He demonstrated proficiency in Scouting skills like first aid, pioneering and bird study. He earned 48 of the 59 merit badges available at the time. He met James E. West, the BSA’s first Chief Scout Executive.
And though he likely didn’t know it at the time, he also made history.
Harry Cooper of Troop 92 from Kansas City, Mo., is believed to be the first Black Eagle Scout in the history of the Boy Scouts of America. He earned the highest rank in Scouting in September 1920, according to documentation from the Kansas City (Mo.) Council (now known as the Heart of America Council).
Cooper’s status as the earliest known Black Eagle Scout was something of a surprise to me. When I sat down to write this post as a way to celebrate Black History Month, I started the way anyone would: by Googling the phrase “first Black Eagle Scout.”
All the relevant listings pointed me to Edgar V. Cunningham of Iowa, who earned Scouting’s highest rank in 1926. Cunningham’s Wikipedia entry, which has since been updated, seemed to corroborate the claim.
But I kept digging and eventually found a primary source from Kansas City, Mo. This recently uncovered document offers proof that Cooper became an Eagle Scout nearly six years before Cunningham.
While we still can’t say Cooper was, without a doubt, the first African American Eagle Scout in history (more on that in a bit), we now know it wasn’t Cunningham. And it’s accurate to call Cooper the “earliest known Black Eagle Scout.”
It’s a fitting discovery for Black History Month, when we honor Black pioneers like Cooper and Cunningham.
The credit for “rediscovering” Cooper goes to Andy Dubill, official historian for the Heart of America Council. He has, literally, written the book on Scouting history in Kansas City and is an avid collector of Scouting memorabilia.
In an article for his council’s official newsletter in 2016, Dubill wrote that when Cooper became an Eagle Scout in 1920, he was “the only African American Eagle Scout in the United States.”
What evidence supports this assertion? Could there be an African American Eagle Scout who earned the honor before Cooper? And where does this leave Edgar Cunningham, whose accomplishments in 1926 still must be celebrated?
Let’s take a closer look.
1920: Harry Cooper, Kansas City, Mo.
The Eagle Scout Award was first earned in 1912 — two years after the BSA’s founding in 1910.
Over the award’s first decade, many councils had single-digit numbers of young men become Eagle Scouts. By 1920, only 10 Eagle Scout medals had been awarded in Kansas City, Mo.
Harry Cooper received one of them. That year, Cooper was one of just 629 new Eagle Scouts nationwide.
And he was one of the first 2,000 Eagle Scouts in BSA history — a remarkable accomplishment considering that number has now climbed well over 2 million.
What’s the source?
Big discoveries happen when you least expect them.
While working on a separate project about the first Eagle Scouts in Kansas City, the historian Dubill discovered every researcher’s Holy Grail: a primary source from the time period in question.
Internet research can become an echo chamber in which a single declaration is written again and again as fact. Copy, paste, repeat.
That’s why researchers look for primary sources — original documents written by people who were there.
Dubill’s find was a copy of the 1920 Scout Annual from the Kansas City Council. This document, published in February 1921, was written by the council and billed as a “Report to the Subscribers of the Movement.”
Cooper’s name appears on a page labeled “Some Outstanding Scouts in 1920.” The text uses a word we would not use today but is quoted below as written:
“Harry Cooper, Troop 92, attained Eagle Scout rank in September, 1920. He is the only negro Eagle Scout in Kansas City, and according to the best information available, the only negro Eagle Scout in the United States. Cooper now has 48 merit badges and has won them all thru real ability.”
There’s photographic evidence, too. A picture of Cooper proudly wearing his neckerchief and Eagle medal appears on the opposite page.
1926: Edgar V. Cunningham, Waterloo, Iowa
While not the first, Edgar V. Cunningham is among the first Black Scouts to earn the program’s top honor for youth.
He earned the Eagle Scout Award on June 8, 1926, as a member of Troop 12 of Waterloo, Iowa, which was then part of the Wapsipinicon Area Council, named after an Iowa river. (Waterloo is now part of the Winnebago Council.)
He was 15 when he became an Eagle Scout in Troop 12, which was chartered by the Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African American church in Waterloo.
Cunningham died in 1980 at age 69. After his death, Cunningham’s granddaughter Carla McDonald worked to learn more about her grandpa’s Scouting accomplishments.
During her research, McDonald found a trove of information about James Lincoln Page, a World War I hero and Cunningham’s Scoutmaster.
“My grandfather wouldn’t have done it without him,” McDonald told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier in 2007. “He was the inspiration. I’m so happy I found it.”
The Courier article documents McDonald’s quest to corroborate the claim that Cunningham was the first African American Eagle Scout. It mentions that Cunningham was sent a handwritten letter of congratulations from President Calvin Coolidge.
My attempts to locate a copy of that letter have so far been unsuccessful. I contacted the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation in Vermont, and the helpful folks there are checking their archives for any record of such a letter.
And I was unable to find any primary sources that call Cunningham the first Black Eagle Scout.
But that should not in any way diminish this man’s accomplishments, which have been recognized by his home council, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and the city of Waterloo.
The search for the first Black Eagle Scout
Shouldn’t the BSA’s national office have the definitive answer as to which African American Scout was the first to earn Eagle?
In this case, no. It’s a matter of the record-keeping practices of the time. Back then, the BSA did not record the race or ethnicity of its members.
Without that bit of information, there’s no way to check the rolls of those earliest Eagle Scouts and know the race of the young men listed.
Even Dubill, who made the Cooper discovery, admits that new original documents could emerge proving that a young Black man became an Eagle Scout before September 1920. If you happen to have those documents, use the “contact” button at the top of the blog to get in touch.
“We may find an earlier African American Eagle,” Dubill says. “That’s what this historian role is all about!”