Marvel Cooke was recommended to the WPCF oral history project by Kay Mills, author of A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page (Dodd, Mead, 1988). Mills interviewed Cooke for her book and felt that she would be an excellent oral history narrator.
Mills was right. Marvel Cooke's journalistic experience, even though it ended in the early fifties, was both varied and unique. She began her career working for W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the Crisis, the NAACP publication. She went from the Crisis to the Amsterdam News. At the Amsterdam News, she was secretary to the women's editor, the editor-in-chief of a short-lived feature syndicate and a general assignment reporter. While at the Amsterdam News, Cooke helped organize the first Newspaper Guild unit at a black-owned newspaper. Later, in 1935, she was in the thick of the successful eleven-week Guild strike against the News. After leaving the Amsterdam News, she became assistant managing editor at the People's Voice, a Harlem-based newspaper owned by Adam Clayton Powell. She ended her journalism career as a reporter and feature writer at the Compass, a short-lived white-owned New York City daily newspaper. At the Compass, Cooke was the only black and the only woman reporter.
After leaving the Compass in the early fifties, Cooke devoted herself to political activism. During the Amsterdam News strike Cooke had joined the Communist party. She was national legal defense secretary of the Angela Davis Defense Committee in the late sixties and early seventies. Today she is national vice chairman of the American-Soviet Friendship Committee.
Cooke's background is indeed fascinating. In addition, she is a woman of strong opinions which she expresses without reservation.
I interviewed Cooke in her apartment on Edgecombe Avenue in New York City, on Harlem's "Sugar Hill." Cooke has lived in the building, though in different apartments, since the 1920s. The building is historic; many figures of the Harlem renaissance lived there.
The interview sessions were split between two trips to New York, one in October and another in November of 1989. Although Cooke has surrounded herself with important memorabilia from her life—autographed copies of books written by friends Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes and a sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, another friend—she didn't save one clipping from her journalism career. "I didn't think it was important," she said.
The only piece of journalism memorabilia in her apartment was a framed photocopy of a story Cooke did for the Compass. (The only reason she had this story is that a relative found it and gave it to her.) Cooke talks about this story in our interview. To get it, she posed as a domestic day worker. In it, she exposes the horrible working conditions to which these women were subjected.
Prior to interviewing Cooke, I reviewed notes I made at Howard University's collection on the black press for previous interviews. I also spoke with Roger Wilkins, Mrs. Cooke's nephew. Wilkins, a former New York Times reporter and assistant attorney general of the United States, was then a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. He was very helpful in filling me in on his family; he also suggested areas I might pursue with his aunt.
I also drew on a previous oral history interview I conducted with Ethel Payne, a reporter for the Chicago Defender, a black-owned newspaper, whose journalism career post-dated Cooke's. A Black Woman's Experience - From Schoolhouse to White House, the self-published autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, was also helpful. Kay Mills shared her insights and generously lent me notes from her interview with Cooke. Cooke also recommended two books to me: When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis (Alfred A. Knopf, 1984) and The Life of Langston Hughes, I Too, Sing, America, Volume I: 1902-1941 (Oxford University Press, 1986). These were helpful in acquainting me with the milieu in which Cooke lived and worked.
August 22, 1990
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Currie: I wonder if I could call you Marvel.
Cooke: Of course you can! As a matter of fact, I don't know anyone who calls me Mrs. Cooke. [Laughter.] I almost won't respond to that name.
Currie: My mother always said, "You must call adults Mr. or Mrs."
Cooke: I was brought up like that, too. I know.
Currie: And it sticks. Anyway, I wondered, Marvel, if we could start with when you were born and where.
Cooke: I was born early in this century, in Mankato, Minnesota. I was the first black baby born in that town. The first Chinese baby had been born the week before, and my mother said to my father, "I'm glad we had just a plain little Negro baby," because everyone in the town turned out to look, to scrutinize that Chinese baby. But the same thing happened to me. Pigmentation is the last thing that comes to a baby, and I was very fair. So the story got around the town that my mother must have been untrue to my father, that that couldn't be a Negro child. They moved to Minneapolis when I was six weeks old. My mother never explained it to me, but she'd be combing my hair when I was about four, and she says, "I should take you back to Mankato and let them look at you now." Because the black features had all turned up.
Currie: Why were your parents in Mankato?
Cooke: Well, that is a very interesting story that Roger [Roger Wilkins, Mrs. Cooke's nephew] might have mentioned. Maybe he didn't. My father was the son of an Ohio farmer, who was not a slave, although he was born in the period when he could have been. He was a very bright man and expected all of his children, when they got their majority, to buy land adjacent to his and go to farming. My father wanted an education. So the day he became twenty-one, he was packing to go to Chillicothe, Ohio, which was the nearest town, and his father came in and said, "Madison, what are you doing?"
He said, "I'm going to Chillicothe."
"To get an education." He had been self-taught up to that point, and he had a great deal of knowledge. He was very tall. He went into Chillicothe. He was prepared to go into high school, but he couldn't spell. He hadn't stopped to learn how to spell. So they returned him to the first grade. I don't know what year that was, but I could figure it out. But within seven years, he had graduated from Ohio State University in law. However, discrimination—he ran on the road from Columbus, I think, to Chicago. He was a Pullman porter.
Currie: So instead of being able to get a job as a lawyer—
Cooke: He couldn't because of the discrimination. He wasn't prepared to support himself as a lawyer. No law firm would hire him, either black or white, so he ran on the road to support himself.
One year about the turn of the century, maybe 1900, my mother [Amy Wood Jackson], who was born in Virginia, her father was a free man, also, had decided she didn't want to be a scullery maid all of her life. She worked in service, and that's how she met Dr. [W(illiam) E(dward) B(urgharat)] Du Bois, as a matter of fact. The people she worked for used to summer in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Dr. Du Bois was from. He met her. She was very beautiful. He used to take her out. He told me much later that he used to take her back home, and there were a lot of young white men in the family, and he used to wonder how on earth she was going to survive that kind of—but she did.
Currie: You mean they were attracted to her?
Cooke: That's right. But she did, and she got back to Washington and took a government test to be a cook at an Indian reservation. But anyway, she was assigned to an Indian reservation in South Dakota. My father [Madison Jackson] saw her on the train and thought she was beautiful, and wanted to know her, but she wasn't accustomed to picking up men like that, so she had nothing to do with him. She was on her way to Pierre, South Dakota, where there was an Indian reservation. He tried to talk with her. She wouldn't talk to him. But she lost a comb, a little comb that you put in your hair, and she was telling the conductor about it. My father said, "I would be the one that would most likely find it." He was on the train that went into Pierre, and he was able to talk with her. When they got to Pierre, he said, "I'll get a horse and buggy and take you to where you're going."
She said, "No, they're going to meet me." But they didn't meet her. So he did take her to the reservation, where she not only cooked, but she taught cooking to the little Indian girls. But after eighteen months of that, she couldn't take it. She just couldn't stand the way Indians were treated, and she related to it a lot because she knew how we were treated, and she resigned and was going back to Washington. My father persuaded her not to, and they got married. The railroad had a dead end at Mankato.
Currie: So that's how they got to Mankato.
Cooke: Yes. But he never intended to stay there, and he never intended to bring his children up, if he had children, in the United States. He thought Canada was a better place. He thought he was going to Canada. He left her in Mankato, and he was going to send for her after I was born. He got to Minneapolis and liked Minneapolis. It had many of the things he thought any Canadian city would have. He had been to Canada. That's how they settled in Minneapolis.
Currie: Interesting. Were you the oldest child?
Cooke: I'm the oldest child.
Currie: How many other children were there?
Cooke: There were three others. One died in infancy. Meredith died in infancy. I can scarcely remember her. I was two when she died. Then Roger's mother.
Currie: What's her name?
Cooke: Helen [Wilkins]. Then the youngest one, Zelma [Zelma Jackson Velasco], who died about five years ago. She lived here in New York.
Currie: What was it about Minneapolis that your father liked?
Cooke: Its beauty, number one. He felt that there were many opportunities there. The university was there. He thought that he would get involved in law, which he never did. That was a great disappointment in his life. He was a Pullman porter all of the days that I can remember, until he retired. He did very well. He bought a piece of property very near the university, I guess so that we could walk to school. [Laughter.] It would have meant a big carfare. But anyway, he bought a piece of property there and built a beautiful house, which we grew up in, very close to the Mississippi River. It was just lovely.
Currie: Why wasn't he able to ever get back into law?
Cooke: Because, I think it was racism. There were not enough black people in Minneapolis to support him as a lawyer, and white people weren't at that point going to hire a black person as a lawyer. He got involved in a side business that made a lot of money, and he just brought us up that way.
Currie: What was his side business?
Cooke: I cannot tell you. I wouldn't want it for publication.
