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William Arthur Cooper papers

Identifier: MS0119

Scope and Contents

This collection contains very little material before 1931 when Cooper apparently began to see his art as something more than supplementary illustrations to his sermons. It also contains only fragmentary evidence of his activities after 1937, three years before he left Charlotte. Cooper's developing career as an artist is the predominant theme of the papers: the novice trying to gain recognition for his work and to secure additional formal training; the somewhat more confident lecturer arranging tours across the state to promote his art and black culture; and the artist hoping to achieve wider renown through the publication of a book. Lesser themes are Cooper's work as a minister and interracial cooperation.


  • Creation: 1918 - 1941
  • Creation: 1930 - 1939


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Some material may be copyrighted or restricted. It is the patron's obligation to determine and satisfy copyright or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections.

Biographical / Historical

William Arthur Cooper was born at Cedar Grove near Hillsborough, N.C., on June 6, 1895. His father, Gaston Cooper, was a field hand and trainer of hunting dogs, and his mother, Annie, was a teacher. Cooper attended a community school operated by the American Missionary Association and the High Point Industrial Institute. With the intention of becoming a minister, he entered the National Religious Training School in Durham (a forerunner of North Carolina Central University) and completed the four year theological course in two years, receiving his Bachelor of Theology degree in 1914. Cooper initially settled in Wilson, N.C., selling insurance and preaching. He also taught school and served as a principal there. From 1919 to 1923, he taught school in Alamance County, preached, and studied law at night. He completed a law course through the American Correspondence School of Law in 1923, one year after having been admitted to the North Carolina Bar. While sick with a severe cold in 1920, Cooper first tried to paint as a means of better illustrating a sermon for his congregation. According to journalist Walter Spearman, "The church members were delighted with the picture sermon and the artist had come to the fore in William Arthur Cooper's life, never again to be effaced by the role of preacher, teacher, lawyer, insurance agent or tobacco field hand." (See Chicago Defender, March 17, 1934, in clippings series.) An article in the Dunn Dispatch of November 25, 1932, however, states that Cooper gave up painting after being ridiculed by a black leader whom he respected and whose portrait he painted. According to this article, Cooper soon left the state and did not return for eight years. During at least part of this time, Cooper was minister of the Jones Memorial AME Zion Church in Greeneville, Tenn., and taught at Greeneville College. (See letter of Prof. J. W. Yonge, March 17, 1931, in correspondence series.) Cooper returned to North Carolina in 1929 as minister of an AME Zion church in Dunn. There he was encouraged to begin painting again and, in 1931, had a painting, "The Vanishing Washerwoman," entered in an exhibit in New York City sponsored by the Harmon Foundation. The painting won an honorable mention and was included in the foundation's traveling exhibit in 1932. During this time, Cooper received the first formal training he ever had, a series of six lessons from Clement Strudwick, a white portrait painter who was also from Hillsborough. Between May and September, 1931, Cooper left Dunn for a pastorate at the AME Zion Church in West Southern Pines, N.C.; but by October, 1932, he had moved to the Clinton Metropolitan AME Zion Church in Charlotte. Cooper evidently felt the need for additional instruction in art and hoped to study in France. He approached various foundations without success. In June, 1933, a group of prominent Charlotteans organized the Committee for the Furtherance of Art Training of Rev. William Arthur Cooper to raise money for him. Although the committee began enthusiastically and included such community leaders as Mrs. Harold C. Dwelle and Chamber of Commerce executive Clarence Kuester, its efforts also failed. As early as 1932, Cooper was exhibiting his paintings at schools and colleges throughout the state. In 1934, under the direction of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, he visited eight summer schools for black teachers, exhibiting his paintings, lecturing on art, and encouraging teachers to develop the artistic talents of their students. During the school year, the Department of Education sponsored his tour of twenty one black schools; and in 1935 he made a "good will" tour of white colleges, again exhibiting his paintings and lecturing on art and black culture. This latter tour was sponsored by the North Carolina Interracial Commission, to which Cooper had been appointed by Governor J. C. Ehringhaus. Cooper also organized the first exhibit of black artists in North Carolina, held at Shaw University in 1935. During the mid 1930s, articles about Cooper's work appeared in newspapers across North Carolina and in the national black press. He painted portraits of prominent North Carolinians of both races and more imaginative pieces as well. As the decade progressed, he seems to have become more active in the Interracial Commission, using his art to present a more realistic image of blacks and his ministry to preach racial harmony. He was invited to speak in several white churches, and in 1934 Livingstone College conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. In 1936, Cooper published his first book, A Portrayal of Negro Life. The book reproduced twenty seven of his paintings with commentary explaining them. It was published by the Division of Cooperation in Education and Race Relations, which was comprised of the State Department of Public Instruction, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University. The aim of the book was to make a contribution to black art and a better understanding of the black race. Cooper and his wife moved to St. Louis in 1940. For twenty one years, he served as minister of the Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church. While in St. Louis, Cooper published three more books, including a novel, a book of sermons, and a collection of biographical sketches of area clergymen, which he also illustrated. He died on March 15, 1974. [For additional references, see Lynn Moody Igoe, 250 Years of Afro American Art: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Bowker, 1981): 575 77.]


0.5 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



Papers of an African-American artist and minister of Charlotte's Clinton Metropolitan AME Zion Church during the 1930s. Includes correspondence and clippings, primarily relating to his attempts to gain recognition as an artist and arranging lectures and exhibits; reports on his lecture tours; the manuscript of and material relating to his book A Portrayal of Negro Life (1936); photographs; and financial information on AME Zion churches in the Charlotte District (1938-39).


The collection is arranged into two series, with several files not belonging to any series. The two series are:

Photographs and Clippings, 1931, 1938, 1984

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased from Jimmy Taylor, 1986.

Related Materials

University Art Collection, University of North Carolina at Charlotte Library [portraits of William Cooper's wife and mother].

William Arthur Cooper papers
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Repository Details

Part of the Manuscript Collections, J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives, UNC Charlotte Repository

Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte
9201 University City Blvd
Charlotte NC 28223 United States

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