Cooley: 350 / 350

The abandoned Cooley High School near Fenkell & Hubbell on Detroit's northwest side opened for the fall 1928 semester, just three years after the area was annexed into the city from Greenfield Township. Since the infrastructure of the sprawl area was still under rapid development here on what was the city's fringe at the time, the school was given its own bus route as part of the DSR. This area became known as the Belmont neighborhood.

Well, Cooley High is not quite abandoned per se, since there was a nonprofit called The Cooley Reuse Project formed in March 2012, saying that the school "will be reborn and feature a community center and offer individuals of all ages and abilities unique and affordable opportunities to learn, create, volunteer and thrive." They have already done a few cleanups of the property, but I know that securing funding for a project of this scope for a building of this magnitude is a long tough climb, especially in an area that isn't considered promising by prospective lenders or partners. The Cooley Reuse Project can be followed on Facebook.

Cooley was designed by noted local architects Donaldson & Meier. The same firm also designed such well-known Detroit landmarks as St. Aloysius ChurchFirst Unitarian Church, Most Holy Redeemer, and the David Stott Building. Some of Cooley's notable alumni (according to Wikipedia) include rapper Obie Trice, pizza baron Mike Illitch, Jimmy Hoffa's son James, civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo's daughter Penellipi, local radio personality Tony Ortiz, session drummer Ricky Lawson (toured with Michael Jackson), Detroit Tigers Joe Ginsberg and Bill Roman, all-star MLB pitcher Milt Pappas, NBA player Willie Green, several other pro-sports athletes, two silver-medal Olympians, renowned Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson (star of TV show "Law & Order"), and Anita Darian—the opera singer who sang the soprano part in the 1961 hit song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Cooley also saw an unusually high number of its students killed in October of 1944 no less than 72 of its recent graduates had gone straight into the military and never returned.

The most significant chapter of Cooley's history however was in the 1960s, when this area was undergoing the fastest racial change anywhere in Detroit, even leading to the school being called "a miniature reflection of Detroit's racial ills." Although there was unrest at many Detroit schools in the 1960s, at Cooley it was perhaps the most intense.

Near the beginning of the 1969 school year, the black and white halves of Cooley erupted in a "series of violent confrontations between races." The first battle was on September 19th, and a much larger one occurred on the 22nd. An uneasy truce was achieved, but the tension remained. Four Detroit Free Press staffers spent a week at Cooley interviewing students, teachers, administrators, parents, and police. Two large articles were printed in the October 5 Free Press discussing their findings. Of course the recent, earth-shaking 1967 Riot had indelibly shaped the climate there at the time (the 50th anniversary of which is approaching as I write this), but it was more than that.

In 1961 the 40 schools in the Cooley "constellation" had less than 1% black population, but the 1968 count showed that those schools had become 52% black. Cooley itself was 6.4% black in 1964, but as of the most recent count it was over half black. It was undergoing the same demographic shift that Mumford and MacKenzie high schools underwent in the early 1960s, and that Central High School underwent after WWII. As the 1960s progressed, more aging white empty-nesters (who were a large demographic in the Cooley area) were getting ready to leave the congested city for the idyllic suburbs anyway, and after the 1967 Riot the only market for their former homes was young black families, said one school official.

Not only was Cooley's population changing from white to a 50/50 mix, but enrollment was increasing as well, meaning it was becoming more crowded. Since 1966 there were around 500 more pupils attending Cooley, a reflection of this neighborhood turnover from aging families to younger ones. Naturally this change toward a more crowded racial mix was seen as a potentially volatile situation, not just by administrators but everyone else too.

The article also noted that the movement of blacks into the Cooley neighborhood was accompanied by an even greater decrease of blacks at the inner city schools, a greater exodus in fact than the flight of whites from the Cooley area. Of course we must remember that in those days the "inner city" of Detroit was generally defined as anything inside of Grand Boulevard; I think that distinction may have been lost somewhat in modern times, at least by whites who have become less familiar with the city, who by living in the suburbs have come to equate "inner city" with any neighborhood where blacks live. I even hear many suburban people simply refer to all of Detroit as "downtown."

In any case, the movement of blacks out of those inner city schools was not followed in turn by another demographic change; those schools were not going back to being white, it was simply a void left behind. Inner city schools declined in population steadily as the city itself declined in population, and they were closed one after another as Detroit's inner city became a ghost town. This is how we ended up with the Detroit Public Schools in multi-billion-dollar debt, burdened with hundreds of aging, empty or mostly-empty surplus buildings.

A school official pointed out that the main area that black middle class families in the Cooley area were fleeing from was the 12th Street corridor, where the '67 Riot was most intense, "and you can draw your own conclusions from that." The conclusions are "brutal," the author of the article states: the black middle class was moving to outer areas like Cooley, and the white families in those areas would flee further outward.