Cooke: I wouldn't mind telling you, but I don't want it—
Currie: Do you want me to turn off the recorder?
Cooke: Turn it off and I'll tell you. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: So you were saying that your father had very strong feelings about his children.
Cooke: Oh, yes, yes, and their education and what they were going to do for a livelihood. He intended to give us all the support that he did not get from his father and mother. I did know his mother; I never met his father. I don't believe his mother was a black woman. We never did believe that. She was very, very fair, blue-eyed, and blonde hair. What we believe about it we've only speculated. I'm a pretty good investigator, but I don't know whether I could follow this through. But she was born in Virginia, and we believe that she was the daughter of the master's wife. When he was off to war, she was conceived, and she was given to a slave family on the plantation and grew up with them. She could never have been related to that family, because I did meet her sister, Vilini. Vilini was very black, very curly hair, and her features were soft and round. My grandmother had very sharp features. There was no way she could have been a sister.
Currie: Was that ever spoken of in your family?
Cooke: I know the story. I may have gotten it from my father. I think I know a lot of things that my sister, Helen, Roger's mother, doesn't know, the reason for that being my father believed that children should be nurtured. I was the oldest one. One had died. Helen was five or six years younger than I, and Zelma was younger than she. My mother was busy nurturing them, and he'd take me out and we'd take long walks together. He would tell me things. This is a story that I know. I'm not sure that Helen knows it.
Currie: What other things did he talk to you about on these walks?
Cooke: About the stars. I learned all about the constellations and about love. Very early on, his youngest brother lived at our house after his wife died, and my mother and father had a built-in babysitter when they'd go off to their—they belonged to a whist club. So Uncle Charlie would take care of us. I seem to be diverging, but I'm not. He would take care of us and they wouldn't have to pay a babysitter. So one night, Uncle Charlie tried to rape me. I didn't know what rape was. I didn't know anything about sex.
Currie: How old were you then?
Cooke: Eleven. I was very inquisitive. As soon as my mother and father would go away, I would go down and get the encyclopedia. At that very night, I was reading about insanity. When he tried to push me down on the bed, I thought he was insane. I thought, "Only an insane person could act like this." For some reason, he was not able to hold me. Even though I'm a fairly large woman, I was a very slender child. He couldn't hold me, but I thought, "My Uncle Charlie is crazy. Let me protect my little sisters." I went and got them and got them into my room somehow or other and waited for my mother and father. I heard them coming. I heard them laughing on the sidewalk, so I got them back in their room.
That fall, after Uncle Charlie moved out of the house, my father was talking to me about love. And I said, "I don't love everybody." I can remember this conversation very well.
He said, "You don't love everybody? Who don't you love?"
I said, "I like some of the people outside the family better than I like people in the family."
And he said, "Someone in the family you don't love?"
I said, "Yes, I don't love Uncle Charlie." I was brave enough to talk about it because he was no longer a member of the household.
He said, "Why don't you love Uncle Charlie?"
I said, "Because he's crazy." He wanted to know why I thought he was crazy, and I described that evening. And I will never forget my father's face. He took me upstairs and said, "Mama, send the children to bed. You, too, Marvel." I didn't consider myself a child; I was five years older than them. So he was angry enough to have done mortal harm to Uncle Charlie, but my mother was the influence that kept him from doing it.
Currie: I can certainly understand his feelings.
Cooke: But I learned about sex soon after that, because they bought everything that was available for children to know. I don't think they knew, really, how to explain it, so they bought books. Like I remember one, What Every Little Girl Should Know.
Currie: So they wanted you to be prepared and know what it was all about. That must have been terrifying.
Cooke: It was. It was. I really thought he was crazy.
Currie: Yes. I think an adult trying to molest a child is crazy.
Cooke: I do, too.
Currie: It goes on far too much.
Cooke: I was just lucky, really, to have escaped that. But it's one of the things I think I shall never forget, you know.
Currie: That's the kind of experience you don't forget.
Cooke: I remember growing up, into my teen years, I really was afraid of boys, you know.
Currie: Because of that experience.
Cooke: Yes. But I had to learn not to be afraid of boys, you know. I was helped a lot by coming to this community.
Currie: To Minnesota?
Cooke: No, from Minnesota here. In Minnesota, I think that the reason I was attracted to Roy Wilkins was because he was one of the most articulate black students at the university. We weren't mixing then as we do now. There were only five black girls there in a student body of over 20,000, even then. But there were a lot of black boys, because Minneapolis-St. Paul is a railroad center, and they used to come from Howard University and all. We had a lot of very attractive young men coming into Minnesota to work during the summer, and many of them liked it. It's a very beautiful city. And they stayed. The university was there. Many of them stayed to go to the university. But I felt that Roy was the most articulate and most attractive of the black boys, and we really liked each other.
Currie: Before we get into the university, I'd like to go back a little and talk to you a little more about your childhood and your father.
Cooke: And my mother, too. My mother was a terrific woman.
Currie: Tell me more about her.
Cooke: Well, you can get what she was like more by telling this story. We moved into a completely white community. One thing that's nice in race relations in Minneapolis is that there is no ghetto. There is no place where there are all black people, as in Harlem. We were the first black family to move to Prospect Park, which is adjacent to the University of Minnesota. My father used to go to watch the house being built in the evening when he could. He was fairly light. We're all—I guess Roger's about the brownest one in the family. So we were a fait accompli when we moved.
No one knew that this was a black family. My father didn't realize there was going to be any difficulty. So my sister, Zelma, was kind of like a little roughneck. She was always running around the street, and my mother was forever getting her to come off the street. The people who lived right across the street saw Zelma, and they realized this was a little black child. This lady that saw her started screaming, and the Prospect Park Association got together and they decided they did not want a black family in that community. So they started calling. I'm now talking about my mother, but they started calling on my father and they tried to do everything to tell them, "You're not wanted here. Why would you want to live in a place where you're not wanted? You will be isolated from the community." There were many meetings. I remember them because I was seven when we moved there. My father would stand very calmly and listen. He knew what he was going to say to them. At one point, my mother was so angry that she got the hose and hosed them out. That story is in the Minneapolis press right now. Anyone who goes to Minneapolis, they can find that story. She hosed them out.
Currie: She took the garden hose?
Cooke: Yes, and she just turned it on them. She was much more bombastic than my father. My father was standing his ground very well, and the only time that he felt shaken was when a committee came to visit him, to tell him that, "You're not wanted here. You cannot participate in the community. You will be isolated. Your children will not have anybody to play with." And that's what moved my father. He hadn't thought about the effect it might have on the children. So what he did, the house was on quite a large plot. I think it was like 75 feet by 180 back. We had a huge back yard. My father bought every kind of toy—not toys, but swings. We had swings, we had a doll house that you could go into. We had everything—a teeter-totter, see-saw. So the children in the neighborhood were attracted to our back yard. We didn't have parks like we have now. We were the most popular children in the area, and the parents couldn't keep their children away from our back yard. The women would then start talking with my mother and my father, and they became very popular. There was no way to get us out of that community, and it was really because of the challenge to the children that my father decided he was going to make it as attractive for us to live in that place as possible. And he did.
Currie: What kind of neighborhood would you say this was?
Cooke: It's an upper middle-class white community. As a matter of fact, I believe—I haven't been in that house. My father died in 1927, and his funeral was in the house. It was crowded with all the neighbors.
Currie: So you moved in, in about 1917, then?
Cooke: He died in '27. We moved in 1907 or '08.
Currie: I'm sorry. I can't add. That's one of my problems. What was your father's name for the record?
Cooke: Madison Jackson.
Currie: And your mother's name?
Cooke: Amy Wood Jackson.
Currie: Maybe you could describe your house a little bit. What would a typical day be like in your home?
Cooke: I think like the typical day in any home now would be. We always ate together, not at breakfast time, but at dinner time. Always put an extra place on the table because somebody might drop in who would like to eat with us. We went off to school and came home. We had our chores to do. They were very slight, like washing dishes and making beds. We were a very, very close family. I learned a lot. We learned a lot about my mother's childhood and my father's childhood in these little family sessions we would have. It was a very lovely childhood.
Currie: What kind of sense did you get from your parents, say, about politics?
Cooke: Well, my father was a Eugene V. Debs socialist. He taught me an awful lot about the protest vote. You know. One time I asked him, "Why are you voting for a man in prison?"— Debs. He said, "I know he is not going to win. I agree with the program that he's outlined for the country, but he can't win because he is a socialist. Mine is a protest vote. I'm voting for him as a protest against the way things are going in this country. The bigger protest vote we can get in this country, whoever goes in will listen to this great group of people out here that don't agree." He said, "I want you to remember that." So I've been a protest voter, I think all my life, except when I think that the candidate is going to do a good job.
Currie: Did your father talk about how he became a socialist?
