Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Caltrans First African-American Woman Licensed Engineer & Trailblazer

Mrs. Lois L. Cooper, 1960
Recently, Caltrans lost one of its pioneers, Lois L. Cooper.  Mrs. Cooper became the first African-America woman in California to become a licensed professional engineer with the Division of Highways, now known as Caltrans.

Below Mrs. Cooper tells her story.  She will be missed. 1931-2014

Lois L. Cooper actually wrote this “Profile of Faith” she stated whenever anyone asked her to write about herself, she would often wonder where they wanted her to start.

Lois Louise Cooper (Saunders) was born a month before Christmas in 1931 in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

In high school she liked math, wanted to become a lawyer, and they took sewing and cooking classes. Her mother had already taught her and her sister how to sew, so she and her sister made a lot of their cloths.


She went off to Tougaloo College, which is outside of Jackson, Mississippi. She left Tougaloo College in 1950, because her mother could no longer afford it. She moved to California in 1950 to be with her mother.

In 1953, she saw an ad for an Under Engineering Aide, with the Division of Highways and began working in February 1953; she was the first black woman that they hired in the Engineering Department at the Division of Highways (currently Caltrans). In order to get to the next level Junior Engineering Aide, she had to have had surveying experience and she had not been in construction.  So she took a surveying class at USC, but women were not allowed in construction, so it took a while for her to move up the ladder because she was a woman.

She attended Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles State College and majored in mathematics.  Her major in college was not engineering, so she began to take engineering classes at night at Los Angeles State College to move up the professional ladder in order to pass the Engineer in Training Exam (EIT); an eight hour exam. After taking enough undergraduate classes she was able to pass the exam and move up the ladder.

“Where there is a will, there is a way”.

She did not stop and she went on and passed the Professional Engineers (PE) License exam.  She passed the exam on her first try.

She was the first African American woman in California to pass that exam. The first woman to pass that exam in California, Marilyn J. Reece, also worked at Caltrans. Her other experiences working for Caltrans was her involvement with the Century Freeway now called I-105 and being the first female director of the First Diamond Lane. She continued to work at Caltrans until her retirement in 1991 at the age of 55.

In the early 1970s, she learned about the Los Angeles Council of Black Professional Engineers (LACBPE). This was a group of black engineers (all men) who met once a month to talk about being a black engineer and how to get more blacks to become engineers. She participated by visiting schools to talk to students about what it means to be an engineer, what an engineer does, besides driving a train, and how to become an engineer.  The program tried to show the students the importance of math and science classes.

The LACBPE developed another program called the EXCELL Program.  This program used the skills of various members to teach math and science to students on Saturdays at various colleges including California State University Dominquez Hills.

During the early 1970s she was honored to have moved up the ranks in office as program’s treasury, secretary, vice president and president. She was also honored to have had the first black astronaut, Ronald McNair get involved in the LACBPE. Out of all their efforts and the efforts of other engineers across the country, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) was formed. 

*All pictures were provided by the Cooper family.