Bebe Coker Advocates for Better Living in Delaware

When it comes to advocating for better lives for First Staters, Bebe Coker has long been a force to be reckoned with.

In a small state where personal networks can go a long way, Wilmington’s Bebe Coker has built links that span from her community to the highest officials in the state and beyond. For decades, Coker has used those connections to advocate for a better life for Delawareans—in education, housing, healthcare and more—without barriers based on skin color.

Depending on the day, you might find the 87-year-old fielding a phone call from President Joe Biden—whom she worked with when he was a young senator—reading books to young children, or bending the ears of state officials and lawmakers.

“Even when you’re governor, you’re not beyond the reach of Bebe Coker,” Gov. John Carney said in a 2019 column in The News Journal. “She won’t hesitate to say to me, ‘Oh, c’mon. That’s a bunch of….’ Fill in the blank.”

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In addition to Coker’s reported bluntness, those who know her describe a patient and kind woman with a wide circle of friends.

“When I was younger, there were so many meetings at our house, we felt like we were the Underground Railroad,” her daughter Joan Coker recalls.

Witnessing firsthand how valuable education had been for her own family, Bebe Coker fought hard during Delaware’s desegregation of schools to help Black students come out ahead.

“We don’t understand and revere and respect the profession of teaching like we should,” Bebe Coker says. To her, young people represent hope, and they’re a primary motivation for her work.

Some of Coker’s work has been with official boards and committees, like the Citizens Alliance for Public Education, an appointed group that worked to help school desegregation go smoothly. She served as director of administration in the early days of the Jobs for Delaware Graduates Program, helping young people find employment after high school, and was also on the board for the New Castle County Vo-Tech School District.

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Bebe Coker doesn’t like to be described as an “activist,” she says. While the 87-year-old has dedicated most of her life to serving her community—from facilitating Delaware’s school desegregation process to helping graduates find employment opportunities—she believes it’s all in a day’s work.
Bebe Coker doesn’t like to be described as an “activist,” she says. While the 87-year-old has dedicated most of her life to serving her community—from facilitating Delaware’s school desegregation process to helping graduates find employment opportunities—she believes it’s all in a day’s work. Photo by Joe Del Tufo.

But much of her work has been unofficial, advocating and rallying support for her favorite causes.

“She has a very eclectic, very multicultural group of people that are very close, in her inner circle,” says Raye Jones Avery, a local musician and arts proponent who has known and worked with Coker for many years and notes her honesty and humor.

“She believes that we cannot move forward in terms of changing how we are as a nation in the United States without telling the truth,” Avery says. “[But] she does it in a way that’s not off-putting. …She adds humor, but she doesn’t sugarcoat things. That’s a rare combination.”

Coker is also dedicated to the arts. “The heart of who she is, is an artist,” Joan Coker says, noting her mother’s many poems, song lyrics and even plays. A Broadway show she titled Mo’ Tea, Miss Ann? probed the unique relationship between Black domestic help and their employers long before Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help.

While many call her an activist, Coker doesn’t care for the term to describe her work. (“She’s very resistant to labels,” Avery notes.) She simply calls it a living. “You’re supposed to serve other people. …That’s what life to me is about,” Coker says.

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Related: A New Charter School Honors a Local Leader in Sussex County

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