Cooke: I'll have to think about that. I think it was a gradual—it must have been. He didn't like the status quo. He didn't like discrimination. He didn't like a lot of social ills.
Maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself, but I remember being on a picket line here in New York City. I was a member of the Newspaper Guild, one of the early members. Heywood Broun was living in New York at the time. The Newspaper Guild was then a horizontal union, just a union of editorial workers. All we were asking for was union recognition—not even more money. Anything, just union recognition. A lady came up to me and she said, "Aren't you Marvel Jackson?" I was Marvel Cooke at that point, but she said, "Aren't you Marvel Jackson?"
I said, "Yes."
She said, "Wait 'til I go home and tell your mother and father what you're doing."
"My father's dead."
"Your mother. What you're doing."
I said, "If my mother were in New York at this time, she would be on this picket line with me." So I learned that from them, you know, to protest in an organized way against bad conditions. It was just ingrained in me, and I think the reason my sister doesn't have that is that I got this from my father while my mother was busy singing lullabies and stuff to them.
Currie: Was your mother not as politically active as your father?
Cooke: She wasn't, but she felt exactly the way he did. She wasn't active; she was too active with the children. She felt she was just like him. As a matter of fact, it wasn't long after I made that remark about her that she came here to visit, and she was visiting my sister Zelma. The tenants were protesting something where my sister was living. I was the best cook in the family, and after I got through work, I was going to cook dinner for all of us at my sister's house. Here's my mother on the picket line!
Currie: As a child, did your mother work outside the home?
Cooke: No, no, never. Never. Really, physically we had upper middle-class bringing-up, but from my father and mother, we had a sense of pride and a sense of who we were, that we must work to make things better. That was just inbred in us.
Currie: Can you remember, in your childhood, any political activities that your father became involved with?
Cooke: Not really. I think it was mainly a mental thing because he was so busy working. I don't remember that he was politically active. He didn't seek any office or anything like that ever, but he surely did instill in me and all of us. My sister Zelma was like me.
Currie: Where did you all go to school?
Cooke: I was the first black child that ever went to Sidney Pratt School in Minneapolis. Helen was the second one, and Zelma was the third one. We went to East High, which is renamed. It was East High then. I was the first black child there, Helen [Helen Jackson Wilkins Claytor] was the second, and Zelma was the third. It was only when I got to the university that I met other black youth who were trying to get higher education.
Currie: Was this a public school in Minneapolis?
Cooke: Yes. And the university is still a state university.
Currie: So the reason that you were the first black child is?
Cooke: Is because we were the only black people in the neighborhood.
Currie: How was that for you?
Cooke: Well, I tell you. That's interesting that you ask me that. It didn't bother me at all. I'm, by nature, an outgoing person, and I had a lot of friends. My best friend was a little girl named Helen Ludwig—I haven't thought about her for years—whose father was German and her mother was Norwegian. She was very near my age, and we slept together, we played together, we did everything together.
My mother and father thought we should be at least eighteen before we dated. It isn't like now. So I was ready to go to the university when I had just had my seventeenth birthday, and I didn't attend my graduation exercises for high school because I got pneumonia.
I was very ill, and they even prayed for me at the graduation exercise. I didn't see Helen Ludwig all of that time. My mother had given me her credit card. She had a credit card with one store, Powers Department Store, and I had gone downtown to buy my clothes to enter the university, fall clothes. I was told I could spend so much money. I ran into Helen Ludwig downtown, and I was so glad to see her, and she snubbed me. I was shocked and hurt. I saw that she was with a young man. I had never seen her with a boy before. I believe, in all fairness to Helen, that she didn't know how to explain me to this possibly her first boyfriend.
Currie: You mean the fact that you were black?
Cooke: Yes. I went home and discussed it with my mother and father, and I remember having a long discussion with them about this incident. They came to the conclusion, "Don't dislike her. It's the society in which we grow up. She didn't know how to explain this little black girl to her friend, her new friend." And I remember that's when I said, "I'm not going to live in Minneapolis. I won't stay there." I stood it all the way through college, and as soon as I could, I got out of Minneapolis. I had seen Harlem. It wasn't south, but it was black, and I decided I wanted to come to Harlem.
I had an incentive, because a trip my father had given me, he used to get passes on the railroad, and we were well traveled young people. I had taken a trip to New York. The friend I stayed with was a little older than I—had worked for the Urban League, I believe, but she did know Dr. Du Bois. I had grown up just idolizing Du Bois, what he stood for at the Pan African Congress and things he had said.
Currie: What was your understanding about his importance?
Cooke: He was a black person who had not only got a very good education, but who was very well respected by the whole community, not only here, but abroad, and that he was a true leader. Anyway, I was taken to meet him. You know, a seventeen or eighteen-year-old, here I am sitting in the office of Du Bois. He was then at 69 Fifth Avenue, which is at Fourteenth Street, the NAACP office at the Crisis. He was then editor of the Crisis, at Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue. I didn't open my mouth; I was just stunned. Imagine me sitting in front of this man that I had been taught to worship because of the things that he had accomplished and what he stood for. I thought he should be the president of the United States. This is the way we were brought up. So I finally got up enough nerve to say, "My mother knew you when she was young."
He said, "Who is your mother, young lady?"
I said, "Amy Brown Wood."
He said, "You're not that child's daughter!"
I said, "Yes, I am." My mother was like eleven or twelve years younger than Dr. Du Bois.
"You're not that child's daughter!"
I said, "Yes, I am."
Then he said, "What are you doing?" I told him I was going to the university, and he said, "When you get through, apply to me for a job. Let me know. If I have a position for you, you will have it." That's how I got to New York.
Currie: That's interesting. Can we go back to Minneapolis? I don't want to get you out of Minneapolis too soon.
Cooke: No, I wasn't out of Minneapolis in telling that story.
Currie: It's good to digress. I think sometimes when we talk about early things, it brings up linkages later. I think that's great. I was wondering if religion played any role in your family life.
Cooke: Let me think about that a minute. My father was never too active in church, although he had once thought he was going to be a minister before he took law. Because of the irregularities of his days at home—I think it was that—he never went to church. Very seldom went to church, I should say it that way.
My mother was an Episcopalian, and we were brought up in the Episcopalian Church. Prospect Park is midway between St. Paul and Minneapolis. It is as easy to go to St. Paul as it is to Minneapolis. The Episcopalian church in St. Paul had the same priest as the one in Minneapolis had. I participated in the programs there and had become a Sunday school teacher there. I know I'd come home from church, and my father would be sitting on the porch, rocking. He said, "How was church today?"
I said, "Fine." But I said, "Papa, there's some things in the Bible I can't understand." And he wanted to know what they were, and I told him—Noah, and the parting of the sea, the Red Sea, and different stories.
He said, "Why don't you believe those stories?"
I said, "Because they couldn't happen. It's impossible for them to happen. They're against all scientific—well, whatever."
He said, "Well, now, this is the point I wanted you to get to. You don't have to go to church if you don't want to, but if you don't go to church, don't tell your little sisters why you're not going. Let them come to their understanding by themselves." So I continued to go to church every Sunday, because there I met my little black friends. This was after the Helen Ludwig incident. There I met my friends, and I had a social life.
Currie: That involved other blacks.
Cooke: Yes, that involved black people.
Currie: So the church was predominantly black?
Cooke: It was all black. The church, even yet, is quite segregated. Here and there you find blacks going to white churches, but that's because they like the program or something of that sort.
But my father did say, "When you get to the point where you question certain things, if you don't feel like going to church, don't. But don't tell your little sisters why you're not going. Let them come to their conclusions on their own."
So I continued to go to church because I had a social life. I had gotten to the age where I couldn't have one in the community in which I lived. So one day I didn't feel well, so I didn't go to church. Helen said, "I'm going to tell Papa and Mama on you. They want us to go to church."
I said, "Go tell them. It's all right. Go tell them."
Well, Helen continued to go to church. Zelma kind of followed me, followed me even into New York. Helen, she'd have to answer why, but she's quite involved in her church even yet.
Currie: How did your mother feel about this? Did she go along with your father?
Cooke: She went completely with my dad. She may have been even stronger about it than my father. My relationship with my father, as I told you, was a very close one. Most of the things I believe, I got from him.
Currie: Let me change the tape.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Currie: How do you think the fact that you were the oldest affected your life?
Cooke: I was an experiment, I think. I think there was trial and error, as far as I was concerned. I came very much under the influence of my father, as I told you, because I was the oldest. I don't think that I loved him any more than I loved my mother, but I was accustomed to being with him and expressing myself, and I was under his influence, I think, even politically. So I have to give Roger's mother, Helen, credit. I don't think she knew my father as well as I did. She couldn't have; there's no way. My mother was a nurturing person who was most interested in the physical surroundings, the food and things like that. I think that Helen, even yet, does not know what my father really thought about politics.
