State Rep. Barbara Cooper (left) at the National Civil Rights Museum for the 2020 Living Legends Awards that she launched three years earlier. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

Memphis and the state lost a passionate supporter of education, public health, and fighting poverty and its effects with Tuesday’s (Oct. 25) death of longtime Tennessee state Rep. Barbara Ward Cooper.

That was the overwhelming consensus of those who knew and collaborated with her in local government and in the General Assembly, where she was first elected to the House in 1996.

At 93 years old, Rep. Cooper, a Democrat who represented District 86, was the oldest legislator in state recorded history.

During her Community Prayer Breakfast in July, Rep. Barbara Cooper was in the good company of Rep. Karen Camper, Rep. G.A. Hardaway and State Sen. Raumesh Akbari. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

Daughter, Tanya Cooper, posted a photo Wednesday (Oct. 26) of Rep. Cooper’s desk at the state, which has been draped with the Tennessee flag. 

Condolences began flooding social media sites from colleagues, friends, sorors, former students, and community supporters.

“I am deeply saddened by the passing of my longtime colleague and dear friend, Barbara Cooper” said state House Minority Leader Karen Camper. “She was a warrior for her community and the City of Memphis, a tireless advocate on education and equality issues and just a delightful person. We will all miss her.”

Determined to serve in the General Assembly as long as she could do so effectively, Rep. Cooper was looking toward serving another legislative term.

Cooper was running for re-election on the Nov. 8, general election ballot against independent candidate Michael Porter. She had advanced from the Democratic primary on Aug. 4. 

Rep. Cooper had retired from the school system after 42 years. She ran the Title I federal government program for underserved students. 

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, chairman of Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, wrote:

“This morning, we send our heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and supporters of State Representative Barbara Ward Cooper. Rep. Cooper was an icon and history maker in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

“She was a mother figure to all who served with her, and she fought vigorously for the voiceless. She will be sorely missed.”  

State Rep. Barbara Cooper attending an anti-pipeline rally that also drew the presence of former Vice President Al Gore (left). (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

A retired Memphis City Schools teacher who worked in several roles for the district, Cooper was a tireless champion for Memphis students. 

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari said, in part:

“Rep. Cooper was not just a mentor, friend, and colleague, but was a part of our family. She was quite literally my political Godmother and helped show me all the ropes for campaigning and being a good public servant. She brought me to the table…I would not have been elected but for her…

“Rep. Cooper helped thousands of people in Memphis and the state of Tennessee. She was a part of almost every fight for civil rights, equity, and against oppression in Memphis…  I’m going to miss her text messages, her calls, her wisdom, her love. I cannot imagine a General Assembly without her voice.” 

State House District 86 incumbent Rep. Barbara Cooper participated in the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators’ recent Memphis tour stop. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

Cooper graduated from Manassas High School and earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from her beloved Tennessee State University. 

TSU President Dr. Glenda Glover said, “The Tennessee State University family is deeply saddened over the passing of State Representative and alumna, the Honorable Barbara Ward Cooper. An educator at heart, … history at 93-years-old. Her commitment to TSU never wavered as she supported legislation to ensure the success of our students and other higher education policies…” 

Cooper later earned a Doctor of Religious Philosophy and Christian Psychology at Jacksonville Theological Seminary.

Greater Memphis Chamber President and CEO Beverly Robertson said, “Barbara Cooper has been a strong advocate for all things that promoted Memphis, whether economic and community development, quality education and healthcare, or efficient transportation.

“She is beloved by all but particularly by those in South Memphis. We extend our prayers and condolences to her family, friends, the Shelby County legislative delegation, and all her colleagues in the Tennessee General Assembly.”

In addition to her decades of service to students, Cooper was an unwavering voice for the community of Memphis and advancing the rights of Black Tennesseans. 

She co-founded the Cooper-Jones Initiative, an education collaboration with the late Rep. Ulysses Jones, Jr. seeking to lift underserved Memphians. Cooper also formed the Harriet Tubman Legacy Awards to honor Memphians who were committed to uplifting the community. 

Cooper was an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated and its community service programs. 

Cheryl A. Bingham, president of the Beta Epsilon Omega Chapter of AKA Sorority, Inc., said:

She also was a proud member of organizations, such as the NAACP, the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, the National Council of Negro Women.

Rep. Cooper’s steadfast commitment to her neighbors and charitable causes is reflected by the countless number of awards and accolades bestowed upon her through the years, such as the Equal Opportunity Group Inc. Project Save-A-Student Award, the AFL-CIO Leadership Award, the Dr. Raymond Winbush Award, and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Extraordinary Leadership Award.

Godson and community activist Johnnie Mosley said: “She helped us with many fights to keep bus service in underserved areas. Our Citizens for Better Services organization was able to save bus service in Boxtown (in Southwest Memphis), part of Mrs. Coopers district. She stood with us and worked right alongside of us as we fought for that community. This loss hit us hard.”

Rep. Cooper was an active parishioner of St. Augustine Catholic Church.

Rep. Cooper’s name will remain on the Nov. ballot. If she wins, a special election will be held, according to the Shelby County Election Commission.

She is survived by two daughters, Rev. Joan Cooper Burnett and Tanya Cooper; four grandchildren, and a host of other loved ones and friends. 

Cooper was preceded in death by her husband of 55 years John D. Cooper and a son, Carl Cooper.

Services were pending. E.H. Ford has charge.