It seems as if there is a cognizance in this article that many were starting to realize at the time that Detroit was headed for dark days, that its future was in jeopardy. I've noticed this in other articles from that era while researching; you can sense that while people in 1969 clearly didn't realize just how far Detroit was going to fall (there was no precedent), there was a tangible feeling of dread pervading articles like this one that their world was coming to an end. For some whites I guess, the idea of blacks moving into the same areas as them was enough to bring their world to an end, "but you can draw your own conclusions from that."

For the second October 5 Free Press article, entitled "School is Split Along Color Lines: Inside Story of Strife At Cooley," I had to stop halfway through and get myself some tea. And it's a good thing I did, because it was a doozy. "Cooley [was] a testing ground for genuine integrated education," and everyone knew it, the article claimed. They also knew that "at present it looks as if the test is a failure." The cafeteria at Cooley had a 700-person capacity, and it was reportedly split like oil and water with 350 whites on one side, and 350 blacks on the other. It was even common for students to choose to stand while eating their lunch if there were no seats left on their side; "seldom" did they go sit with the other race. This same eerie separation repeated during each lunch period, for all 3,048 students.

Note: One or two of my readers has informed me that inter-racial friendships were actually somewhat common at Cooley, and that the "350 / 350 split" is a bit of an exaggeration, but nonetheless other readers have told me that the atmosphere was indeed very tense. 

"The students of Cooley High School, black and white, simply do not know each other," the article stated. It was literally a prophetic macrocosm of the racial separation that was rapidly taking shape across post-1967 Riot Metro-Detroit, with whites living north of 8 Mile and blacks living south of it, completely estranged from one another even though they constantly inhabit the same spaces in their daily lives. Except for conducting necessary business, whites and blacks live in two completely separate universes, or alternate dimensions.

When interviewed, the kids and parents black and white all said that the separation "was not forced," and was "just the herd instinct." One white girl summed it up with effortless accuracy: "We just automatically sit with our friends, that's all." The subtext here is that white kids have white friends and blacks have black friends because of the racial distance between them, which is perpetuated by fear, misunderstanding, and distrust...and reinforced by the inherited biases of their parents.

Of course teenagers are not known for bravery when it comes to doing things to stand out from the crowd, so there was probably little chance that any of them would risk the social rejection of their own side by attempting to befriend anyone on the opposite side. Easier to just blend into "the herd" and remain safe from judgement. That division carries over into adulthood, and as a result all of Southeast Michigan is now Cooley High School—the most racially polarized region in the nation. You could even say that it's the same across the nation as a whole, even today.

Growing up as a member of the "white" side in America, the way I experienced the "racial distance" between blacks and whites when I was young was just a vague consciousness, which could be summed up something like this:
Once upon a time there were some bad vibes between our two races (slavery or something, and that riot my parents talk about), but now "we good," and ever since then we just choose to keep generally to our own kind; we get along fine in public when we happen to cross paths—but people in the South are actually racist.
All of a sudden this model was shattered for a lot of white people in the 21st century, and it's like we haven't made any progress on the race issue at all—like the supposed enlightenment of the 1960s movement never happened.

Integration was "pushed" at Cooley, when the Board of Education expanded the Cooley district's boundaries to speed the process up, as a sort of experiment. The racial change was "token" at first, but all of a sudden by the start of the 1969 school year Cooley found itself 50/50 mixed. One black girl said that five years prior when the first blacks came to Cooley, the whites would gang up on them and they couldn't fight back; now they could fight back, and they weren't taking the "stuff" they used to.

A feisty white youth had a different perspective—"We finally started to fight back," he said, clearly portraying the integration as a black usurpation, or an assault on the assumed dominance that whites took for granted, or felt entitled to.

The article went on to say that Cooley was so self-segregated that it even had a "white door" and a "black door" according to students, with whites using the south entrance near Chalfonte Street while blacks used the north entrance near Ellsworth. Some teachers even allegedly used seating charts to keep their classrooms divided by race, although this may not have been so much as to enforce segregation as to keep the strife to a minimum. Out of Cooley's 106 teachers in 1969, 1/3 of them were black.

Principal Owen A. Emmons had been at the head of the school since it opened in 1928, but Cooley went through three principals between Emmons' retirement in 1961 and when the racial problems began in 1969. Wayne K. Nester was principal when the battles occurred, and he was preceded by Lewis Schulman. Schulman was considered a hardass who enforced law & order, while Nester was more of a sociologist who sought to resolve conflict through "sensitivity training," etc., but he failed to properly engage the community in his efforts.