Currie: That's interesting.
Cooke: Because I never talked with her about it. As a matter of fact, I never talked to Roger about it when he became assistant attorney general of the United States under Ramsey Clark. He would have to interpret it. I didn't have any contact with him, although in his early marriage, his first marriage, we were very close. He worked for some legal foundation here in New York. Then he went to Washington. He was lured to Washington to work on a newspaper. No, I don't remember why, but he afterwards went to the news field. As I say, when he became assistant attorney general, there was a void. I didn't hear from him. Then about six years ago, when my sister Zelma was very ill, he came up to see her. They were, I felt, closer than I was with him. When he entered her room at Presbyterian Hospital, I thought it would be nice of me to get out so they could talk, so I said, "Roger, I'm going down to the solarium."
He said, "Wait a minute, Aunt Marvel. There's something I want to say to you." He said, "I have a forty-year apology to make to you," which was impossible, because he would not have been ten years old. He was then approaching fifty, maybe forty-nine. He said, "I have a forty-year apology to make to you."
I said, "You do? What is it?"
He said, "I didn't used to understand you, but I'm coming more and more to your way of thinking." It was a tremendous thing, as far as I was concerned, because I loved him very much and I admire him, not as a family member; I just think he's got a lot of potential and making great contributions that my father would appreciate.
Currie: So maybe you learned more of your father's point of view because he spent more time with you?
Cooke: I think so, than my other sisters.
Currie: I know Helen is a very accomplished woman.
Cooke: I'm very proud of her.
Currie: More mainstream than you are.
Cooke: Yes. I am very proud of her, the contribution she has made to the women's movement, the contribution she's made to her community, and she's very highly respected, she's very bright.
She was the first black woman who was ever national president of the YWCA. I'm very proud of that accomplishment. We love each other very much, but I avoid speaking about certain things.
Currie: What things do you avoid speaking about?
Cooke: This started it. I think I started to tell you this. She was in this room [indicating the living room of the apartment at 409 Edgecomb Avenue], and it was after my husband died, and I was going back to Grand Rapids with her to kind of recuperate. We got to talking about something that brought up the name of Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King. I praised the contributions that had been made by Martin Luther King, and that he had done very much more that followed black thinking than Roy had. It was just a general statement—and she got very angry with me. She said, "For many reasons I may appreciate Roy much more than you do and the contributions he made."
I said, "Let's not talk about anything political." I didn't even try to—
Currie: What do you think she meant by that?
Cooke: Well, I think she felt that Roy had certainly made as many contributions to the lives of black people in this country as Martin Luther King, which I disagreed with. She may have felt it was because I didn't marry Roy that I felt like this. It was not personal. I was always, afterwards, I was always very glad that Roy and I never married.
Currie: When we get to Roy, we'll have to talk about that.
Cooke: Anyway, she is mainstream, she's very highly thought of in her community, and I'm proud of her. I'm really very proud of her because whether she knows it or not, she's made a great contribution to the liberation of black women. We have to work as we do in these different fields.
Currie: It's interesting. I think all families work out some little—I certainly am very different from my sister. Very different.
Cooke: Where do you come in the family?
Currie: I'm the oldest.
Cooke: That's funny. In some ways, it's the hardest role, I feel. In contemplation, in looking back on it, I feel that I was kind of experimental, you know.
Currie: I think that was true of me, too.
Cooke: Because I was not allowed to have boys coming to see me until I was eighteen.
Currie: Did you want boys to come see you?
Cooke: Of course I did! That one incident I told you about hadn't colored my attitude. I wanted boys to see me. After I left home and came to New York to work, and went back home, my sisters were still teenagers and there were boys all over the house. I think that my parents had seen nothing ill came to me, so therefore they could allow them to have boyfriends. I think their attitude was colored a lot by that incident I told you about Uncle Charlie, and they just didn't want boys around. But my sisters had boyfriends much earlier than I did.
Currie: I certainly didn't get away with things my sister got away with later. It made me angry.
Cooke: Me, too.
Currie: I thought, "Well, I had to toe the line; she should, too."
Cooke: That's how I felt.
Currie: As a child, say, in grammar school, even high school, what did you think you wanted to do with your life?
Cooke: I thought I was going to be a teacher. I think so. I know I wanted to write. I felt that I had some talent as a writer, but I didn't think it would be journalism. I thought I would teach. It's interesting. I think it's even true yet that a black female child is encouraged to go into very few professions—teaching, social work, nursing. Not even the science of medicine as a doctor, but these very safe sort of middle-class professions.
Currie: Was that something you got from your parents?
Cooke: I don't know. I don't think so, because I at one point thought I was going to be a doctor. I had one black girlfriend, after I went to the university—no, I'd known her all my life, but we got to be quite friendly—she decided she wanted to be a lawyer, and I said, "I think I'll be a doctor." My parents weren't anxious for me to be a doctor, not because they didn't think that girls should go into that, but they didn't think I was strong enough. I'd just had this bout with pneumonia and I know now that I did have tuberculosis for a while. As well as I've been all my life and as healthy, you know, I just stick around when most people my age are dying, but I had had this bout with pneumonia, and there was some talk of sending me to Arizona. That's how I found that there was some tuberculosis. When I started to college, they kept calling me over to the Health Department because I ran a temperature every afternoon. Finally, that went away and they didn't challenge my staying in school.
What was the question?
Currie: I asked you what your daydreams were about, what you might want to be when you grew up.
Cooke: A teacher, I guess.
Currie: You also said you wanted to write. Did you do any writing?
Cooke: I used to write little poems and stuff, you know, in my spare time.
Currie: Did you ever work on the school newspaper?
Cooke: No, there wasn't any. At college there was, but not in high school. I never did.
Currie: Did you get encouragement about your writing?
Cooke: Oh, my father thought I was a great writer. As a matter of fact, I had written something for the Crisis just before he died, and I read it to him. He made me read that over and over and over.
Currie: This was, of course, later.
Currie: What kind of reading did you do?
Cooke: I just think the general reading a child would do. There were some political books. My father had a library in that house, and there were some political books. I would read them, but mainly Alice in Wonderland, you know, just the things that every other child would read.
Currie: Do you remember what the political books were?
Cooke: No, I don't remember, really, but I know they were books about Debs and kind of left political books. I can't remember what they were, but they were in my father's library.
Currie: How did you decide to go to the University of Minnesota?
Cooke: There was no doubt about it when I was born and they moved to Minneapolis, I was going to go to the University of Minnesota. That's all there was to it.
Currie: So they assumed from the very beginning that you would get a college education.
Cooke: That's right. That's right. As a matter of fact, this young lady I told you about who was going to be a lawyer, and I was going to be a doctor, we had a friend that used to visit my family from Washington, D.C., every summer. Her father was on the board at Howard University. She tried to encourage us, when we went to college, Frances and me, she tried to encourage us to go back to Howard with her. My father said, "Of course not. There's a much better university right here. Why should she? Of course not." I was very upset about it, because that was a black school and I had begun to want to be with my black friends, you know. I was very jealous when Kathleen and Frances got ready and went on off to Howard University.
Currie: How many blacks were there at the University of Minnesota?
Cooke: I can tell you the number of black girls; there were five of us in a big student population. There were, as I said, more boys because they weren't necessarily local boys. The girls were all local girls. I can remember every one of them even yet. But the boys would come to work in the summer and just like it and stay. So there were about, I should imagine, from about sixty-five to seventy-five black boys. We had a wonderful time, the black girls.
Currie: I bet you did!
Cooke: You could pick almost anybody you wanted, you know.
Currie: What did you decide to major in?
Cooke: In English. I was going to be a teacher, prepare to be a teacher, not a very exciting scholastic program. I just meant to be a teacher, that's all.
Currie: Did you like studying English?
Cooke: I just liked school. I just liked going to school. There was never any doubt about what I was going to do, or my sisters.
Currie: Did you read the newspapers?
Cooke: Oh, yes, the Minneapolis Journal. I think it may have been the only paper in Minneapolis then, but anyway, the Minneapolis Journal, I read it. We got the Crisis magazine. I never ever thought I would ever work on the Crisis, but we got the Crisis. It seems to me the Urban League had a magazine—we got plenty of black literature in, and we were very proud to be who we were by our reading and discussions in the family.
Currie: When you were in college, did you think about what you would be doing once you got out?
Cooke: I thought that I would be teaching; that's all I thought. I never thought I'd be anything else than a teacher. As I told you, it's just an accident I met Dr. Du Bois and I saw Harlem and I decided. I got an offer of a job in the south someplace—not really the south, in Arizona, in a segregated school, and I had the offer from Dr. Du Bois. There was never any doubt, even though I got less money from Dr. Du Bois than I would have, there was no doubt that I was going to come to a place where I could participate in the life of the community and it was a black community. No doubt that I was coming here.
