“I was born in Lafayette, Louisiana. No maternity clinics or hospitals were delivering Black babies in Mobile, so my mama went back to her home and I was delivered by midwives. One was my great-grandmother Julie Mouton, a descendent of slaves and one of the first black women to live openly with a white man in the community. He was the son of governor Paul Mouton, who owned slaves on a sugar plantation. I was born in their house and my grandmother is their daughter. Their portraits hung in the living room of that house for years. Our family was Catholic and considered Creole.
My dad’s mother died when he was eight years old. He was raised by his Aunt Pearl and her husband W.H. Madison who started the Christian Benevolent Burial Association in the 1920s when white funeral homes wouldn’t embalm Black bodies. They Christian Benevolent Insurance because people couldn’t pay for funerals. They had almost 100 employees and offices in seven cities throughout Alabama. They were also very active in the community. Pearl and my great-uncle lent S.D. Bishop his first funds to buy a building to start what became Bishop State Community College.
My mother and her three sisters all went to college. My parents met at Hampton Institute in Virginia. Although our family had wealth and privilege, we were still affected and hurt by segregation and Jim Crow in Mobile because we were Black. We had to crawl up into the balcony to watch movies at the Saenger Theatre. We couldn’t walk or sit in the square. When I was a little boy, the Catholics had a big parade downtown celebrating Feast Day of Christ the King. The Catholic schools were segregated and the black Catholic schools marched in the back of the parade. When we got to mass at the Cathedral, we had to sit in the back rows and very often we couldn’t even get in. I graduated from Most Pure Heart of Mary, a Black Catholic school while Bishop Toolen refused to let my brother, Billy, attend McGill High School.
Since there were no places for black women to have children in Mobile, my daddy got together with other Catholics to raise money to build a Catholic hospital where black doctors and women could go. The hospital was called St. Martin de Porres and it received national support. It opened in 1950 on Washington Avenue. It’s a nursing home now but there is a plaque honoring the existence of the hospital.
Fulton John Sheen was a famous archbishop who was supporting the work for the hospital. I was 11 or 12 when he came to our house. He asked if I had thought of The University of Notre Dame for college. He sent me material and told me he would write a letter of recommendation. Years later, I was accepted. I still have his letter of recommendation. Out of a class of 1500, three of us were African American. Walking on that campus for the first time was a revelation. There were no “colored” or “white” signs on drinking fountains or bathroom doors. The administration wanted the school to be integrated and I got to help. My children and grandchildren followed and we are the first black family to have three generations graduating from Notre Dame. We give scholarships now to help other students attend.
I had never heard of the Marine Corps until I saw the movie the Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne at the Harlem Theatre on Dearborn Street. After that, all I ever wanted to do was to be a Marine.”
This is Part One of Maj. General Gary Cooper’s story. It was taken from our interviews for the “Buried in Oaklawn” series now running in Lagniappe. Some stories were filled in from the book Ten Stars, a biography about Cooper written by Kendal Weaver.
Here is the link to the story “Oaklawn Cemetery is Mobile’s Forgotten Burial Ground”: https://lagniappemobile.com/oaklawn-cemetery-is-mobiles-forgotten-burial-ground/