The first “street sign topper” to honor a Sacramento city resident was installed Friday to commemorate the work of an Oak Park pastor who was remembered as a humble man who got things done for his community.
The small sign was installed on Ninth Avenue outside Shiloh Baptist Church where the Rev. Willie P. Cooke worked for decades. Under the words Oak Park, the sign reads, “Honorary Rev. Willie P. Cook Avenue.” Other Ninth Avenue signs will sport the same toppers.
Ninth Avenue was not renamed, but the small signs are a way to honor Cooke, who served his congregation and the city in a number of ways before dying in 2012 at age 94.
The street sign toppers, sometimes installed above street signs and other times attached to streetlight poles, are likely to be erected in other neighborhoods in the coming years.
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“We didn’t have a way to honor community members, and changing street names is very difficult,” said City Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents the neighborhood. “This is something to commemorate leadership in a neighborhood. Any neighborhood can come forward and do something like this.”
Before the topper was secured to a Ninth Avenue streetlight, a ceremony was held inside Shiloh Baptist Church. Cooke’s widow, Alveda, said her husband would have been surprised but honored by the recognition.
“My husband’s life was one of humility,” she said. “He never expected praise. He would have been grateful if he were here today.”
Cooke was an important leader in the history of Shiloh Baptist Church, which was founded in 1856 and is one of the oldest African American congregations in Sacramento. He served as senior pastor from 1957 to 1983 and returned as interim pastor in 1991 and 2002.
He broke ground in 1958 on Shiloh’s present sanctuary at 3565 Ninth Ave. After vandals attacked the construction site and knocked down signs, burned lumber supplies and slashed tractor tires, he did not give up.
When financing bogged down, Cooke called upon congregation members to donate sacks of cement, lumber and other materials. An electrician by trade, he joined other volunteers in completing construction of the church, which was formally dedicated in 1963.
Shiloh’s congregation grew from about 800 to more than 1,500 under the Cooke’s leadership.
Cooke oversaw construction of an educational building and Shiloh Arms Inc., a housing and child care center. He formed a church council and organized a political and social action committee in 1975.
He was active in community groups, including the NAACP and advisory committees to the mayor of Sacramento and UC Davis Medical Center.
Cooke studied electrical engineering at American School of Electricity in Chicago and was believed to be the first licensed African American electrical contractor in Oregon.
He moved to Sacramento and worked as an electrician before starting his ministry at Shiloh Baptist Church. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theology from Conroe Normal and Industrial College in Texas and an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Andrew Baptist College and Seminary.
Shiloh’s present pastor, the Rev. Anthony Sadler, said Cooke was beloved by the congregation.
“This street sign is in recognition of all of the humility, all of the faithfulness, all of the love and all of the hard work that he poured out all those years to Shiloh and all of the community at large,” he said.