Currie: Did you ever think about marriage and a family?
Cooke: No. These are things that just came gradually. I was going with, in college, Roy Wilkins.
Currie: How did you meet Roy Wilkins?
Cooke: He was a boy on the campus. I have something he wrote. He used to write little poems to me and stick them in my post office box. The five girls who were there used to hang around my box to see what he wrote to me. I ran across a couple of them here the other day.
Currie: Do you remember what he wrote to you?
Cooke: Oh, just little ditties about how important I was to him. I may find them.
Currie: If you do, it would be great if we could include them.
Cooke: I will. They're around here. I didn't destroy them. I remember we thought, all of us, thought he was a little stiff and thought he was pretty all right. We knew that he was going to give a presentation in his class in English. He had to make a speech. I told my friends that he was making a speech, and we all went to listen to him make this speech. He didn't see us there. When he got down in front of the class, here we were, five of us in there to listen to Roy make his speech, and he stumbled. The professor said, "Mr. Wilkins, go back. That was no presentation. Go back to your seat and come back again." He was just discombobulated because we were there, and I was ashamed that I had done this to him. I started being a little protective of him, and that's how we started going together.
Currie: That's interesting. What were his ambitions at that point?
Cooke: He was interested in journalism and he intended to work on a newspaper, which he did. He worked on the Kansas City Call. He came from the Kansas City Call to the NAACP, where he was editor of the Crisis after Du Bois left there. But he intended to work as a journalist, as did his brother [Earl Wilkins], the one that married my sister.
Currie: I understand you actually introduced his brother to your sister.
Cooke: I did. This is just an aside. My sister wasn't allowed to go out in company at this particular time.
Currie: What does "in company" mean?
Cooke: Go out with a boy.
Currie: By herself.
Cooke: By herself. I had gone around with Roy for two or three years before he went to Kansas City. When he went to Kansas City, he said to Earl [Wilkins], "You take care of Marvel." So Earl started taking me out. My sister was not going out with boys at the time. My parents didn't think she was old enough. Earl was a little younger than I. Earl and I started going around together because he was taking care of me for Roy. Then one night he said, "You know, I know
Roy loves you, but I love you, too." My sister doesn't know this. Soon after that, I left for New York. That's how he met my sister—through me. She never went with any other young man after that. Never. Earl was the only young man she ever went with. I was a little bit flightier; I had a number of friends.
Currie: Before and after Roy Wilkins?
Cooke: No, he was really the first young man I ever went with, but I came to New York right at the tail end of the Negro Renaissance and I met such wonderful, much more exciting young men, I thought, than Roy. There was one that liked me very much; his name was Eric Walrond. He wrote Tropic Death. He was a friend of Langston's [Hughes] and all of that crowd. That's how I met Paul Robeson.
I want you to read something.
Currie: Why don't you read it to me.
Cooke: "To dear, dear Marvel, with deepest admiration and thanks, for your constant friendship has brought strength and joy to us all. Bless you, Paul."
Currie: It's his autobiography.
Cooke: Here I Stand.
Currie: By Paul Robeson.
Cooke: You can see it's been—
Currie: Well thumbed.
Cooke: I have stopped lending this to anybody. I used to lend it around. I want to get it together. I have several things, notes from Paul like that.
Currie: You do?
Currie: Oh, my. Those are very valuable.
Cooke: I know. Where did I put one? Just this morning.
Currie: Maybe if we can find the poems, we can put those on the record, too. That would be great.
Cooke: When he appeared in "Othello" after the McCarthy period, he appeared in "Othello" in London and he sent me the playbill. One of my white friends had gone to the opening and brought me back a playbill which he'd put a beautiful thing on.
Currie: How wonderful! How fascinating.
Why don't we finish up with before you came to New York. Then we'll stop for today, and then we'll start Friday with you coming to New York. That's such a fruitful period, I don't want to get started on it, because I want us both to be rested.
Cooke: I don't know how much more we can talk about before I came to New York.
Currie: Were you serious about Roy Wilkins?
Cooke: I thought so, you know. This was the first young man I'd ever gone with. I was getting into New York. Then after I got to New York and I started thinking about it, I felt he was arrogant. There are a lot of things that I was questioning, but he was the first young man I ever went with seriously.
Currie: Did your parents like him?
Currie: They didn't?
Cooke: My father died in 1927. When Earl went to ask my mother if he could marry Helen, my mother almost had hysterics, and she made the statement, "I'm glad there isn't a third Wilkins to mess up my family," because there was Zelma yet. [Laughter.]
Currie: What were her objections?
Cooke: I know now what they were. I think that she made me more pro-Roy than I would have been. I didn't know why she objected, because we were brought up not to feel that because of the advantages that we had had, that we were better than anybody else. The Wilkinses did not have the advantages that we had. As a matter of fact, they were not brought up by their parents, but by an aunt and uncle. It turned out later that the reason my parents—I don't know about my father, because he died so soon after I started going out with Roy—but my mother knew that the mother had died with tuberculosis in Mississippi, I think. That's where they're from originally. And she felt that they weren't healthy enough, but she never said that, you know. We just thought she was prejudiced against the Wilkinses because they did not grow up in the kind of neighborhood we grew up in or something like that. But it was that she didn't think they were healthy enough for her healthy girls, despite the fact that I'd had that bout with tuberculosis. But I must have been healthy or I wouldn't have overcome it, you know.
Currie: Interesting. You mentioned that your father was a Pullman porter. I understand that in the black community at that time, that was a very high status [job].
Cooke: It was in that particular—I don't know that, but in that community, which was a railroad center, Minneapolis-St. Paul was a railroad center, kind of a hub to Canada and to the rest of the country, as Chicago is, but the Pullman porters made much more money than [other workers]. You know, the other workers did menial jobs. Educationally they seemed to be of a higher caliber. Most of my father's friends worked on the railroad.
As a matter of fact—I'm diverting—but one very interesting story. My father always taught us to—well, I think my father and mother always taught us to be proud of who we were, not to be ashamed of anything we did, that they did, that my father was not a lawyer because of his inability, but because of the racism in this country. He wanted to bring us up in this kind of free, clean environment, and there weren't enough black people for him to [practice law]—so we were brought up to be proud of his occupation. I always said that my father was a Pullman porter.
When I was about seven or eight years old, my grandfather, my mother's father, died in Virginia. My mother went down. Zelma was a baby and I must have been seven or eight years old. My mother took the baby with her to Virginia. Helen was left with a family, and when my father went down to get her [my mother], decided to take me. Where she lived in Virginia was quite inaccessible to the railroad. You had to go to Washington and get a boat on the Potomac. It took overnight to get down to this place in Virginia, although it was just a few miles. The boat zigzagged across the river. So my father got into a dialogue with some white man that was on the boat going down into Virginia, and the man was very impressed with him. He couldn't understand a black person being this intelligent. [Laughter.] He tried to get out of my father what he did for a living. Now, my father wasn't ashamed of it, but he just decided not to tell this man.
So the next morning, the man made overtures to me. He said, "Come, little girl," and gave me some candy or a nickel or something. He pulled me up in his lap, and my father said, "She's been taught to tell the truth. That man's going to ask her what I do for a living and I don't want him to know." Not because he was ashamed of it. The man put me up on his lap, and I can remember as well as it happened yesterday, I saw my father coming down at us, and just as the man said, "And what does your father do for a living, little girl?" I was going to say, "My father is a Pullman porter." My father grabbed me out of his lap before I could say that. [Laughter.] He remembered it. He didn't tell me why he did it then, but much later he remembered that and he said to know that he was not ashamed of what he did, but he just didn't want this white man, who was possibly a racist and thought every black person did certain things for a living, he didn't want to tell him.
Currie: Understandable. What did your father die of?
Cooke: Cancer. I'm sure it was cancer. I know he went to the Mayo Clinic and they went over him and said it was too late. I'm sure it was cancer.
Currie: You were how old when he died?
Cooke: I was in New York, so I was in my twenties. I got married when I was twenty-six, and it was way before I married.
Currie: Did that leave your mother strapped to support herself?
Cooke: She had the house, which she sold. She never worked outside. Then Helen had married. I married soon after my father died, and Helen married Earl the same year I married Cecil Cooke. My mother was working in Chicago. She sold our house and she got a position as a matron for a girls' residence in Chicago. Then Roger was born, and Earl had developed tuberculosis, just as my mother had predicted. [Laughter.]
Currie: Your mother maybe was right.
Cooke: I think now, in looking back on it, she was right. But what she was wrong about, she should have explained it to us. I think Helen would have married Earl, anyway; she was very much in love with him. But she should have told us. I went with Roy out of just dogged determination because I thought they were prejudiced against the Wilkinses because they didn't grow up in the same kind of neighborhood we did, you know. But it was really that.
