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The Library of Virginia and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Celebrate Black History Month

Esther Georgia Irving Cooper
Born: 28 November 1881 in Cleveland, Ohio
Died: 7 February 1970 in Arlington County, Virginia
Buried: Arlington National Cemetery

Dissatisfied with the inferior facilities and textbooks offered in the black schools in Arlington County, Esther Georgia Irving Cooper worked to improve educational opportunities for African American children. In 1940 she organized and became the first president of the Arlington County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Two years later she joined the NAACP’s Virginia State Conference executive board. In collaboration with the state NAACP, the Arlington branch challenged inequalities in the county’s high school facilities. Their efforts culminated in Carter v. School Board of Arlington County (1950), in which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the county’s separate high schools constituted unlawful racial discrimination.

As NAACP branch president Cooper supported initiatives to abolish the poll tax and wrote letters to Arlington officials protesting segregation on public transportation and in public facilities. She served as president of the Arlington chapter of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and chaired the Eighth District Committee for Virginia. In 1947 Cooper ran for a seat on Arlington County’s Democratic Executive Committee, but she was one of six progressive candidates disqualified from appearing on the primary ballot for allegedly failing to comply with party regulations. A charter member of Arlington County’s chapter of the Virginia Council of Church Women, Cooper was for many years a vice president of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Society. She helped organize the Jennie Dean Community Center Association, which in 1947 donated land for the Veterans Memorial Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. She retired as president of the Arlington County NAACP branch in 1951 but remained active as its president emerita.

For further information, including a bibliography, see the full biography in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond, 1998– ), 3:443–445.

Additional reading:
Recollections of Esther Irving Cooper by her daughter, Esther Cooper Jackson, in Camille O. Cosby and Renee Poussaint, eds., A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak (2004), 193–195.

Washington Post, 10 Feb. 1970.

Northern Virginia Sun, 10 Feb. 1970.

You can read about many of Esther Georgia Irving Cooper’s achievements in her obituary. Which of these do you think is her greatest accomplishment?