Duke University will hold a public ceremony today to dedicate a building to honor a woman who was one of the school’s first five Black undergraduates.

The Sociology-Psychology Building on the school’s West Campus will be named for the late Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, one of Duke’s “First Five” Black undergraduates. She graduated in 1967. After completing her undergraduate studies, Reuben-Cooke embarked on a distinguished career in law, academics, and civic engagement, according to a Thursday press release.

Reuben-Cooke is the first Black woman to have a campus building named after her. She will join fellow African Americans historian John Hope Franklin and campus architect Julian Abele as having buildings or grounds named to honor their legacies, the release stated.

Campus officials say Rueben-Cooke helped shape Duke’s history, first as a pioneering student and later as an adviser and a member of the board of trustees. 

The renaming ceremony “also recognizes that her influence extended broadly through her leadership in philanthropy, law and higher education,” according to the press release.

A story in Duke Today reports that Duke President Vincent Price will speak at the ceremony along with Gene Kendall, who was a 1967 Duke classmate and friend of Reuben-Cooke.

Today’s renaming ceremony is part of an initiative by Price to “honor key contributors to the university who have been previously overlooked or whose legacies have been under-examined,” according to Duke Today.

Reuben-Cooke was born in Georgetown, South Carolina, in 1946. She died in October 2019 in Alexandria, Virginia, at the age of 72.

Despite the challenges she faced after breaking Duke’s color line, Reuben-Cooke was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and named a Woodrow Wilson Scholar. 

While an undergraduate, Reuben-Cooke was active in the civil rights movement, participating in protests in Durham and Chapel Hill.

One year after graduation, Rueben-Cooke married Air Force 1st Lt. Edmund Douglas Cooke Jr. They had two daughters, Nilaja and Shani. Her husband and daughters will attend the ceremony, Duke officials said in the release.

After leaving Duke, Reuben-Cooke graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1973 “and went on to an exceptional career as an attorney, law professor, and university administrator, in each place rising to leadership roles, and worked to create opportunities for marginalized communities,” officials said.

While serving as associate director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation, Reuben-Cooke argued cases before the FCC and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. She later taught law at Syracuse University and at the University of the District of Columbia, while serving as UDC’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, according to Duke Today.

Throughout her career, she retained a close connection with Duke University, and she returned to serve on the board of trustees for two terms. 

At today’s ceremony, attendees will be able to enter the newly named building to view an interactive exhibit highlighting Reuben-Cooke’s life. It concludes with the unveiling of a portrait of the pioneering alumna.

Reuben-Cooke’s portrait was painted by artist Mario Moore, whose previous work includes a series honoring Black service workers on the Princeton University campus.

The ceremony begins at 5 p.m. and will take place on the Davidson Quad, outside of the classroom building. 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.