A true trailblazer

Cooper honored by UNC as its first African-American player

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Players on the North Carolina men’s basketball team have had a tough season with the vaunted Tar Heels currently 10-14 overall and in sole possession of last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But none of the current Tar Heels had it as rough as Bill Cooper did 55 years ago when he became the first African-American basketball player in UNC history.

Cooper, who went by Willie in those days, was a freshman out of Frederick Douglass High, the all-black high school in Elm City. Despite being warmly welcomed, for the most part, by the university and many of the students and fans, Cooper dealt with racism from nearly every angle during that harrowing 1964-65 season.

In a decision that has caused him anguish at times over the years, Cooper decided to stop playing basketball and focus on academics at UNC, thereby relinquishing the chance to become Carolina’s first varsity black basketball player. Instead that distinction went to future hall-of-famer Charlie Scott in the 1967-68 season.

But Cooper’s contributions haven’t been forgotten as UNC will honor him not once, but twice this week. Cooper, who has lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for nearly 40 years, was among those recognized Thursday night at Carolina’s women’s basketball game against Boston College as part of Black History Month Celebration. Cooper’s daughter, Tonya, was a member of UNC’s NCAA championship team in 1994.

On Saturday night during halftime of UNC’s game against Virginia in the Smith Center, with his wife, Helen, and their three children — Brent, Tonya and Cynthia — Cooper will be presented the Tar Heel Trailblazer award, which was instituted in 2014 to honor former UNC African-American student-athletes who paved the way for others. Scott was one of the first four recipients in 2014 along with Courtney Bumpers, Robyn Hadley and Ricky Lanier. The last time a Tar Heel Trailblazer award was given was in 2018. Other recipients include Charles Waddell, Stuart Scott and Phil Ford.

Cooper credited his daughter Tonya for pushing for his deserved inclusion into this elite group of pioneers.

“They are recognizing that that was somewhat of an unusual accomplishment, not in that day though, you know because everybody was a trailblazer back then,” Bill Cooper said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “If you did anything out of the black community, you were considered a trailblazer.”

Cooper’s story started in Wilson, where he spent the first few years of his life. However, with his father’s death and his mother’s debilitating medical condition, he and his sister, Mary, went to live with separate foster families. When he was just 7 years old, Cooper was taken in by an older couple in Elm City, Kester and Martha Mitchell, who had 10 grown children. The Mitchells, along with their children, provided a nurturing atmosphere for the young Cooper to flourish and he did, both academically and athletically. An outstanding student at Douglass High, Cooper proved to be an outstanding basketball player for the Braves of head coach Harvey Reid Jr., who would eventually become the all-time winningest high school boys basketball coach in North Carolina. Cooper helped Elm City win two North Carolina High School Athletic Conference championships under Reid.

Cooper was good enough to attract the attention of another future coaching legend — Dean Smith. However, Smith was nowhere near that status as a third-year head coach at UNC who was just trying to keep his job. But he saw enough in Cooper to offer him a chance to walk on the UNC junior varsity team (freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity in those days).

Because Cooper was an outstanding student at Douglass High and his late father, Willie Cooper Sr., was a World War I veteran, he qualified for a veteran’s survivor scholarship to UNC. So in the winter of 1964-65, Willie Cooper became the first African-American player to wear a UNC basketball uniform. Two African-American players also made the freshman team at Maryland that season, but only one, Billy Jones, would make it to the varsity the next season and make ACC history.

While Jones and Scott, who would go on to have a successful NBA career, are widely recognized as pioneers in the ACC, Cooper’s story is just as compelling.

“I think this is something that you should not forget what we went through to get to that point, that, you know, a black person thinks nothing about going to a white school now,” Cooper said.

As a black teenager who broke the color line at a major university in the South during the dying days of the Jim Crow era, Cooper was faced with racism on road trips as well as at UNC when three football players refused to share a suite with him in the dormitory.

“We still have to tell the stories, not just the story really about integration,” he said. “We still have to keep telling it so that people know that it wasn’t handed it to us on, you know on some bed of roses. No, it was a challenge.”

But it wasn’t the only time Cooper had to be a trailblazer. In fact, it was something he got used to doing, first as as captain in the U.S. Army and later during his 20-year career as an executive at IBM, where he became an equal opportunity manager in the company’s Southern region, finding qualified minority candidates for job openings in the company.

Cooper admits to having some “mental scars” from his decision to give up basketball and focus on academics at UNC.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me not to separate that out because one way to look at it is that I was a failure at something that I really wanted really bad,” he said.

But he’s delighted to be honored by UNC and have his story — including his successful military and business careers — told again in a way that might inspire young people today.

“And so, you know, it was almost like second nature to me, to be doing that sort of thing,” he said of being a trailblazer in the U.S. Army and with IBM. “Because somehow or another, all my life I’ve been knocking down doors and so it’s probably not obvious to the young people nowadays, because they knew nothing about the things that were going on that was putting us in position that we could have equality.”