Although many of the problems could be attributed to the authoritarian climate Schulman created, Nestor was widely seen as gutless and inept, unable to find the wavelength of the student body or handle the conflict competently. He was ridiculed for getting on the PA system in the mornings after the fights occurred to recite the Golden Rule, reminding students to treat others as they'd like to be treated. Both Schulman and Nestor were white, I must assume.

Students blamed teachers, principals, and administrators for the troubles and a lack of leadership all around; one of the big student complaints was that their suggestions for improvement were going ignored by an aloof, blasé administration. They also claimed that activism was discouraged, and taking a stand on issues was met with harassment from faculty. One person argued that administrators should be glad Cooley's "Negroes" were comparatively tame, unlike at Northeastern High where they demanded a black unity flag; and that its troubles were less severe than at Mumford High, where the stage was set on fire and students were caught bringing in Molotov cocktails.

Blacks alleged that administrators favored whites, while whites alleged that the administration short-changed them in order to appease the blacks. Both students and faculty black and white blamed the instigation of the troubles on outside agitators, although none could clearly qualify or quantify exactly who these "outsiders" were, other than as a way to deflect blame off of themselves.

Teachers' nerves were jangled, and they felt their cries for help to administrators fell on incompetent ears. The exact nature of the "battles" at Cooley was never explicitly described in the articles, but I get the impression that it was really an ongoing series of mass melees, a sort of tribal warfare (to be blunt) that unfolded between blacks and whites over the school year.

There were rumors that up to 40% of white parents had pulled their kids out of Cooley and sent them to private schools. Although this could not be verified through school enrollment records, many kids were being kept home out of fear. Most white parents interviewed said that they would be moving out of the area or were thinking about doing so. One white mother of 10 was doubling down on staying however, and blamed the problems on parents for stirring rumors instead of being meaningfully involved in the parents' club.

The Cooley parents' club had had little success so far in the racial troubles, and some blamed black parents for not being involved enough in the club. Some accused the group of excluding blacks while others blamed blacks for not being interested in joining. One black father admitted there was truth to both sides of that, but pointed out the reality that "Many black parents haven't been active because they've been trying to make a living." He explained that while it was easy for a white father to earn enough so that his wife didn't have to work, in black families both the mother and father had to have a job to live in the Cooley area, since it was still harder to get a good paying job as a black person in Detroit than it was for whites.

Another black mother made the biting, yet totally accurate prophecy that "Integration lasts from the time the first black family moves in to the time the last white family moves out." Her worry was that it was inevitable Cooley would become like just another of the failing inner city schools they had left behind by moving to this area—once the whites leave, resources will dry up, standards will start to drop, "and our kids won't learn anything." So many white people I see commenting online to photos of Detroit's abandoned architecture like Cooley High constantly lament, "Why is _____ beautiful building just left to rot like this?"
Well, that is why.

Author Robert Conot talks extensively about the Cooley strife in his compendious book American Odyssey, written as a window into conditions leading up to the 1967 Riot, and of its aftermath. A similar work, Violence in the Model City by Sidney Fine, also touches on the connection of Cooley's troubles with the Riot.

There were clashes at Cooley well before those discussed in the fall of 1969, as noted by both Fine and Conot. On Malcolm X Day of the previous school year—February 21, 1969—black high school students across the city staged a walkout and held black power demonstrations. At Cooley, 35 whites affiliated with "Breakthrough" decided to stage a counterdemonstration, during which they beat up a black boy. The blacks sought revenge, and all hell broke loose...fistfights erupted, and white girls were ambushed in the restroom and held down while their hair was sheared. Tempers and paranoia reached such a fever pitch that one brawl between two boys served as the basis for a rumor that 12 people had been stabbed, causing some white parents to tell their sons to form "vigilante groups."

Sidney Fine also points out a clash that happened at Cooley in 1968. After Martin Luther King was assassinated that April, demonstrations were held in cities across America, some leading to riots. Having just recovered from the momentous 1967 Riot, Detroit experienced less unrest from this than other cities, but there were still many incidents. The main trouble in Detroit following MLK's assassination was on April 5th, when students at Cooley High walked out and a clash with whites ensued, leaving at least one white male beaten. Soon 20 schools across the city had been closed for the day, either by similar walkouts or by order of their principals in order to prevent confrontations. According to Sidney Fine, gangs ranging in size from 30 to 200 youths "roamed the streets, breaking windows, stoning cars, and engaging in sporadic looting." Students also formed blockades to prevent fire trucks from arriving at two schools on the east side.

A sit-in of 200 students at the City-County Building was staged, the Tactical Mobile Unit was dispatched to Cooley at 9:50am, and Governor Romney alerted 9,000 National Guard troops in the Lower Peninsula. By 1:10pm Mayor Cavanaugh requested that the National Guard be mobilized, and the U.S. Attorney General made it known that the president stood ready to send federal troops again if necessary. By 3:15pm he declared a state of emergency and set a curfew...clearly the state and city governments did not want to get caught with their pants down again like in 1967. Thankfully the disturbance this time was nothing like The Big Riot, but nonetheless two policemen and seven civilians were shot, one fatally.

