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Seattle, Washington: Frank B. Cooper
Elementary School

Thelma Dewitty in the classroom
Photo Courtesy of the Seattle Urban League, University of Washington Special Collections
Located in the West Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle, Washington, the Frank B. Cooper
Elementary School is historically associated with Mrs. Thelma Fisher Dewitty, who holds the distinction of being the first African American to teach within the Seattle Public School District. Mrs. Dewitty began her long distinguished career at the school amidst public pressure and racial tension . Born in Beaumont, Texas in 1912, she received a bachelor's degree at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in 1941. Prior to her arrival in Seattle, Dewitty had been a teacher for 14 years--nine years in Corpus Christi, Texas, and five years in Beamont, Texas. She came to Seattle with her husband and attended graduate school at the University of Washington. After Advocacy on her behalf from the Seattle Urban League, the NAACP, the Civic Unity Committee, and the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, Mrs. Dewitty became the first African American teacher in the Seattle School District. Her teaching career in Seattle began at Cooper School in September 1947.

[Photo] Frank B. Cooper Elementary School
Photo courtesy of Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association and Parie Hines

Although Seattle was known for racial tolerance, Dewitty's appointment was a groundbreaking accomplishment. Her hiring generated some conflict, and when she was hired at Cooper School, Principal Lester Roblee informed the other teachers that a black teacher would be joining the staff. He gave them the option to transfer. During the first year one parent asked that her child be removed from Dewitty's class--a request rejected by the principal. Dewitty left Cooper Elementary School in 1953 and taught at numerous other schools within the Seattle School District including John Hay (1953-55), Laurelhurst (1955-56), and Sandpoint (1956-58) Elementary Schools. She officially retired from the Seattle Public School District in 1973. In the civic arena, Dewitty was active in the Seattle Branch of the NAACP, serving as its president in the late 1950s. She also served on the State Board Against Discrimination and on the Board of Theater Supervisors for Seattle and King County.

Thelma Dewitty
Photo Courtesy of the Seattle Urban League, University of Washington Special Collections

Thelma Dewitty's presence at Cooper School symbolized two major changes in the Seattle area after World War II. Suffering greatly from a shortage of male teachers during World War II, the School Board had to relax its rules regarding the ineligibility of married women teachers, and eventually eliminated the rule altogether in 1947. Meanwhile, the enormous wave of African American migration to the Seattle area included many black professionals seeking employment. As the first African American to teach in Seattle's school district, Dewitty's appointment in September of 1947 began to break down the deep racial barriers that existed there. Her hiring came 50 years before John Stanford became Seattle's first black school superintendent. Shortly after her appointment, a second African American woman, Marita Johnson, was hired to teach Household Service, one of the newer "school to work" courses at Broadway-Edison Technical School.

In 1917 the noted Seattle architect Edgar Blair designed the Frank B. Cooper Elementary School

in the American Renaissance style, with rectangular massing, hipped roof, and a minimum of architectural detailing. In 1929 additions were added to the east and south by another noted Seattle architect, Floyd Naramore. The main building is a three-story rectangular block with a gable-on-hip roof. Located on both the west and east elevations of the roof are three ventilation towers with louvered openings. The roof is covered with asphalt shingles and the exterior of the building is clad in red brick .

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