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Barbara Ward Cooper, oldest-serving legislator in Tenn. history, dead at 93

A well-respected Black legislator in Memphis who served for more than a quarter-century has died in office while running for re-election.

Cooper in 2021. (John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout)

Dr. Barbara Ward Cooper, a Tennessee House representative and the oldest-serving legislator in state history, died late last month in her native Memphis while still in office. She was 93 years old.

The news was announced by the Tennessee House Democrats on October 26, the day after her passing.

“One of our very own, Rep. Barbara Ward Cooper, has been called home to our Lord,” they posted on social media.

“She dedicated her life to education, public service, and tireless advocacy for equality. Her humility, humor, and wit touched us all.”

Tributes have poured in concerning Cooper from both sides of the political aisle since the news broke, with the Tennessee Democratic party calling her “a pillar of the legislature” and Republican governor Bill Lee also joining the chorus.

“Barbara Cooper was a dedicated public servant who faithfully served the Memphis community,” he said.

“We’re incredibly saddened by the news of Rep. Barbara Cooper’s passing,” added GOP House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

“While we lost a most revered friend and colleague, heaven has gained an angel.”

A widowed mother of three, Cooper was born in 1929 to Elisha and Mattie Bell Ward in New Chicago, a neighborhood of the North Memphis district. Raised during an era of largely unchecked segregation, she attended the HBCU Tennessee State University, where she received a bachelor's and master’s degree in education.

Cooper later served for decades as a public school teacher, before retiring and entering public service as a community relations specialist with the federal government. She also began assisting local political efforts, including the 1991 campaign for W. W. Herenton as the first African-American mayor in Memphis history.

After an unsuccessful attempt in 1994, Cooper won a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1996 at the age of 67. She would go on to serve 11 terms, and was seeking re-election in the 86th district at the time of her death.

Her committee assignments over the years included Children and Family Affairs, Education, Family Justice, and Higher Education, reflecting her years of service as an advocate for young people and as a teacher. She was also a major supporter of union efforts and public works, which became controversial topics in Memphis during her tenure.

More recently, she advocated for the renaming of city parks honoring Confederates and other figures connected to slavery and violence, and since 2020 had been a notable proponent of COVID-19 safety measures and vaccines.

Cooper was the recipient of numerous awards during her career, including Legislator of the Year in 2011, the Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. Extra Special Politician Award from her sorority, and multiple honors from St. Augustine Catholic School.

A faithful member of St. Augustine Catholic Church, one of the city’s Black parishes, Cooper also sought graduate theological education early on in her political career, obtaining a doctorate in Christian Psychology from Jacksonville Theological Seminary in 1999.

In the wake of widespread voter suppression following the election of President Joe Biden in 2020, Cooper also formed the TN Voter Connection last fall to defend voting rights and encourage political participation. It was one of her last major political efforts, alongside her co-sponsorship of efforts earlier this to curb hair discrimination in the workplace, police brutality, and capital punishment.

Visitation for Cooper has been scheduled for Friday, November 4 from 4 to 7pm CT at St. Augustine Catholic Church, and a Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Saturday at 12:30pm. Interment will follow at West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery.

Cooper is survived by her daughters, Rev. Joan Cooper Burnett and Tanya Cooper, and her grandchildren Reneshia Burnett, Ashlea Burnett Vainqueur, and Martez King. She is predeceased by her husband, Captain John Cooper, her son Carl Cooper, and sisters Lachree Ward Steverson and Arnetta Spite Henderson.

Sympathy gifts can be sent to the Cooper family via the E. H. Ford Mortuary website.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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