In response to escalating tension and confrontations between district students and administrators since 1967, more walkouts by black students were staged in 1968, especially at MacKenzie High that October. Cooley followed suit a week later, with students marching eight miles to the Schools Center Building to confront Superintendent Drachler with their demands. A coalition of ten schools even enlisted the aid of an adult advisory panel to help get the Board of Education to resolve grievances regarding the quality of their education.

Part of the difficulty and unresponsiveness in the administration noted by Conot was that it was totally unprepared for these sorts of issues in schools. Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Drachler was your stereotypical tweed-suit-and-burled-walnut-pipe pedagogue, who was more suited to debating the finer points of classical literature than sorting out racial uprisings or open combat.

Students acted out their frustrations at Cooley in various ways, Conot wrote, including theft and vandalism of school property, assaults in the bathrooms, little scraps in the halls. Dropouts returned to roam the school and stir trouble, banging on doors and invading classes, selling drugs, extorting money. In this climate of dysfunction, local militant political groups saw an opportunity to exploit the vulnerabilities of the situation to gain new members or influence students. The Malcolm X Society courted the blacks, the Students for a Democratic Society courted the leftists of both races, and Breakthrough courted right-wing whites. Even though each group only had a minor following, they were able to precipitate major confrontations, Conot wrote. I assume these were the "outsiders" being referred to by those interviewed in the Free Press articles.

Teachers at Cooley "thought of themselves as in the trenches of the urban battle front," with one claiming that "Everyone knew that hell was coming!" Education became secondary to keeping the peace, Conot observed, and as such the faculty found themselves more in the role of politician or policeman than educator. This did not go unnoticed by those students who still desired to learn, and they lamented that some teachers became so shellshocked that they just gave up. Over time Detroit's teachers began transferring to the new suburban school districts, just to get out of the war zone.

Sidney Fine observed that the suburb of Livonia had hired 36 former Detroit teachers in the two years after the '67 Riot, and by 1970 they had received 1,000 more such job applications—some boasting 25 years experience. This attrition continued, and it simultaneously became more difficult to find applicants to replace the teacher vacancies in the city. By 1970, 60% of the overall student population in Detroit was non-white.

Like the mother who made the pithy observation that integration "lasts from the time the first black family moves in to the time the last white family moves out," there seems to have been an inevitability to what occurred here at Cooley. Even though not all whites agreed with or supported the racist biases that caused it, once the dominoes start falling it's hard to stop. And the same pattern of disinvestment repeated in every neighborhood of Detroit until there was nothing left.

The inscription on this mural in the library says,
"Thomas McIntyre Cooley, 1824-1898. One who enunciated the principle of law under which it has been possible to have free high schools in this state."
According to the book Detroit Perspectives by Wilma Hendrickson, as Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court in 1869, Thomas Cooley also ruled in an opinion that "colored schools" were unacceptable, "chiding Detroit for racism that might damage children."

In the case The People ex. rel. Joseph Workman v. The Board of Education of Detroit, a black man named Joseph Workman brought suit on behalf of his ten-year-old son, who he wanted to attend the school nearest their home, rather than be forced to go to the nearest "colored school." The Detroit Board of Education fought him all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, and lost. Although Detroit was thenceforth forbidden from segregating its schools in letter, it was a while before they grudgingly integrated all of their schools in practice (this was sped by the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment that same year, enfranchising blacks to vote).

There is also a law school named after Thomas M. Cooley in Michigan's capitol city of Lansing.

I must admit I was not only in love with this library, but terribly fascinated by this anachronistic staircase:

It was just a narrow spiral stairway inside, that led up to the mezzanine overlooking the library:

Looking up through the open top:

You don't see this just anywhere. Not even universities have buildings this cool anymore.

Wow, just look at all that immaculate oak...

Even the floor tile up here was ornate:

I was very happy to see that Cooley's historic architecture seems to have been well maintained over the decades, at least up until this point.

Although I'm sure Cooley had printed its own school newspaper in the past, apparently the Detroit Free Press also published Cooley's school newspaper, The Cooley Cardinal, as an addition within their own paper in the 1980s and 1990s. They did this for several schools in fact. The Cardinal, "Vol. 1 No. 1" was printed in the Free Press on October 14, 1986, and included a story about the building "finally" getting a new roof. Principal Emmons, the school's first and longest-serving principal, had also just passed away recently. Photographs in the school paper seem to indicate that Cooley had become basically all black by the 1980s.

