala., where he again felt the pain of racial discrimination. He later became an Equal Opportunity Manager at IBM, helping to ensure that the company gave other African-Americans the same chances he had been given. He retired, with 20 years’ service, in 1993.
At Chapel Hill, Cooper paved the way for many student athletes, including his own children. In 1991, Brent Cooper played junior varsity basketball at UNC. In 1994, Tonya Cooper helped the women’s basketball team win the NCAA championship. The proud father still gets choked up when recalling his daughter’s accomplishment.
“It brought tears to my eyes when I saw her get on that floor wearing the blue and white,” Cooper said. “I never had the opportunity as a varsity player, so seeing her play was tremendous.”
Cooper feels that keeping his cool and not reacting negatively to racism were keys to leaving a positive legacy for history.
“While not all events were pleasurable, the pleasure was that I was able to overcome and be successful,” Cooper said. “My story represents many people struggling and overcoming.”