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Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. honors the legacy and fortitude of N.C. civil rights leader Dr. Willa Cofield

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At the nexus of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, North Carolina educator and civil rights leader Dr. Willa Cofield was recently honored for her ongoing impact through activism. 

The Enfield-Roanoke Rapids Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. recognized Dr. Cofield’s impact on March 2. The ceremony, hosted at First Baptist Church in Enfield, consisted of a voter awareness initiative, documentary screening, and a march to Dr. Cofield’s new historic marker.

Delta Sigma Theta’s political awareness and involvement

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (DST) is a private, nonprofit organization with over 1,000 collegiate and alumnae chapters throughout the world. It is one of nine organizations that is part of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, also referred to as the “Divine Nine.” The sisterhood was founded on Jan. 13, 1913 by 22 women on the campus of Howard University. Deltas commit to a lifetime of public service, the first action dating back to the Women’s Suffrage March of 1913. 

Enfield-Roanoke Rapids Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Dr. Willa Cofield Historic Marker celebration
Photo courtesy of the Enfield-Roanoke Rapids Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Since its establishment in 1975, the Enfield-Roanoke Rapids Alumnae (ERRA) chapter has specifically served Halifax and Northampton counties in North Carolina. Their recent event in Enfield focused on “political awareness and involvement,” one of the sorority’s national initiatives that are collectively termed the “Five Programmatic Thrusts.” 

Ahead of the final days before the primary elections in North Carolina, ERRA extended an open invitation for candidates to attend, offer presentations to spread voter awareness, and discuss critical legislative issues at local, state, and national levels. In addition, family, friends, sorority sisters, and former students all recognized Dr. Cofield for her contributions as an educator and activist from the community. 

A victory for both civil rights and academic freedom

Several major cities across the south have been identified as landmarks in the civil rights movement, particularly during the mid-through-late 1900s. Dr. Cofield continues to amplify the history and work that transpired in rural regions like Eastern North Carolina in the fight for social justice. 

The Halifax County native transitioned to Virginia to pursue higher education at Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. It was there that her journey as a Delta took root as one of 37 women to charter the Gamma Iota chapter of the sorority. 

In the years following, Dr. Cofield became an educator, teaching English at the all-Black Thomas S. Inborden High in Enfield. She was terminated because of her leadership in mobilizing her students through voter rights education during her time in the classroom. These kinds of actions are what contributed to the displacement of Black educators during that period. 

Enfield-Roanoke Rapids Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Dr. Willa Cofield Historic Marker celebration
Left to right: Dr. Karla Solomon, Dr. Willa Cofield, Rhonda Holmes. Dr. Cofield being recognized by Enfield-Roanoke Rapids Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. for efforts as civil rights activist and education in Enfield, NC.

According to the N.C. African American Heritage Commission (NCAAHC), in 1964, the larger Halifax Voters’ Movement successfully raised Black voter registration in the county, in addition to executing other non-violent demonstrations such as economic boycotts of white-owned businesses that discriminated against Black patrons.

Compounded by Dr. Cofield’s and her family’s deep civil rights and political engagement, they became targets for hatred and intimidation tactics from local law enforcement and the Klu Klux Klan. At the ceremony, Dr. Cofield shared her vivid recollection of a burning cross that the Klan planted in her front yard. 

Despite the threats on her life, with the support of the National Education Association (NEA), Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), and other advocates, Dr. Cofield filed a lawsuit against the Halifax County School Board and the State of North Carolina. The NCAAHC states that the ruling for the Johnson vs. Branch case ultimately impacted 100,000 teachers in the American South, adding that, “A victory for Johnson would mean protection for those current educators and future generations of Black teachers who would protest and demonstrate for the cause of civil rights.”

Enfield-Roanoke Rapids Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Dr. Willa Cofield Historic Marker celebration
Rodney Pierce and Dr. Willa Cofield viewing the Johnson vs. Branch historical marker in Enfield, NC. Derick Lee/EducationNC

In August 1966, the Southern Patriot newspaper quoted John Salter, then a SCEF organizer, who described Dr. Cofield as “one of the very few teachers in that whole northeast section of the state who took a positive public stand on civil rights.” The court case decision was “a tremendous victory for both civil rights and academic freedom,” he added. 

Rodney Pierce is a middle school social studies teacher at Gaston Stem Leadership Academy with Northhampton County Schools. Having learned of the history in Enfield, he submitted the application for the NCAAHC N.C. Civil Rights Trail for a Johnson vs. Branch historical marker to be placed in Enfield.

In celebration, Dr. Cofield led the march on March 2 from First Baptist Church to the location where a piece of her legacy is now publicly engraved. 

Enfield-Roanoke Rapids Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Dr. Willa Cofield Historic Marker celebration
Dr. Willa Coifed, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and other supports march to the Johnson vs Branch historic marker. Derick Lee/EducationNC

‘Where were you when the whistle blew?’

Dr. Cofield eventually moved to New Jersey, where she received her doctorate in urban planning at Rutgers University. At the age of 95, Dr. Cofield continues her work as an activist and educator. 

She has held roles with various organizations and programs over the decades, some of which include the North Carolina Fund, Livingstone College, the New Jersey Department of Education, and the SEED Project. Dr. Cofield also co-founded the NJ Black Women’s History Conference, a nonprofit whose mission statement is “to educate its members and the larger community regarding the historical achievements and contemporary concerns of Black women.”

Dr. Cofield has further explored storytelling through film in recent years. In 2011, she produced a documentary titled, “The Brick School Legacy.” Having been raised in Enfield, she grew up just a few miles away from what is now the Franklinton Center at Bricks. The Brick School, founded by Thomas Sewell Inborden in 1895, provided education for Black students in Eastern North Carolina and was the school that Dr. Cofield’s mother, Mae Cofield, graduated from. This documentary is the first of two produced by Dr. Cofield, capturing the oral history of the school and the land located in Whitakers, North Carolina. 

“The Brick School Legacy” documentary, produced by Dr. Willa Cofield

Dr. Cofield’s second documentary, “The 9 O’Clock Whistle,” was co-produced by Karen Riley and Gail Cruise-Roberson. A screening was provided at the ceremony, where she shared that the title refers to a whistle that blew throughout the town once the clock struck 9 p.m. The documentary explains that the sound signaled that all of the Black people had to go home — a representation of segregation and injustice that rang throughout the south.

“The 9 O’Clock Whistle” official website provides the following description of the documentary’s contents:

“Set in the 1960s in Enfield, North Carolina, a small segregated town in northeastern North Carolina, the story unfolds through the memories of participants, some of whom were only fourteen and fifteen years old when the events took place. These brave souls stood up to mental and physical intimidation tactics and fought back, along with their adult counterparts. It was a Black Lives Matter movement that was 58 years ahead of its time.” 

The narratives shared in “The 9 O’Clock Whistle” are also captured in a book format. For more information on how to request a screening of the documentary, visit the 9whistle website.

The Nine O’clock Whistle Documentary Trailer
Derick Lee

Derick Lee is a regional storyteller for EdNC.