There was another article in the school paper about some foreign exchange students who visited. Usually they come from places like Germany or Japan or somewhere like that, but in 1989 four brave exchange students came to Cooley from a place not so far away, but just as foreign—the suburb of Madison Heights. As The Cooley Cardinal reported, they were chosen by their own school to cross 8 Mile Road and experience urban school life, "the difference in atmosphere of learning," and to share their experience of suburban school life with the Cooley kids.

I doubt any of them knew of the racial troubles that Cooley had experienced in its past, or that this may have been an obvious effort by administrators to bridge the divide that led to it, yet it sounds like an earnest effort on behalf of suburban school officials. Granted the exchange wasn't for the whole semester, just a week or two, but the four seem to have been receptive and learned a lot in that time.

The four chosen were Junior Jay O'Connelo, Seniors Mike Brooks, Amy Ostrowski, and Stella Arnold. In their own school back in Madison Heights there were only two black students, but they said that they did not feel intimidated by coming to an all-black school. The four reportedly found the student body at Cooley to be very welcoming, but the number-one thing that they listed as a contrast from their suburban school life was the fact that Cooley had three floors. I don't think I've ever seen a suburban Detroit school that had more than one floor.

Other differences included much larger class sizes (23 in Madison Heights as opposed to 35 at Cooley), much larger student population overall (750 in Madison Heights, and 2,500 at Cooley), unlike the hall monitors at their own school there were security guards at Cooley, and the biggest problem at Madison Heights was alcohol, not drugs like at Cooley. One common ground that they found was an interest in music, especially the rap group N.W.A., which not surprisingly was just as popular with white suburb kids as it was with black kids in the city. Maybe there's something to that.

Only four months after the infamous c.1993 police murder of unarmed black man Malice Green by two notoriously brutal white Detroit cops, another white DPD officer shot a black teen named Joseph Hampton in the parking lot of Cooley High School. Having watched L.A. burn down after Rodney King was beaten, I remember this tense time in Detroit as a suburban teenager myself, thinking that Detroit was surely going to riot again after Malice Green was killed.

Somehow things remained essentially calm here, but there was a protest at Cooley after Hampton was shot that "turned violent," according to the Free Press headline. But again it was actually the police who initiated the violence, as outlined in the story itself. When a few protesters outside Cooley High began allegedly "disrupting traffic" by distributing fliers to passing motorists police stepped in to arrest them, and one girl reportedly "grabbed" the arresting officer, resulting in a "scuffle." The girl was slammed to the pavement and needed seven stitches to her head. Two others were punched by police, and seven protestors were arrested altogether.

In 1999, Cooley's Class of '49 alumni returned for their 50-year reunion, and saw obvious changes in the school they remembered. For one thing, there were almost 4,000 students in 1949, whereas there were only 1,600 students in 1999. Although the alumni were all white they received a warm welcome here, and were interested in the challenges that Cooley and its students now faced.

Even back in 1999 there was talk about how school vouchers would only help the affluent, while places like Cooley and its students would only continue to slip without adequate resources—a fact that even the white-haired Class of '49 recognized. The Free Press writer even speculated as to whether Cooley would still be around in another 50 years. It lasted but one more decade. Altogether, Cooley was only open for about 80 years.

It's kind of amazing (and commendable) that the bathrooms all still had the original 1920s sinks, and hadn't been "upgraded" to something more modern:

Everywhere I looked in all the bathrooms, there were little white tags denoting that the plumbing had been properly winterized when the building was vacated. They were all dated to December 20, 2010.

Some graffiti in the womens' bathroom: "Misha AKA Moosie," "Fenkell Bitches Getting Money," etc., and "4-1 Bitch," which looks to be some sort of "alt-math" problem:

The 2,500 seat auditorium...

I know, the photo is not very evenly lit, but when you're mooching off of your more sophisticated photographer buddies' light painting work, you open your shutter as many times as possible while they're working, and take what you can get.

It seems incredible to think that the average high school in this city was blessed with such theatre / auditorium facilities...

...the level of decor here matched what one would expect to see in one of the downtown movie palaces, or at very least a neighborhood movie house like the Easttown Theater.

More incredible yet, all of the theater's plaster, paint, and fixtures were almost perfectly intact, still evidencing their original 1920s glory, which is more than can be said for any other similar candidate for restoration in this city. Cooley has been surprisingly well taken care of.

The stage was currently covered by what looked to be a movie screen dropped in front of it. Behind the screen, the stage rigging was apparent, all pretty much bran-new stuff:

The stage facilities here are better equipped than many typical theaters found in small cities.

Like every other school built in this time period of expansion under Frank Cody's reign as superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, the boilerplant was situated in a courtyard surrounded by the rest of the main building:

It is interesting to note that despite different architectural firms being hired to design these schools, they all follow the same basic pattern. And yet each had its own unique architectural flavor that separated it from the rest.