Anyway, Earl found out that he had tuberculosis the week Roger was born. He moved out of the house. He was a very lovely person. He moved out of the house, and my mother came down from Chicago to Kansas City, where Earl was working at the Kansas City Call, too, and took care of Roger. She stayed in Helen's household until she died.
Currie: When you were in grammar school and college, what were the kinds of extracurricular activities that you liked and engaged in?
Cooke: Skating, going to the movies with my girlfriends, and cookouts. No one could ever understand that we always had to have chaperones.
Currie: That was very unusual for your friends?
Cooke: No. We and our friends had to have chaperones. They'd say, "Who shall we have chaperone?" And they'd say, "Jackie," who was my mother. They couldn't understand why I never objected, but I had a lot of fun with my mother. One of my little friends said, "I can't understand. I wouldn't want my mother." But we had a very good relationship with our parents.
Currie: Was there any other academic interest that you had that was extracurricular?
Cooke: I don't think so.
Currie: Did your family read some of the black newspapers?
Cooke: As I tell you, of course, I guess so. I did know about the Chicago Defender, so we must have read that. As a matter of fact, I must have got it from them. I get Ebony and Jet and all these. I subscribe to them because I do want to know what is going on in black communities in the United States. I think we must have got it from our parents, who we were and what our contemporaries were trying to do. We got that through the black press. There was a black newspaper in Minneapolis; I can't remember the name of it.
Currie: How did the black press at that time compare to the white press?
Cooke: Frankly, I don't think, with few exceptions, the black press has ever compared favorably. I mean, to get subscriptions, they went into the murders, the off-beat social conditions. You know, the black press, to me, has never lived up to its potential, except for very few exceptions—maybe the Afro-American, maybe Pittsburgh Courier.
I was very disappointed in the Amsterdam News after I came to work there. I left there because of a headline, which, to me, is very typical of what the black press will do, and I understand it, you know, for circulation. It was after the strike. I was always on the grievance committees, and very upper middle-class doctors bought the Amsterdam News. Dr. Powell—not Adam; a medical doctor—would say to me, "I don't agree with your political stance, but I like the way you write. Go on back there to that editorial department and ruin me." You know, he made statements like that. I was trying very hard to get away from there, because I had an offer from Adam Powell, who had started a paper, the People's Voice. One day the Amsterdam News—now, this is typical. Before I came to New York, and certainly since, the headline was exactly "Killed Sweetheart. Slept With Body." I went to Dr. Powell and said, "I can't work for a newspaper that comes out with headlines like this." And that's how I got away from the Amsterdam News. But to me, the press, with very few exceptions, the black press goes in for the sensational. They feel that this is the way they'll get readership.
Currie: Do you think that's true, that they have to do that?
Cooke: I don't think they have to. I think the People's Voice proved that, you know, that you didn't have to.
Currie: That's a good point. We'll get into that.
What were your parents' expectations, in terms of your career?
Cooke: Really, they wanted us to do what we wanted to do. For instance, if I wanted to be a teacher, that was all right. Anything we wanted to do was okay, just so we got an education and used it productively. I really didn't know what I wanted to do, except at the time I came along teaching or social work, not even journalism, was about the only thing open to a black female.
Currie: And to most females.
Cooke: I guess so.
Currie: Did your parents expect, for example, that you would marry?
Cooke: They expected us to marry. As a matter of fact, my father said very definitely, "I expect you to marry, but I want you to get through school and work at least two years, so you'll know that you can support yourself in case anything happens." They expected us to marry. We wanted to marry.
Currie: So the expectation was that you would work a few years, but then not work once you married?
Cooke: Well, they didn't go into that. They were really very progressive. They could live in this age. Actually, when I think of it, they could live right now and have the same expectations that they had before. They would move around in this generation very well.
Currie: I think that's a pretty good place to stop. We can go into how you got to New York next time.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Currie: I wanted to get the tape recorder on before you talked anymore, because you're telling me such good things. I want to make sure and get them on the record. We have this picture of your grandfather, is that right?
Currie: This is your mother's father?
Cooke: My mother's father. His name was Charles Wood. He was a preacher in Virginia, and very active, I understand from my mother, in the underground railroad. He had a brother who lived in Cape May, New Jersey, and he had a standard sermon when the underground railroad was active, that would call the slaves in the area. He lived on the east coast of Virginia—Foley, Virginia, Northumberland County. The slaves would gather and he would send them to his brother in Cape May. I was always proud of that.
After his wife died, he was left with a great many children. There were eleven originally, but possibly eight were still living. He moved to Washington and became active in a business.
Currie: Do you know which business?
Cooke: I'm not quite sure, but I believe he had a livery stable. Anyway, he came to the attention of people in the administration, and when Taft won the presidency, he drove Taft's carriage in the inaugural celebration.
Currie: There's a family resemblance here that's amazing.
Currie: Oh, I think so. I think you have the same eyes and also the same shape face.
Currie: He has a strong face. And he's a very handsome man.
Cooke: Well, that's my Grandpa.
Currie: You were saying that he had blue eyes.
Cooke: Gray. They were light eyes. I don't know if they were blue or gray, but they were light. Half the people in my mother's family have light eyes, and some of the people in my father's family. But Grandpa had light eyes.
Currie: So before we got on tape, you said you thought that perhaps he was the son of—
Cooke: Of the master of the farm on which he lived. I understand from my mother that every day he went up into the master's house and was educated by the tutor who was in the house
to tutor the master's other children. We believe he was one of the children, possibly of a slave on the plantation. But he was free. I realize that he was well educated. My mother used to tell us that he wrote well and that he was a good mathematician, but somehow we thought she was just—what do I want to say?
Cooke: Probably inventing the story. Until she died, and when she died, my sister and I were going over some of the letters that she had wrapped up in white paper tied with pink ribbon, and one of them was from him, her father, to her, about 1900. It was written in Spenserian handwriting, much better handwriting than my mother had. She had obviously told him about this man that she had met, my father, in South Dakota, and she'd always wanted him to approve of whoever she was going to marry. They didn't have enough money to get to Washington, where he was living. In answering her letter, he said that he trusted her, she had very good judgment, he would love to meet the man she intended to marry, but he knew that she had good judgment. The letter was in perfect English, beautiful handwriting. It was only then that I believed this story that he had been well educated.
Currie: Why wouldn't you have believed?
Cooke: I don't know. I was a victim—all of us were victims of the kind of history we had learned about the slaves and what had happened to them. No one said anything about these slaves who were possibly children of the master, who were well treated by the master, treated like their children. I didn't know that. All I knew was what I got in the history books that we were bombarded with in the public school system. It just seemed fantastic to me, but it is true.
Currie: Where did he go for his theological training, do you know?
Cooke: I don't know. He probably was self-taught. Even my father, who was considerably younger, had been self-taught until he decided he wanted academic training. So I imagine he was just self-taught and he felt a "calling".
Currie: Did you ever know him?
Cooke: I never knew him. He died, caught a very bad cold. If we go back to the Taft inauguration, it was on a very blustery day, and he caught a very bad cold and died soon after that. I never did see him. I know I was about seven or eight years old when he died, and I went down into Virginia for the first time with my father, who went down to pick my mother up. She had gone down to his funeral. But I never saw him.
Currie: It's interesting that you went down into what we would consider the deep south. As a child, did you think of that any differently than you did in Minneapolis?
Cooke: Yes, I guess so, because my father and mother talked in front of us enough for us to know that they stayed in Minnesota because they wanted us to have a better education than we could get in the south. So I guess I did feel it.
Currie: When you took that trip, did you know the differences between Minnesota and—
Cooke: Yes, I did, because I had a number of cousins. It was in the fall, possibly November. It was very much warmer in Virginia. My cousins, first cousins, were in school, and I went to school as a guest with them. I remember it very well. Rode in an ox-cart with my uncle's children, and it was very different from the kind of school that I'd gone to. It was a one-room school, many grades in one room. It was very obvious that there was a great difference in the type of education that black children in the south got.
Currie: It was also a segregated school?
Cooke: Yes, it was, in the country. I don't think I'll ever forget the experience going to school, because I'd never been to a one-room school. I remember a cute little story. My cousin's name was Herman, and the teacher said to a little girl in the room, "Close the door. Will you close the door?" And she said, "What?" "Will you close the door?" And the child looked stunned. She didn't know what she was being asked to do. She was sitting closer to the door than anybody else. My cousin said to the teacher, "Tell her to shut the door, and she'll know what you're talking about." She didn't know the word "close." Shut the door. I don't know why I remember that incident.
Currie: How did you feel about these other children?
Cooke: How did I feel about them? I just love people and I loved children, and I had a lovely time. I enjoyed it very much. I had never been with all black children before in my life. It was quite an experience, a warming experience.
