In 1907 Cooke took a three-day federal civil service examination in Boston (blacks were not allowed to take the test in Washington, D.C.). He passed and was assigned to the office of the supervising architect at the United States Treasury Department, the first black man to be employed there.
Architect. Born on December 27, 1871, in Greenville, Cooke was the son of the former slave Wilson Cooke and his wife, Magdalena Walker, a free woman of color before the Civil War. Cooke’s father was Greenville’s most prominent black citizen. He owned a grocery store and a tannery and served in the South Carolina General Assembly in 1868. W. W. Cooke attended school in Greenville until he was fourteen. He worked as a carpenter’s apprentice until 1888, when he entered the Literary and Industrial Department at Claflin College in Orangeburg. Cooke studied architectural drawing and completed the preparatory course in 1893. From 1893 to 1894 he assisted the vocational superintendent. In 1894 he was elected superintendent of industrial arts at Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth in Savannah. After three years he returned to Claflin as superintendent of manual training and industrial arts. During the next five years he earned a bachelor of science in technology degree (1902) at Claflin, studied architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and art history at Columbia University, and designed the Slater Training Building, where Claflin’s industrial courses were held.
Between 1902 and 1907 Cooke was a practicing architect, employed by the Freedman’s Aid Society and Women’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He worked primarily at Claflin and in Orangeburg, although he designed three buildings at Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida. At Claflin he was the architect for two dormitories, the Soules Home for Girls, and Tingley Memorial Hall. In addition, in 1903 he designed a large residence for the black attorney John Hammond Fordham. Between 1905 and 1907 Cooke had an office in Greenville. He married Anne Miller, a daughter of S.C. State president Thomas Miller. The couple had two children.
In 1907 Cooke took a three-day federal civil service examination in Boston (blacks were not allowed to take the test in Washington, D.C.). He passed and was assigned to the office of the supervising architect at the United States Treasury Department, the first black man to be employed there. His initial appointment was as an architectural draftsman. In 1909 he was transferred to Field Operations, where he supervised the construction of federal courthouses and post offices in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. He remained in the position until 1918, when he was promoted and transferred to the War Department as director of vocational guidance and training for Negro labor battalions at Wilberforce University in Ohio.
After the war Cooke practiced architecture in Gary, Indiana. He was the first African American to obtain an Indiana state architect’s license (1929). But the Depression ruined his business, and in 1931 he returned to the supervising architect’s office as a construction engineer. He retired in 1941 and died on August 25, 1949. He was buried at Fern Oak Cemetery in Griffith, Indiana.
Fitchett, E. Horace. “The Role of Claflin College in Negro Life in South Carolina.” Journal of Negro Education 12 (winter 1943): 42–66.
Wells, John E., and Robert E. Dalton. The South Carolina Architects, 1885–1935: A Biographical Directory. Richmond, Va.: New South Architectural Press, 1992.
Williams, Barbara Cook. “William Wilson Cooke.” In African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865–1945, edited by Dreck Spurlock Wilson. New York: Routledge, 2004.