True to form, Cooley had an architecturally unique smokestack like its brethren high schools from the same era. In fact, you could probably do a coffee table book entitled "Notable Smokestacks of the Detroit Public Schools," and be guaranteed to sell at least a few thousand copies. Sure, they could have just had a plain utilitarian smokestack here, but in 1920s Detroit that would simply never do.

There is a bit of loose brick at the top, but otherwise it's in great shape:

Here is a closeup on some of the fancy tile and brick patterns used on the walls of the boilerhouse itself:

It seems many of the terra cotta pieces that make up the school's facade have been replaced or remade as part of some exterior restoration in recent years:

I even found a lot of spare terra cotta pieces stored in an elevator penthouse on the roof (keep scrolling).

A close-up on one of the terra-cotta pilasters, which features a ram's head:

This was the wing containing the gymnasium and pool:

Now that's a lot of ornamentation for a school:

The gymnasium was still in very good shape, compared to many I've seen in other abandoned schools.

The wooden floor wasn't even really buckled up yet. Of course it helps that the windows have not been stolen yet (which is impressive in and of itself), but perhaps that also speaks to the fact that scrap metal values have dropped significantly since the scrapping heydays of the early-2010s.

The mascot of Cooley High, the Cardinal:

On the base of an old telephone wall mount, I found a vintage Cooley Cardinals sticker:

And here's an old telephone directory of each telephone extension in the building, probably dating to at least the 1960s:

Okay, here was a little floor buckling I guess:

I saw a hole in the wall of the gymnasium where a bulletin board had once been, made by scrappers who had lately busted through to get at some pipes. Inside the edge of the cavity was a really old comb, and a tightly folded slip of paper that had been jammed in there long ago by some naughty student. I unfolded the paper to find that it was a tardiness pass, written out for Gerald Miller, and dated October 10th, 1949...

...I wonder if he was one of the aforementioned alumni who paid a return visit on October 10th, 1999?

In the swimming pool my colleagues and I came across an exceptionally fine specimen of scrapper ingenuity... clearly this was engineered by someone who paid attention in physics class. Here we have a 10-foot ladder balanced on top of not three, but four rusty locker sections, ripped out of the wall from somewhere else, which were in turn resting upon two heavy tables and a fifth set of lockers to keep everything level. The ceiling contained several giant copper ducts, which even in the current economy's depressed scrap metal values were worth coming for.

There were a few Pewabic tile insets in the walls as well:

In the shower room, more fancy tile:

There was one of these doodads in MacKenzie High School as well, but I never got a photo of it:

It's a dryer, which you would stand in front of while toweling yourself off if you just got out of the showers. A blower forced heated air through it, and the nozzles were adjustable to personal preference (although I'm sure the swim coach was probably pretty on the ball with keeping kids from standing there all day with it aimed at their junk).

Back in the classrooms again, I just can never get enough of these gorgeous oak built-in cabinets that seem to be in every abandoned Detroit school, in perfect condition:

There's quite the collage of flooring types here in the halls of Cooley as well... least two or three different kinds of tile arranged in different patterns, plus a terrazzo border. I think high schools nowadays just have bare concrete floors, like the prisons that today's urban teenagers are expected to attend within a few years of graduation.

After all, why waste money on architectural frivolities that could be applied to better use in the pockets of some charter school lobbyist?

I found the access to the roof of the school marked by a pile of rubble from shattered terra cotta...

...apparently someone had been trying to steal some of these pieces, but found them too heavy to carry down a ladder and dropped them? I found quite a stash of unused spare pieces of terra cotta stored in the mechanical penthouse above:

The building's roof lining and flashing still seemed to be basically intact and unmolested, for now:

Just like Jackson Middle School, there were a pair of ornate cupolas on the roof which I deemed worthy of exploration:

I wonder how many naughty kids ever managed to sneak up here back in the day to cut class and smoke weed or make out?

Not much inside, just a neat view.

Looking across Hubbell Avenue:

...Just barely in view is the school's flagpole.

The architecture sort of reminded me of that time I snuck up into the Old Wayne County Building's tower.

Further bolstering my theory that Cooley had been the recipient of a recent (and very costly) renovation, all of the windows were bran-new architectural grade installations:

Again, there also seems to have been replacement or repair of the terra-cotta, which must have cost a pretty penny:

Cooley High School is in far too good of condition and is far too much of a cultural, historical, and architectural landmark to demolish. This one needs to be saved, and there is support in the community for its reuse.