Currie: When I was here on Wednesday, we talked a little bit after we turned the tape off, and you said, "Well, I can't prove it, but I think that I may be a descendant of Andrew Jackson."
Cooke: That's on the other side, my father's side. My grandfather on that side was also free. I understand he was free, and he was a son of a brother of Andrew Jackson. Yes, he was a son of a brother of Andrew Jackson. It seems that it must have been true, because he and several of his brothers were sent over into Ohio, where their father owned quite a bit of land and he was given a large farm. He was a very independent person, seemed to have enough money. So it seems to be true. It's something we would have to prove, but it seems to be true.
Currie: Did your parents talk to you about these stories?
Cooke: I do know this grandfather's stories.
Currie: Your mother's father.
Cooke: Yes. I must have got this other story from my father, because we lived so far from relatives. My father's relatives lived in Ohio, and I would meet them on my grandmother's birthday, which was March 24th. My father always went down for her birthday. Once or twice he took me with him when Easter happened to come in that period and we had a few days off from school. Once or twice I went down, but I never knew my relatives, my cousins. I only knew them by name until I was grown.
Currie: What impact do you think this had on you, the idea that your heritage was mixed and that, in fact, you were related to some of the founding fathers?
Cooke: I don't know. I know that I wouldn't go out and talk about it, because we don't say things that would set you apart from your friends, you know. So we didn't talk about it outside the family very much, but other cousins that I know have heard the same things, so I believe that there was some truth in it. Historically, I think we could even prove it if we took the time to go look up records. On my mother's side, I have a cousin who is a historian, and he has gone down to Northumberland County and has dug up an awful lot of stuff that even my mother didn't know.
Currie: There are a lot of records still available.
Cooke: He got hold of my grandfather's marriage record. My mother's mother was a full-blooded Indian, was not black. My cousin was the one who confirmed this. We thought so from the description my mother would give of her mother, who died when she was very small, but she remembered her. It seems that she was a full-blooded Indian. Her name was Persidia.
Currie: How interesting.
Cooke: And there are several Persidias in my family. I have several cousins named Persidia. Seems that most of my mother's sisters had decided to name their first daughter for their mother. Thank God my mother did not name me Persidia. [Laughter.]
Currie: How did you get the name Marvel?
Cooke: Well, my mother's best friend, before she left Washington, D.C., was a schoolteacher, whose name was Katherine. My mother promised, when she left to go to the Indian reservation in South Dakota, promised Katherine Taylor that if she ever got married and had a daughter, she would name her first daughter for her. So I come along, and my father did not like the name Katherine. Marvel is a Swedish name. It seems that the Swedish people name many of their girl children whatever the Swedish word for Marvel is. So when they came here, they translated it, the name from Swedish to English, and the name is Marvel. Almost every Marvel I know comes from that general area. My father came in and said, "I don't like the name Katherine. I like Marvel." So my mother gave in, and I became Marvel Katherine. But I was never to tell Aunt Katherine that my name wasn't Katherine.
Currie: That was difficult, I imagine.
Cooke: So when I first met her, I was about seven, on that trip when my grandfather died. After my grandfather died, we stayed with Aunt Katherine in Washington, D.C. My mother said, "Now, your name is Katherine. You be sure to answer to that." So it turns out Aunt Kate—I always called her Aunt Kate—would come and call, "Katherine!" And I wouldn't pay any attention to it, because I wasn't accustomed to it, you know. [Laughter.] I'd forget. Then all of a sudden, I'd say, "Oh, yes!" So she told my mother that she thought I was hard of hearing. She thought that when we got back to Minneapolis, my mother should take me to an audiologist and find out why I didn't answer when she called.
Currie: That's interesting. I have a story about my name, too, but this isn't my interview. When you were in college, I think we have another picture here that sparks this.
Currie: This was in college?
Currie: Looks to me like you have an Irene Castle bob.
Cooke: Well, I don't know. I don't know that it was cut that way for that reason, but—
Currie: It looks very stylish. You said you were active in a sorority.
Cooke: Yes, the AKA sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, which is a national sorority. I think the two oldest black sororities are Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha. We started Eta chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha at the University of Minnesota.
Currie: Why did you start the sorority?
Cooke: I don't know. It just was a fad, I think. All the white students had a sorority. This was an already established sorority, and we just thought it would be nice. I guess no reason. I know that as soon as I came to New York, I forgot all about the sorority, and somebody found out that I was a member of AKA. The woman who was most active here, a much older woman than I was, came after me several times. I told her I found so many other things to be active in, that interested me a great deal more than the sorority. I never was active, really, after I left school. It was just a school activity.
Currie: What kinds of things did you do with the sorority?
Cooke: We had little meetings and talked about our role as students at the University of Minnesota, had dances where we'd meet the boys, you know. It was just a social thing. At that time, I think I thought I was going to be an activist from the beginning. After I got out of school, it wasn't important to me anymore.
Currie: When you were in school at the university, did you hold a job?
Cooke: No. No. Can we talk kind of off the record now?
Cooke: I'm going to tell you something that— [Tape interruption.]
[Material removed and sealed will be available at the Oral History
Research Office of Columbia University after August 22, 2000.]
Currie: You said that you stayed out of school a year.
Cooke: Yes. I took a government examination—I was studying Spanish at the time—to translate Spanish. There were a lot of Puerto Ricans who had been in the Army, and the government had
established a big translation department. When I applied for the job, which I got, I sent my high school picture. Well, we're a fairly light family, and my name was Jackson—S-O-N on the end. It seems to me it's not a Swedish name. But they didn't realize that this was a black applicant until I got there and they looked at me. I was quite naive. I was told by the person who interviewed me that the translation department had not been set up, but would I mind taking a filing job until this department was set up. I would have the same salary that I would have as a translator. Being quite naive and that being my very first job, I said, "Of course not."
About six weeks later, I was walking through the building. It was not one of the regular government buildings. It was like a barracks that had been set up for this department, part of the War Department. I was walking through part of the building I had never walked through before, and I noticed some young people, obviously translating. I went close enough to see what they were translating, and they were translating from Spanish to English.
I went back to my department and asked if I could leave for the afternoon. I wanted to go up to the Capitol, where the senators were. I wanted to go see Senator Shipstead.
Currie: From Minnesota?
Cooke: From Minnesota. Anyway, I went up and I went in to Senator Shipstead's office. I'll never forget it. It was a very large office. Fish swimming in water were painted around the edge of the ceiling, and there was a big sign: "It's a poor fish that's never seen a Minnesota lake."
So I checked in with the receptionist. I knew that Senator Shipstead—I felt he wouldn't know the name Marvel Jackson, but I put down "Marvel Jackson, Madison Jackson's daughter." So within a very few minutes, Senator Shipstead, who was a beautiful man, imposing-looking Swedish gentleman, came to the door and said, "I want to see Madison Jackson's daughter." I walked in, and there were a number of men sitting in his office. I suspect they were senators. He said, "I want you to get a good look at this young lady. If it were not for the fact that her father is a Negro, he would be in Washington setting many things straight that need to be set straight. He's one of the most brilliant men I've ever known." I was very proud.
Currie: How did your father know Senator Shipstead?
Cooke: I guess he was one of his clients! How do I know? [Laughter.] I don't know how he knew him, but he did know him, because I'll never forget that incident.
Currie: It's interesting that by being basically an entrepreneur, whatever you want to call it, this allowed your father to make very heavy-weight political connections.
Cooke: He did. He did.
Currie: It's really interesting, I think.
Cooke: Really and truly, if I were a good enough journalist, I would have gone back and dug into it a little bit further. My father died—let's see, I came here in the fall of 1926. My father died June, 1927. Many outstanding members of the community who attended his funeral, twenty years earlier were members of the mob which had gathered on our front lawn to read resolutions to get rid of the Jackson family. But he had become a very outstanding member of that community.
Currie: The year that you met Senator Shipstead, do you remember what year that was?
Cooke: I couldn't really. Maybe 1924, '25, something like that.
Currie: So your junior year in college.
Cooke: Yes. I went back and went to school afterwards.
Currie: Was Senator Shipstead able to help you at the War Department?
Cooke: Yes! I got back and I went straight to translating.
Currie: How did he do that?
Cooke: He must have made a call. I don't know how he did it, I didn't go back to work until the next day. I was almost immediately transferred.
Cooke: I'd forgotten that story, you know.
Currie: I think it's fascinating that your father's "business" not only gave you a nice economic living, but it also gave you political power.
Cooke: Yes. I know one of the mayors of Minneapolis lived in the next street to us. I told you it was an upper-middle-class area. I know he used to say to my father, "You know, you should be mayor of this city." No one ever conceived then of a black mayor of any of these towns. It's amazing. I wish my father were alive to see it now, you know.
