Lillian Estelle Cooper Wiggins was born on June 26, 1930, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Ben and Fannie Cooper. She grew up with her parents and six (6) siblings in a house along the Ohio River at 910 John Street. Her parents divorced when she was young. After finishing ninth grade, she took a bus alone to Atlantic City, NJ, to live with her mother, Fannie Coleman Cooper Girdy, who had remarried. Upon graduating from 12th grade at Atlantic City High School, she took a Greyhound bus and moved to New York, where she worked as a live-in domestic while saving her money.

In 1950, Ms. Wiggins boarded a bus again for Washington, D.C., to seek a “good government job.” She moved in with her maternal aunt, Doris Lucille Daggett, a civilian Navy employee. She passed the civil service exam and worked as a file clerk with the Navy Department. Concerned about discrimination and job security, she thought it would be to her advantage and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. She also enrolled in Cortez Peters Business School, where she majored in English, typing and shorthand. She was accepted into a night English class at Howard University. 

While trying to establish a foothold in Washington, Ms. Wiggins worked as a “hat check girl” and bartender at the Hollywood Restaurant and Lounge on Ninth Street N.W. and the 652 Club. She also landed singing gigs in nightclubs. While performing at the Golden Jungle Room on Bladensburg Road NE, newspaper ads published in the 1950s billed her as the “singing hat check girl.” She also worked evenings part-time at Mattie’s Sportsman’s Inn next to the Howard Theatre, where she carried meals to the stars who could not eat in white restaurants. There she met many performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Count Bassie, Gladys Knight, Pearl Bailey, Mom’s Mabley, and others.

In 1956, Ms. Wiggins broke her first color barrier when she entered the Miss Washington pageant as its first Black contestant. The Washington Afro-American published a photo showing Lillian and other contestants in their swimsuits.

In 1957, the new African nation of Ghana opened an embassy in Washington, and she went to work there as a press and information officer. 

With no formal training as a reporter, The Afro hired Lillian in 1962 to write obituaries. By the end of the 1960s, she was covering politics and African American life in the city. The paper sent her to Nigeria to cover the Biafran Crisis and South Africa to meet U.S. Congressman Charles Diggs, who was denied entry due to unsatisfactory writings about the South African government. She also attended the inauguration of Liberian President Dr. Willian V.S. Tubman.

In the early 1970s, she started writing editorials for the Afro and created a weekly column: “From the Desk of Lil,” covering the District and justice issues. By 1974, Ms. Wiggins was the paper’s women’s editor. She covered parties on Embassy Row and in the homes of the city’s growing African American middle class. Her concern about the gradual, subtle destruction of Black leadership, business, family, and community life precipitated her creation of the annual Survival Conferences, the first of which was held in 1977. She also was a member and past president of the Washington DC chapter of Tots and Teens. For her hard work and diligent efforts in Washington, the D.C. Council proclaimed through a written resolution March 29, 1980 as Lillian Cooper Wiggins Day. 

In 1981, she left the Afro for a position on Mayor Marion Barry’s first D.C. Lottery Board, where she served as vice chair for two years. She later returned to journalism and a reporting job with Dr. Calvin Rolark, Sr.’s Washington Informer. She was elected commissioner to represent Advisory Neighborhood 4C03, and in 1991, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly nominated her to serve on the District’s Taxicab Commission. She continued to write, appeared on the radio, and produced a program on local access cable television. She also served as board chair of the Indian Acres Club of Thornburg Board for many years. 

Ms. Wiggins was also an entrepreneur who co-established the business venture Cornelius-WigginsInternationale, Inc. She later owned The Greenhouse Eatery restaurant on Ninth Street N.W. Though she had a stellar professional career, she also found love in Washington. She married Adolphus “Face” Wiggins, who she met while working at the 652 Club. He went on to own the popular “Face’s” restaurant on Georgia Ave N.W.. which was a famous D.C. gathering spot.

Ms. Wiggins died on Wednesday, October 26, 2022, at 92. She was preceded in death by her parents, husband, adopted daughter Sarah Borteley Ikenna and grandson Baby Wiggins. She is survived by two (2) children, son Michael Anthony Wiggins and daughter Karen Ann Wiggins, five (5) grandchildren, ten (10) great-grandchildren, and a host of other family and friends, 

Ms. Wiggin’s colorful and pointed columns on Washington politics and culture left an indelible mark on the city. In the 1970s, she became the first journalist to write about “The Plan,” a view shared among the city’s Black residents that the passage of Home Rule in 1974 would result in whites conspiring to seize Black power and property in the nation’s first Chocolate City. By the 1990s, journalists, historians, and sociologists were crediting Lillian as the source for the narrative that some called an urban legend, and others called a conspiracy theory. No matter what folks called it, the story became inextricably linked to demographic and cultural shifts in Washington over the past 30 years.

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Denise Rolark Barnes

Denise Rolark Barnes is the publisher and second-generation owner of The Washington Informer, succeeding her father, the late Dr. Calvin W. Rolark, who founded the newspaper in 1964. The Washington...

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1 Comment

  1. This is such an inspiring story especially because of the era which she seemed to maneuver through. Many had extraordinary lives but there stories never reached mainstream readers. RIP Ms. Wiggins……Condolences to her family and friends.

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