Fanny Ruth Patterson from Hinkley, Illinois was the first African-American student to graduate from Northern.
After completing high school, Fanny worked for a few years before enrolling at NISNS at the age of twenty-one. When she completed her two-year degree in 1915, President Cook wrote a letter of recommendation for her to the head of personnel for the St. Louis school system where she had applied for a teaching job.
“Fanny is an excellent girl, having good looks, good taste, extreme modesty of demeanor, and a good mind,” Cook wrote. “She is a most excellent and interesting young woman and she has had the entire confidence of everybody with whom she has worked.” Cook recommended her for a position teaching English and history.
While Fanny’s race was noted in a handwritten aside on her admission documents, that detail was not typically part of early student records. Yet recent efforts to identify the first African-American male graduate have led to a well-known campus figure: three-sport Northern athlete Elzie Cooper of Rochelle.
Elzie Cooper was the first African-American student athlete at Northern and the first student of color to win an NI varsity letter in any sport. He played football, basketball and baseball at Northern during the 1930s, lettered in all three, and was a two-time Athletics Hall of Fame inductee. He also worked as a football student coach under the legendary Chick Evans.
Elzie graduated from Northern in 1936 and returned to his hometown of Rochelle, where he worked and coached youth baseball and basketball. So well-loved was the pioneering community leader that the Rochelle Park District named its primary baseball facility Elzie Cooper Field. Fanny Patterson and Elzie Cooper would no doubt be surprised to learn that, a century later, students of color represent nearly 50 percent of the NIU student body.
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