Frances Huntley-Cooper made history in April, 1991, when she became the first — and still the only — African American to be elected as mayor in the state of Wisconsin. She served as mayor of Fitchburg from 1991 to 1993.
Huntley-Cooper was born in New York but raised in North Carolina by her grandmother along with her twin sister.
“My mother didn’t want me to grow up in New York because of the environment,” Huntley-Cooper says. She grew up in a small town in North Carolina called Lisbon. “It was a very small town, it was also segregated. Black folks went to one school and white folks went to another. But in high school, there was an integration,” Huntley-Cooper says. “My mother told me, ‘you’re gonna cross the street and go to the predominantly white high school’.”
Growing up, she was exposed to all types of cultures and ethnicities. She experienced life in a small town where everyone knew everyone’s business, which is a contrast to a big city like New York, where people could care less of who you are and what you do.
Huntley-Cooper graduated high school in North Carolina and decided to attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically black college. “My mom went there, my sister went there, nieces went there and so did my daughter. It’s something that’s been in my family history,” she says.
To Huntley-Copper, HBCU institutions are important for many African American students, because it presents them with opportunities and learning environments that they might not be available to them at other universities.
“The difference between teachers there and educators in the UW systems is that those teachers were expected to know how to deal with people of color and to be sensitive to their needs and not look down on them, but try to motivate and stimulate their students,” she says. Knowing this difference between schools, Huntley-Cooper decided to encourage her daughter to attend North Carolina State University. “She was reserved and timid when she left for college, but she grew up to be a confident and empowered woman,” Huntley-Cooper says.
In 1973, Huntley-Cooper received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Social Services from North Carolina A&T. Huntley-Cooper moved to the Midwest for graduate school and ended up attending UW-Madison. “UW wasn’t my first choice but they offered the best financial assistance and opportunities, so I took the opportunity,” she says.
In December of 1974, she earned her Masters of Science Degree in Social Work along with a Masters in Public Policy and Administration. “I got into it because I wanted to learn about the administrative side of the field and so I decided to take advantage of the opportunities presented to me at during my time there at UW,” she says.
When asked why she chooses to step into the field of social work, Huntley explains having to know her strength and weaknesses to choose a career path.
“I knew that my strength wasn’t in the sciences, and so it just seemed like that was the best fit for me,” she says. “I wasn’t as outgoing as I am now. I was marked as reserved a lot of the time, I wasn’t gonna challenge anyone. I just followed along. What got me out of my shell was that there weren’t a lot of people that were leaders in the things that I was interested in. Down south we were involved in all kinds of marches like civil rights issues. But there, I did not organize it, I was just a participant. When I came here, the things I was accustomed to down south just seemed to be missing, so I started organizing things and that was how I got out of my shy shell.”
After graduating from UW, Huntley-Cooper worked in a group home for five months. She later got hired by Dane County to work for their Department of Human Services, were she had a career as a social worker for 28 years. As a social worker, she worked with children and families but also dealt with teen delinquency, child abuse and neglected children, children in foster care and group homes and anything that dealt with children ages 0-18 and their families.
Prior to holding a position in the Fitchburg city council, Huntley-Cooper explained that she had no interest in running for office or get involved in anything politics-related. “There was a vacant position in the city council and someone asked my husband if he would run for office, but instead he suggested me since I was in the process of getting my Masters in Public Policy and Administration,” Huntley-Cooper explains. After serving two terms on the city council, the mayor at the time came to her about running for the top job. After receiving the endorsement and a lot of support from other council and committee members, Huntley-Cooper agreed to run for mayor of Fitchburg.
Although she had no previous political experience, she believed that her experience in unknowingly prepared her for such a role. “I always look at it this way — if you can go deal with children and families, if you can work with a mother and take her child away from them and keep them away while the mother is getting treatment and help, that skill was transferable for when I decided to run for office.”
Years of experience with dealing with people of different ages and backgrounds helped her successfully serve her time in office as the Mayor of Fitchburg.
“You have to go out and knock on doors, talk to people and try to sell them on different issues.” she says.
She ran against three other candidates, coming second place during the primary election and then won the general city election to become mayor. At the same time, she was working a full-time job and taking care of two children.
Like every person running for an important role, Huntley-Cooper faced some challenges during her campaign and also her time in office. A big one was race.
“Race wasn’t an issue for me but it was for other people. People wouldn’t directly attack me but they would attack the people around me,” Huntley-Cooper said.
The media was also another challenge she faced. “I was not only the first female mayor, but also the first African American. So if you rolled your eyes or said something, they were waiting to get you. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t leave a negative perspective of what a black mayor would be like so that if another black person ever ran for office, there wouldn’t be a negative image,” Huntley-Cooper says.
Today, Frances Huntley-Cooper remains involved in various community organizations in Madison. She is currently a charter member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority – Kappa Psi Omega Chapter. She served as the president of the Madison branch of the NAACP for four years. Huntley-cooper is also actively serving her third appointment as a member of the board of trustees of Madison College (MATC).