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Bettie Elizabeth Boyers Cooper, a Richmond native, reached a tipping point with segregation when her daughter, Daisy Jane, was compelled to commute five miles by bus to Carver Elementary School instead of having the option to attend the nearby Westhampton Elementary School, designated for whites only. Ms. Cooper took a stand during the era of Massive Resistance in Virginia, a time marked by efforts to obstruct the enforcement of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 and 1955 rulings in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared the prohibition of racial segregation in schools.

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Bettie Elizabeth Boyers Cooper’s actions spurred City’s full school desegregation

November 10, 2022

By Jeremy M. Lazarus

Bettie Elizabeth Boyers Cooper, who helped end Richmond and Virginia’s determined efforts in the 1950s to maintain racially segregated public schools, has died.

The courageous plaintiff, who won a little-remembered federal lawsuit that enabled the first Black students to enter previously all-white public schools in the city, died Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. She was 94.

Known affectionately as “Sister” and “Big Mama,” her life was celebrated Friday, Oct. 21, at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Henrico County.

The New Jersey transplant who grew up in Richmond became fed up with segregation when her daughter, Daisy Jane, had to ride a bus four miles to and from Carver Elementary School rather than attend the whites-only Westhampton Elementary School that was within walking distance, said Ms. Cooper’s granddaughter, Kelly Johnson-Crowder.

A professional seamstress, Ms. Cooper took action at a time when Massive Resistance was in full swing in Virginia to block implementation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 and 1955 decisions in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing racial separation of school children.

Represented by civil rights attorneys from Hill, Tucker & Marsh, Ms. Cooper’s battle began in 1958 when she applied to the state’s new Pupil Placement Board to have her daughter, assigned to Westhampton.

However, the short-lived board, which reviewed 450,000 placement applications over three years, never assigned any Black students to a whites-only school.

Ms. Cooper refused to accept the decision, and her lawyers filed a federal suit seeking to overturn it. Two others who had initially been part of the case dropped out, but Ms. Cooper was adamant in ensuring the case went forward.

Her case became a slam-dunk after the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a separate case in 1960 that the placement board violated the state and federal constitutions. That led the state to allow localities to begin voluntary “freedom of choice” plans that enabled Black parents who sought to do so to send their children to previously whites-only schools.

It would take up to 11 more years before federal courts started requiring school districts to start busing white and black students to achieve integration.

Richmond, whose School Board was then led by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, refused to implement even a voluntary placement policy until Ms. Cooper’s case was decided.

That came a year later in 1961, when U.S. District Court Judge Oren R. Lewis issued an order in favor of Ms. Cooper and other Black parents. Ms. Cooper’s daughter, at age 12, became the first Black student to take classes Westhampton Junior High School.

A year later, Daisy became the first Black student to attend Thomas Jefferson High School, according to an archived record at the Virginia Commonwealth University.

A graduate of Armstrong High School, Ms. Cooper sewed pants, suits and sports coats for 18 years for Jefferson Manufacturing Co., and later worked for 17 years for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles before retiring.

A resident of the Westwood community for most of her life, Ms. Cooper became well known for her efforts on behalf of the children of the West End neighborhood. Although she never owned a car, she took children on day trips by public transportation, Ms. Crowder said.

She often opened her home to relatives, friends and sometimes strangers who needed a temporary place to stay, Ms. Crowder said.

Ms. Cooper became a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1982 and was active in proselytizing activities.

Along with her daughter, survivors include Ms. Cooper’s brother, Hamp Anderson; sisters Beatrice Brown, Franceno Diggs and Lennie Thornton; four grand-daughters; eight great-grandchildren; and 14 great-great-grandchildren.

The Life and Legacy of Elizabeth Cooper

Bettie Elizabeth Boyers Cooper, 94, of Richmond, Virginia passed away quietly and peacefully surrounded by loved ones on October 8, 2022. She was born on January 28, 1928 to the late Harvey and Lucy Parrish Boyers, in Ocean City, New Jersey. She was affectionately known as Sister by her close relatives; and as Big Mama, Miss Bettie, and Elizabeth by others.


Elizabeth, educated in Richmond City Public Schools, graduated from Armstrong High School; and attended Virginia Union University. With a concentration in English, she was known for her beautiful penmanship as well as a scholarly style of writing. She was also a woman of many talents including an exceptional seamstress and tailoress; and with great tenacity, she was a self-proclaimed carpenter and architect. Not only did she draw precise blueprints for several of her home remodeling projects, but she herself built the porch addition to her home! She was employed for 18 years at Jefferson Manufacturing Co., which specialized in pants, suits, and sport coats sold to retailers nationwide. She later retired after 17 years of employment from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.


During her young adult life, Elizabeth had a self-sacrificing spirit. She was very involved with the Westwood Community, where she resided most of her life. She also spent tireless efforts with the neighborhood youth, along with her daughter, taking them on various day trips - not by car since she did not drive - but by public transportation. Elizabeth was the epitome of generosity, frequently opening up her home to relatives and friends. Her devotion to the needs of others was further demonstrated as a caregiver to her mother-in-law and her stepfather.


As a prominent part of Virginia history, Elizabeth was the sole remaining plaintiff in a three-year federal lawsuit, resulting in the historic 1961 U.S. Desegregation Court Order that ended school segregation for Richmond City Public Schools, and subsequently for other Virginia localities. This landmark decision is recognized by the Virginia Board of Education, the Library of Virginia, and the Virginia Historical Society. It is among the digital collections and archives at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the Library of Congress, and is also included on Virginia's Historic Highway Marker for the Westwood Community.


Her humble attitude was reflected in her love for spiritual things. She felt  her greatest accomplishments in life were dedicating her life to Jehovah God, and getting baptized as one of Jehovah's Witnesses in 1982. From that moment, she took delight in speaking to others about the future blessings of God's Kingdom. One of her favorite scriptures was 2 Chronicles 20:17, "Stand still and see the salvation of Jehovah," which she often shared with others. Elizabeth's courage, strong faith, and integrity to Jehovah are respected by all who knew her!


Elizabeth was preceded in death by her son Cleveland Cooper, III; parents Harvey Boyers and Lucy Parrish Anderson; stepfather Frank Anderson, Sr.; great-great granddaughter Janari Marie Johnson; brother Harvey P. Boyer; grandparents Charles Boyers, and Luther and Bettie Warden Parrish.


Left to cherish her memory and legacy are her devoted daughter Jane Cooper Johnson, four granddaughters Cindy (Andre) Anderson, Julie (Ron) Moore, Lori (Ben) Smith, and Kelly Johnson-Crowder; eight great-grandchildren Ashley Johnson, Christopher Johnson, Jonathan "Jay" Johnson, Kristen Woolridge, Taylor Smith, Victoria Randall, Benjamin Smith, and Kendall Scott; 14 great-great grandchildren; sisters Beatrice Brown, Lennie (Johnny) Thornton, Franceno Diggs; brother Frank "Hamp" (Andree) Anderson, Jr; and a host of nieces, nephews, other relatives, and friends.

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