At age 101, Merrill Pittman Cooper, a former Black trolley car driver, received his high school diploma, making his lifelong dream come true.
Cooper was an only child without a father in his life. During his senior year, the hardworking man said he realized that his mother, who worked as a live-in housekeeper, couldn’t afford to make the final tuition payment. He dropped out and encouraged his mom to move the family to Philadelphia, where she had family members.
According to The Philly Tribune, Cooper attended former high school Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a school that admitted newly freed slaves during the Civil War. He studied Latin, biology, history, English, and mathematics and attended the school from 1934 to 1938.
“She worked so hard, and it all became so difficult that I just decided it would be best to give up continuing at the school,” he said.
Cooper had to drop out of school started working first at a women’s apparel store in Philadelphia to help pay the bill. Then, in 1945 he started his role as a city trolley car operator.
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“It was tough when I first started,” said Cooper, remembering the racism he endured. “I wouldn’t want to repeat some of the things people said to me when they saw me operating the trolley. We had to have the National Guard on board to keep the peace.”
Over the years, he developed an accomplished career in the transportation industry and eventually ran for office in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s Local 234 union. Cooper served in various union roles, including the president, until he was hired in 1980 as vice president of what was then known as the International Transport Workers Union in New York City.
Although he accomplished many things, the centenarian regretted not getting his high school diploma.
“As time went on, I thought it was probably too late, so I put it behind me and made the best of the situation,” said Cooper.
His family supported his dream and reached out to the school to make it happen. After waiting more than 80 years, Cooper was honored with a special ceremony and diploma on March 19.
“Jefferson County Schools is committed to helping every student, young or old, fulfill their dreams,” JCS superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson-Learn said, according to WBALTV. “For Mr. Cooper, that meant receiving a high school diploma. We are honored to help make that dream a reality.”
“I never imagined that anything like this could happen,” said Cooper. “I can’t think of a happier day. Even though it took me a while, I’m really happy to finally have it.”