101-year-old man receives high school diploma from historic Harper’s Ferry school

Merrill Pittman Cooper attended the former high school from 1934 to 1938

Merrill Pittman Cooper grew up in segregated America in the 1930s, so his family was too poor to pay for his school tuition. But at age 101, the former Black trolley car driver finally received his high school diploma. 

As reported by The Washington Post, Cooper attended former high school Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, from 1934 to 1938 until his senior year when he and his mother moved to Philadelphia for “financial reasons.” He wanted to attend college but would instead go on to work in transportation and eventually serve as a union vice president.

After moving to Philadelphia, Cooper shifted his focus from education to a professional career to help his mother make ends meet. He took a position at a women’s apparel store before becoming one of the first Black trolley car drivers in Philadelphia in 1945, WaPo reported.

 “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,” Cooper said.

“I thought it was probably too late, so I put it behind me and made the best of the situation,” said Cooper, who now lives in Union City, New Jersey, per The Post.

“I got so involved in working and making a living that my dreams went out the window,” he said. Still, despite his lack of formal education, he became a bus driver when trolleys were phased out and then a high-ranking union organizer. But he regretted not graduating from high school. 

“Mr. Cooper — that’s what we called him then — had such a wealth of knowledge,” his stepdaughter, Marion Beckerink, told the Post. “He was constantly quoting famous orators like Kennedy or King. He would tell me and my sister, ‘I wish that I had been a lawyer so I could debate with you.’ But he did just fine.”

Storer College, which is now part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, was a boarding school founded after the Civil War to educate formerly enslaved children of West Virginia. Per WMUR 9, the school “served more than 7,000 students before closing in the mid-1950s.”

In 2018, Cooper visited and expressed regret over not earning a high school diploma. That’s when his relatives took action and reached out to park staff to help him realize his dream. 

According to a news release from Jefferson County Schools (JCS), Cooper’s family worked with JCS, the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the Storer College National Alumni Association, and the West Virginia Department of Education to honor him with a 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 in a statement. “For Mr. Cooper, that meant receiving a high school diploma. We are honored to help make that dream a reality.”

The mission of Jefferson County Schools is: “Through excellence in teaching and learning, Jefferson County Schools will ensure that all students value themselves and others, contribute to their community and succeed in a global society.” 

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