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In 2014, when Dr. Bobby G. Cooper drove up to the new building on the Utica campus of Hinds Community College, he could hardly believe what he saw. “Dr. Bobby G. Cooper Fine Arts Building,” the sign read.
“I just didn’t believe it,” he said. He knew that often buildings are named for individuals, “but to have one named for me — I was just overwhelmed. I really was in disbelief. I really was.”
It was most likely no surprise to the thousands of students he has taught — “They are beyond number,” Cooper says — because his tenure is the longest of anyone in the Hinds district. This is his 44th year on the Utica faculty.
Probably foremost in his legacy is bringing back the Jubilee Singers, a group that was first organized in the early 1900s by the founder of the college, Dr. William Holtzclaw. The Alabama professor hoped to create a school along the lines of the Tuskegee Institute, which was begun by Dr. Booker T. Washington. Holtzclaw wrote a book, Black Man’s Burden, and told of a group of young men who sang spirituals at Utica. He called them the Jubilee Singers. J. Roseman Johnson, a brother to the famous poet James Weldon Johnson, visited the campus and made a book of the songs he heard.
Cooper read Holtzclaw’s book, and he acquired a copy of Johnson’s songs. He thought about those early singers before putting together a quartet in 1980. They were a hit at their first performance in Raymond at the Hinds employees’ banquet.
Cooper has expanded the group to about 15 young men. Their repertoire has expanded, as well, to just about every genre of music. But, Cooper said, “The basic is our roots, the spirituals.” The men have sung in many parts of America and also in Italy.
The requirements to be a Jubilee Singer aren’t very strict, Cooper said. The singers don’t have to know music, but they do have to audition and “to be able to stay on pitch.”
Cooper’s own love of music began when he was a mere 4 or 5 years old. He grew up in Bolton in the 1940s and ’50s but before his mother died — when he was only 9 months old — she gave him to his uncle and aunt. He has always considered them his parents.
“I wanted to play so badly,” he said. He would sit on the back steps “with a little wooden apple crate, and I would pretend I was playing a piano.”
The family couldn’t afford a piano. A Bolton family for whom Cooper’s mother worked planned to move but didn’t want to take their piano, so they gave it to Cooper’s parents. And a woman in Bolton knew a little about how to play a piano — “Not much, but she did what she could to get me started,” Cooper said.
Cooper’s education began at the Bolton Colored School. His mother was the janitor at the white school, and he would help her in the afternoons. She also worked for the Grahams and Grants in the Hinds County town and they “just kind of took us in,” Cooper said. “I knew all the white folks in town, and we had what we wanted. I had a wonderful childhood. I was poor, but I really didn’t know it.”
After completing studies in Bolton, Cooper enrolled in the Tougaloo Prep School at Tougaloo College in Jackson.
“I really don’t know how I got there,” he said. “There was tuition. I don’t know where my people got the money to send me.”
The first year he commuted, riding to Jackson with some people who worked in the Capital City. He would then ride a school bus from the train station to the Tougaloo campus. He excelled in his studies and in his senior year he was asked to live right off campus in the home of the principal, who was retiring. After her death, her children, who lived in New Orleans, asked Cooper to remain in the house during his college years.
His early teaching career began at E.T. Hawkins High School in Forest. He was there for six years before receiving a grant to teach music in the Scott County schools. The grant led to a scholarship offer from the University of Illinois, but he never made it to Illinois. His former music professor from Tougaloo told him to go to Clinton, where the professor had recently declined a position as the music teacher.
“That was so many years ago,” Cooper said. “It was just the beginning of integration, and I had only one black face in the choir at Clinton.”
A visit to see an old friend in Forest led to his next educational adventure. Black teachers had the opportunity to seek advanced degrees, and Cooper was given a scholarship to pursue a specialist’s degree at the University of Colorado. Once that was completed, his professor said he was so close to a doctorate that there was no point in his going back to Mississippi, “so I stayed and got my doctorate.”
In 1972, Cooper joined the Utica faculty when the college was part of a program, Opera South, which included Jackson State and Tougaloo.
The walls of his office are crowded with plaques and awards honoring him for his achievements in the field of music, but he laughs about the other times when there have been bloopers. He advises his students, when that happens, “Just keep going. Don’t stop. Keep rolling. You can laugh about it later.”
His favorite numbers sung by the Jubilee Singers include include Amen, the spiritual Witness and In This Very Room, as well as Ave Maria.
On weekends, Cooper will be found at the piano at Asbury Methodist Church in Bolton, where he attended church as a child. He and his wife have two daughters and a son.
There’s a tradition among the Jubilee Singers: Once you’re a member of the group, you’ll always be a Jubilee Singer. Cooper hears from many long-time singers, some of whom have become teachers and professional musicians. Recently, one of his graduates, Cedrick Smith, who was Cooper’s accompanist and music arranger, joined the faculty at Utica.
At 78, Cooper said he thinks about retirement at the end of each school year, “But I don’t know. I just take it one year at a time.”
Though other schools have offered him positions in past years, Cooper said, “I’m so happy I stayed and made a career out of it. I have loved it here at Utica.”