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Women's History Month: Eleanor Sampson's Legacy Lives On At Martin Luther King High School, Across The World

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- She was the first African American music teacher in the Philadelphia School District and her legacy spanned decades. Throughout those years, she had an impact on some of music's biggest names.

Eyewitness News recently sat down with some of Eleanor Sampson's former students to talk about how she influenced their lives.

Marlene Jenkins Cooper has a love of music that's always run deep. She plays the piano with effortless ease, invoking the spirit and adoration of the music teacher who inspired her.

"Fifty years ago, I was a little girl in this classroom," Jenkins Cooper said.

We sat down with Jenkins Cooper in the very same classroom at Martin Luther King High School, where Sampson taught music class. Sampson was the first African American music teacher in the School District of Philadelphia teaching at Vaux Jr. High, Leeds and what would become Martin Luther King High School.

"As a young lady in junior high school, I loved being in music class. I loved her personality, I loved her teaching style," Jenkins Cooper said. "I loved singing."

Sampson's vivacious and impeccable style permeated everyone around her, leaving a lasting impression on her students.

So much so that Jenkins Cooper became a music teacher and took over as the music director of the same Mt. Airy church choir that Sampson once led.

"One time, Ms. Sampson decided to play along with me," Jenkins Cooper said. "Can you imagine what that feels like for that little girl who was 11 years old? Your music teacher is sitting on the piano and I'm on the organ, playing together?"

Sampson died in 2021 at 97 years old, but her teaching legacy continues to touch the lives of former students who have become some of the biggest music artists in the industry, including The Stylistics, Grammy Award-winning soul singer Billy Paul, jazz group Pieces of a Dream and national recording artist Robert Gee.

Gee spoke to Eyewitness News from London about Sampson.

"I remember going into her class and her just being this warm, elegant lady," he said. "She was such a lady, right? She was such a lady about everything even when she was correcting you."

Mayor Jim Kenney honored Sampson in a tribute letter for her years of service to the school district.

Her former students continue to honor her with the love and pride she inspired in them.

"Everything I was exposed to in her class, somewhere in the trajectory of my career, I've had the opportunity to do it," Gee said.

"Don't make me cry. I would just say thank you," Jenkins Cooper said. "We want to touch the lives of our students in everywhere possible. I want to say thank you for being that teacher."

Sampson died in August 2021 and not only did the city pay tribute to her but also a few of her former music students honored her by playing the piano and saxophone at her funeral.

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