We do traffic engineering work every day, so during Black History Month we thought we’d highlight a particular figure in our country’s history: Lois Cooper, the first African American woman transportation engineer to be hired in the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Engineering Department.
Born in Mississippi in 1931, she studied at Tougaloo College, a historically black college, before moving to Los Angeles where her mother resided. In California, she attended Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles State College where she studied mathematics, oftentimes the only black woman in class.
After graduation, a job opportunity at the Department of Architecture didn’t pan out, with the interviewer reacting when she arrived for the job interview that he had thought she was a man prior to her arrival. She ended up getting a job elsewhere – as an engineering aide at Caltrans.
She became the first black woman (and second woman) to obtain a Professional Engineer’s license (PE) in California, passing the exam on her first attempt.
As the Institute for Transportation at Iowa State University put it, Cooper:
worked her way up to eventually become a transportation engineer and project manager. Cooper was figuring out the math behind freeways without calculators by using coordinates, sines, and cosines. Since this was before calculators and computers were able to do this work, Cooper had to figure out the alignment of freeways by determining the bearings and coordinates to create a draft for construction managers. Because of her strong aptitude toward mathematics, her skills gave her an edge over other engineers.
During the 1970s, she was involved in the Engineering Orientation Class Project (EOCP). As Cooper stated: “Not only did it engage thousands of inner city youth but it also put the scientists and engineers, educators, business and industry leaders on the same page to encourage a fresh new generation of STEM graduates.”
The article “The Transportation Industry’s Most Influential African Americans” explains some of the transportation projects Cooper worked on. She “was a part of several major projects including the I-105 Century Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Long Beach Freeway, the San Gabriel River Freeway, and the Riverside Freeway. She was also the first female director of the First Diamond Lane, the predecessor to carpool lanes.”
For more information, we encourage you to read the fascinating oral history interview with Lois Cooper that is hosted on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki.
- Oral History: Lois Cooper, Engineering and Technology History Wiki
- Women engineers of the 20th century: Meet Lois Cooper, Institute for Transportation, Iowa State University
- The Transportation Industry’s Most Influential African Americans, Great Dane
- Los Angeles Council of Black Professional Engineers 2019 (LACBPE) Slideshare presentation, slide 7
- Wallace T. Russell P.E. [1932 – 2006]: The Engineer Who’s Still Making a World of Difference