American Odyssey, by Robert Conot, p. 576-579
Violence in the Model City, by Sidney Fine, p. 402-403, 436
Detroit Perspectives, by Wilma Hendrickson, p. 147 & 166
"Cooley High School's Story of Valor," Detroit Free Press, October 14, 1944, p. 10
"Cooley Swept By Racial Change," Detroit Free Press, October 5, 1969, p. 8A
"School is Split Along Color Lines: Inside Story of Strife At Cooley," Detroit Free Press, October 5, 1969, p. 2B, 8A
"The Cooley Cardinal, Vol. 1, No. 1" Detroit Free Press, October 14, 1986, p. 54
"The Cooley Cardinal, Vol. 4 No. 2," Detroit Free Press, November 21, 1989, p. 9D
"Demonstration at School Turns Violent," Detroit Free Press, March 24, 1993, p. 1B
"A Returning School Theme," Detroit Free Press, October 11, 1999, p. 4B


  1. I read this article with disbelief and not a little anger. I attended Cooley High School from 1968 to 1971. There is no doubt that there were problems and issues that most suburban schools didn't face, including some fighting in the halls, the most significant being what happened after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School was dismissed early that day and one of my black friends walked me and one of my other friends out to our cars which is amazing considering, according to the article, there were no friendships between white and black students. I had a number of black friends at Cooley including Sharon Merkerson (now known as S. Epatha Merkerson, the actress). I'm still in touch with many of my Cooley friends, both black and white, to this day. I very much resent the mischaracterization of the Cooley school community.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Please keep in mind that (as stated in the piece itself), I am merely repeating what I learned through old print sources at the time, mainly two Free Press articles that were written about the school by multiple reporters, who interviewed many students, staff, cops, and parents, black and white. I wasn't even born until ten years after this all occurred, and I don't personally know anyone who went to Cooley. Even though I feel I did a pretty thorough job of researching the topic from a variety of sources and perspectives, I don't make any guarantees of 100% accuracy in my (unpaid) work, and for what it's worth, I never literally believed that there were NO inter-racial friendships at Cooley at all--but again I'm just repeating what was reported by the available sources at the time. Since you bring up a valid point, I will amend the piece to say something to that effect.

    2. As a member of the class of 1970, I agree that this overstated the degree of animosity between blacks and whites. While most of my friends at Cooley were white, like me, I had a number of black friends as well (including Sharon M.). Yes there were some disturbances, and yes these were difficult times, but I look back at my Cooley days quite fondly.

    3. Day today life at Cooley from the fall of 68 to when I graduated in the spring of 71 was fine. Marching band, band, and orchestra. Theater productions. Student newspaper and yearbook. Various clubs. Sports of All kinds. Yeah there were some rough days, hard-headed white kids. Some black kids with bad attitudes. But mostly we got along, just as in any era kids coming of age trying to figure it out. The sources you quote take a myopic view of the situation. That being said , of course you can't deny the rapid turnover between the years 68 to 71 . Driven , of course, by the usual capitalist forces. Alarmist newspaper articles, etc. You can't deny the rapid turnover 68-71 driven by the usual suspects, i.e. real estate speculators, etc. Thanks for the lovely photos! In my mind I see Cooley just as it was in that period. Fond memories.

  2. I also attended Cooley, from 1967-69. The descriptions of the atmosphere in those years is pretty accurate I think, although the commenter above makes a point about inter-racial friendships. I do recall in my first year (sophomore, freshmen were at Junior High Schools) it was pretty mellow and blacks and whites seemed to mix fairly easily. But as society became more radicalized in 68 and 69, the atmosphere changed and confrontations between the races were common. You did not go into the boys bathroom unless it was an emergency. I recall two specific fire drill incidents; one where a teacher ( Mr. Bolich ?) was clubbed over the back of the head by a black student using a tree branch that was on the ground from tree trimming. I don't recall ever seeing that teacher again. Another time, as students were milling about outside, a girl I was talking to in a small group (Janice) suddenly screamed and we turned to see a black girl with a large pair of shears who had just cut her long hair off. She then brandished the shears as a weapon and dared anyone to "do something about it" We just walked to our cars and left, which became the procedure whenever a fire drill occurred. Sporting events were bad as well and eventually no students were allowed to attend basketball games, only parents and siblings. Redford High refused to play Cooley at Cooley. I remember Mr. Schulman (I visited him a time or two myself) as a strict but fair man, not a hard ass as described here, but others may have a different view. Overall Cooley was very tense in 68-69, there were plainclothes police in the halls and some pretty scared teachers and students.

