Rosary Broxay Cooper, daughter of a Baptist minister, was born in 1913 and grew up in Eatonville, FL, one of the oldest Black towns in America. She graduated from the all-Black Florida Normal School with certification as a children’s nurse.
Hired to care for the children of the Merrill family, she traveled with them to New England, where the family owned a resort in Maine about 15 minutes from Portsmouth. It was there, in 1938, that she met and married Owen Finnigan Cooper and moved to Portsmouth. They lived with his mother and sister.
A year later, with the outbreak of World War II, a demand for males in the military coupled with the urgent need for supplying the war effort led to opportunities for women and Black people in well-paying, high-skilled positions ordinarily reserved for White men. Rosary Cooper stepped into one of those positions at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Starting as a file clerk, she took advantage of on-the-job training, with her sights set on the highest-paying twenty-ton crane operator position. Years later, she said:
“I’m not going to say I wasn’t afraid. I was. They had the wall-cranes but they didn’t pay as much money as the twenty-tons, so that’s what I wanted. You had three months to qualify and six months to make your first rating. So I kept going up until I got to be a first mate’s crane operator on the twenty-ton crane…that lays the keels for the submarines, the cradle, and the engines and torpedo tubes. So, I did that during wartime.”
While Rosary operated this crane, her husband was in the army. Toward the end of the war, when White soldiers were in short supply, the army finally allowed Black platoons in combat. Finnigan, a master sergeant in the 509th Quartermaster Division, was assigned to Europe.
With the end of the war, women were relieved of their wartime jobs to make way for the returning veterans. As for many Black Americans, peace meant unemployment for Rosary.
With their combined savings, Rosary and Finnigan bought a sixteen-room house in the Puddle Dock neighborhood of Portsmouth, today the location of Strawbery Banke Museum. They rented rooms to Black borders. An enterprising woman, Rosary also saw a market niche in hairdressing and attended beautician school in Boston for certification that allowed her to open a shop in her home in 1949. On February 1, 1953, Rosary received flowers of recognition at People’s Baptist Church for her distinctive contribution to the Seacoast’s Black community as its only beautician.
Rosary’s post-war patriotism included serving as president of the Ladies Auxiliary of Portsmouth’s Veterans of Foreign Wars, later becoming state chairwoman of the VFW’s Ladies Auxiliary. In this capacity, she presided over and raised funds for its Voice of Democracy competition for high school students. Rosary also raised funds for the Veterans Administration hospital in Tilton and for the state Soldier’s Home. Rosary Broxay Cooper died at the age of 84 on January 3, 1997.
Angela Matthews has volunteered for PBHT and BHTNH since the 1990s. She has served as a tour guide, grant writer, fundraiser, and speaker and was an incorporator of PBHT in the 1990s and in 2016 an incorporator of BHTNH, then serving on the first board of directors.
This article is part of an ongoing series aimed at highlighting and honoring the stories of notable Black historical figures and families who helped shape New Hampshire and Maine. These stories were originally collected by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire for a project with the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire. Stories are being shared with the partners in The Granite State News Collaborative."