  3. I attended Cooley from the Fall of 71 to March of 72 when I was transferred to Henry Ford. Very bad memories of being jumped, beaten and robbed several times during the months I attended. If I had not been transferred to Ford I would of quit school in the 10th grade. I am white and until that time had very little interaction with blacks. Needless to say my introduction to black people did not go very well. I did not have a prejudice bone in my body when I started at Cooley but by the time I left I hated blacks because of the abuse. Today I am older and wiser and have friends of color.....though I have never really understood why many blacks do not take responsibility for their lot in life. Seemingly to blame white people for their woes and never really realizing that bad things happen to everyone for a variety of reasons. The difference between success and failure is when you blame someone else for your misfortune, you are already a failure. Success comes to those that overcome, overcome the obstacles set before them.

    1. I agree with you. I attended Cooley 1969-1970. I had to leave the racial tension was very dangerous. Fire drills all the time and that was when bad things happened. So anytime a fire drill happened I walked home I lived about 1 1/2 blocks away. Racial things were said to me everyday. My hair was cut by both the guys and girls. My butt was grabbed as I was walking up the stairs and was told if I said anything to anyone I would get jumped. I can never understand why blacks won't take responsibility for their lot in life. I agree with what Anonymous said above. I transferred to Redford then my parents moved to Madison Heights and graduated from Lamphere. Going to all those different schools was tough and would not want to do it again. I don't have any good memories of Cooley just the awful racial tension...and the bad things that happened in the halls, classrooms and BATHROOMS(don't go unless you REALLY HAVE TO GO) and the terrible firedrills.

  4. I attended Cooley from 1951-1955. Those were the years when Cooley's front grounds were covered with landscaping bushes and many huge, towering trees. (Maybe Dutch Elms). It was a beautiful building and campus! It is so sad that it has come to such a fate. I count myself lucky to have spent my highschool days there....before all the racial turmoil that came later.

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  6. I graduated fro Cooley in 1965. I have wonderful memories of the school, playing football, basketball and golf. The kids got along and yes, it was mostly white. When I read about the discord in the late 60's, it was very disturbing. I know that my neighborhood was still pretty nice into the early 80's but changed quickly. Now, the street has some houses that are boarded up and a few vacant lots, but off of Fenkell it is still decent (I lived on Mark Twain). As for Cooley, it was and I still think is, the most beautiful of the Detroit schools. There is nothing else like it in Detroit.

  7. This is such a fascinating read. Like so many I find abandonned building and urban exploration photos fascinating and had come across images of this famous site before, but never with the social history and context for the school's downfall even really referenced, much less given this kind of thoughtful and well-researched treatment.

    Well, about the closest I've gotten is racist comments on Youtube blaming 'teh blacks' for bringing down the school.

    So I was really glad to read this, and it's made me very thoughtful about the way that the whole urban exploration thing speaks to our current relationship with 20th century social history.

    There's something to be read about what we value and feel nostalgic for in what we see pathos and fascination with. Perhaps there's a reason UrbEx seems to be a predominantly white hobby. It seems to link up to a nostalgia and even fetisisation of a time when white men constructed and ruled the landscape unquestioned, and wto allow in the pathos of these structures' failure (often white elephants like the Pontiac Silverdrome, theme parks, malls and ugly leisure complexes etc). Their economic failure and subsequent sad abandonned state might capture something in the current white western zeitgeist where never again will white men have quite the power of folly and money that these places represent...

    Oh maybe I'm reaching.

    Cooley is a very handsome building but its disuse is not the tragedy here, it's the failing of young people of colour it represents, and the letting down of communities like Detroit.

    I wish the Cooley Reuse Project luck, it seems a more positive plan than the usual corporate 'let's turn it into a generic waspy shopping/leisure village with condos' plans. The campaign seems to be remaining positive despite the auditorium fire and it would be wonderful to see this lovely building brougt back to life both for its own sake but much more importantly for the community.

    1. A very thoughtful response; I think you've nailed a few points there.

  8. All these pictures and still not one of my elworld artwork across from the artroom unbelievable

  9. This is a building with soul. Architecturally beautiful. The heart of learning. I left high school looking forward to higher education. My friends included whites and blacks and I do not remember segregation in our classrooms or the lunchroom. I could not afford hot lunches, so I rarely ate in the lunch room. To fund the school paper, the students walked up and down 6 Mile Road (McNichols) and other places of business to sell advertising. I walked this beat in the dead of winter with a skirt on all the way from Greenfield to the Lodge Freeway. (I think it was uphill both ways!) My memories of Cooley are fond. I was involved in a lot of clubs and special activities. But I was SUPER shy. I also remember the impact of the Vietnam War. It was frightening for our boys who had a low lottery number. I hope the future will be bright for the building and hope that it will have a heart once again. God bless Detroit and God bless our Country.

  10. Laurie Kimball DeanApril 18, 2021 at 7:42 AM

    I am the granddaughter of Owen A. Emmons, the first and longest serving principal of Cooley. He was much beloved by his students. His heart was broken to see what became of Cooley. He was a wonderful man and a great mentor to all of his students.


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