Currie: What do you think he would say?
Cooke: I think he'd be very happy about it. I think there are many things he'd be unhappy about. He used to say to me, when we talked about politics, there was no way for me to be anything but progressive, not necessarily a Communist, but progressive—because he used to say, "You follow in my footsteps. Do the things that your mother and I do. By the time you are twenty-five or thirty, everything will be straightened in this country." I often say to myself, "Papa, I wish you could come back and take a look at it. We have not made the—" What do I want to say?
Currie: Things are not straight.
Cooke: No, they're not straight. It's just too slow.
Currie: What do you think he would think of the situation now?
Cooke: I think he thought that the progressive forces in this country would have been stronger than they have been, and that certainly the things that they wanted were right, and we would have a progressive government. I think he would be very disappointed if he knew that after certain progress we made with [Franklin D.] Roosevelt and with [John F.] Kennedy and some of the others, that here we had [Ronald] Reagan and [George] Bush! I think he would have been distraught at that.
Currie: Do you think that he would be impressed with the strides that blacks have made?
Cooke: Yes, I think he would have been, despite all odds that they had. For instance, a Jesse Jackson. I think he would have been very proud of him. I know he would have been; I don't have to think about it. And Martin Luther King, the things that he did and stood for. Of course, Du Bois. As a matter of fact, Du Bois and my father are about the same age. My mother—it looks like Dr. Du Bois wanted to marry her one time. She thought he was too old for her. It turns out she marries a man exactly Du Bois' age. You know.
Currie: Sometimes, you know, it's timing.
Cooke: It was timing. She was very young.
Currie: Did she ever talk about the fact that Dr. Du Bois had—
Cooke: She must have. How did I learn that?
Currie: Well, he might have told you.
Cooke: No, he didn't. I told you when I met him and I finally got up nerve enough to say my mother knew him. He asked me who my mother was, and he said, "You're not that child's daughter." So there must have been some discussion between them of the difference in age.
Currie: I didn't ask you yesterday to describe your house.
Cooke: I have a cousin who has a picture of it. It was a brick house. The bricks were made individually. I saw some of them being made. They were stucco bricks. Most houses are completely stucco, but these were stucco bricks and the stucco wasn't as coarse. It was finer.
It was a two-story house with an attic and a full basement. On the first floor was a quite lovely foyer with pillars of oak, leading into a living room. At an angle from the living room was a large dining room, behind that my father's den, library—he had a wonderful library—and a very large eat-in kitchen. Very many built-in features. For instance, there was a built-in flour bin, something you didn't see at that time in houses.
There were four bedrooms and a bath upstairs. The attic, where we played in the wintertime, was a full attic. We could have made a room up there, but it was a storage space and place for us to play. The basement had a very modern—for that time—furnace—coal furnace. Didn't have gas furnaces yet. It was a coal furnace. Somebody asked me once did I ever live in a place with gas lights. I never did. We had electricity.
Currie: This was 1907.
Currie: So that's very early.
Cooke: Yes. It was a modern house. And besides that, it's very interesting. The house was very cool in the summer and very warm in the winter. The reason for that, my father had worked with the architects. The house looked larger from the outside than when you got inside. It looked like it was a huge house. But there was a six-inch brick wall and then a vacant air space, and then the inner walls. This air space was the thing that kept the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Currie: Did you ever have people working for you in the house?
Cooke: Yes. When we moved from South Minneapolis, when my father built this house, my mother had had a Norwegian woman by the name of Mrs. Anderson, who helped her once a week with the laundry. Mrs. Anderson loved my mother. So when we moved to Prospect Park, which was a long way for her to come from where she lived, she would come. Of course, my mother had a washing machine, but not like we have now. Mrs. Anderson would wash the clothes, then go outside to hang them out on a line to dry. A neighbor, Mrs. Fisher, who lived two or three lots from us—her house was north of us, and then there was a vacant lot and then a house, then our house—she came running when Mrs. Anderson first came, through the back yards. She looked and said: "Well, I've often seen (and she used the word) niggers working for white folks, but I never saw white folks working for a nigger before." [Laughter.] I don't know why I remember that story, but—
Currie: How did Mrs. Anderson react?
Cooke: She said, "I wish I had more niggers to work for."
Currie: A practical woman.
Cooke: She loved my mother.
Currie: How did remarks like that make you feel?
Cooke: Well, we were taught to feel sorry for people who talked about anybody, any human being, in such a way—you know. I remember one time going to school. I was walking in front with some little girl, in front of three little girls that I knew—Rose Hillstrom and the two Vavra children. Somebody used that word to me, and I turned around to challenge them about it and said, "What do you mean?" I think I took on Rose Hillstrom and not the Vavras. Rose came up to me and she said something, and I said, "Hit me, if you dare!" And she hit me and I didn't hit her back. [Laughter.] I remember that, because I didn't know how to fight. I wasn't taught to fight. But anyway, there weren't many incidents like that.
There was one incident that involved a teacher—my eighth grade teacher was named Miss Ness and I loved her. I just adored her. I liked all my teachers, but Miss Ness I seemed to like better than the others. One child was reciting. Scandinavians have a way of ending a sentence with a preposition. The kids would come and say, "Mrs. Jackson, can Marvel go with?" And this child was reciting in this way, and Miss Ness said, "You need to learn how to talk properly. Don't talk like a little nigger." And all of a sudden, she realized I was sitting up there in the class. She said, "Why don't you speak like Marvel?" I remember hating that woman so. So, you know, children, no matter where they are, have to fight some type of discrimination—black children. For instance, why would I remember that incident at this age?
Currie: Because it had such an impact.
Cooke: That's right. That began my desire to live with my people—that incident. "I'm going to get through school and leave." I think I told you about the little girl that didn't speak to me.
Cooke: Things like that made me decide I was going to live with my people. I wasn't ready to go south, so Harlem seemed the natural place.
Currie: A place where you'd be safe.
Cooke: That's right. Here's where Dr. Du Bois was, too, you know.
Currie: These things are really upsetting. Did you ever think that Roy Wilkins would achieve the prominence that he eventually achieved?
Cooke: No. And may I be honest about it?
Currie: I hope so.
Cooke: This is despite the fact that my sister made the remark I told you about.
Cooke: Dr. Du Bois actually wanted me to stay in New York. He knew I wanted to stay here, and he thought that if I married—Roy was in Kansas City—I would leave. I was becoming less and less anxious to marry Roy after I met a few young black men who were as articulate and more interesting, but anyway, I was engaged to Roy.
Currie: I'm going to turn the tape over.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Currie: You were saying you were engaged to Roy.
Cooke: I had been engaged in college to Roy, and it was normal, I think. He was really the most articulate black student, male student, out there, and we got along—intellectually. I didn't know anything else but the intellectual contact. So anyway, Dr. Du Bois knew I wanted to stay in New York, and he felt that I was going to marry Roy. He said that he wanted to meet that young man of mine. When he went on a lecture tour which included Jefferson City, Missouri, Roy came up from Kansas City to see him.
When Dr. Du Bois came back, he said: "I like that young man of yours, and I'm going to try to see to it that he gets a job here. But I want to tell you, if he gets a job in the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] or the Crisis, that will be the end of your job here, because I don't believe in a husband and wife working for the same organization." He'd had some experience that hadn't worked out. I said, "Oh, that's all right." As a matter of fact, up to that time I thought, "When I get married, I'm going to stay home and have children." I wasn't thinking of a career, particularly. I said, "Oh, that would be all right."
So Dr. Du Bois had political differences with the NAACP crowd about that time. Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, people like that were there. He was about to leave this NAACP-Crisis set-up.
Currie: What was the difference?
Cooke: I don't know what it was, but I think it could be researched very easily. He had some political differences, and that's why he broke with them. It was after that—see, he had put Roy's name in the coffer—and it was after that, that Roy's name came up and he was asked to come in for an interview, and he got the job. But it was actually Du Bois, through me, you know, that set that up. There were a lot of young, intelligent black men around here who could easily have filled that job in the NAACP. Why would they all of a sudden find somebody way out in the midwest to bring here? I think it was actually my contact with Du Bois that caused that.
Currie: So it was some luck on his part.
Cooke: Yes, it was a lot of luck. A lot on my part, too, that I had the mother I had. But I don't think that Roy would have ever been here had it not been for that—
Currie: That incident. Do you think that he grew into the job?
Cooke: I don't think he grew into it. I'll tell you one incident that I know. A white woman, Mary White Ovington, who was one of the founders of the NAACP, died, and there was a memorial service for her at Town Hall. Du Bois was living in this house at that time.
Currie: In this apartment house where we are right now?
Cooke: Yes. He lived in apartment 7H. As a matter of fact, he married Jessie Fawcett while he lived here. She lived here, too.
Currie: Did you go to the wedding?
Cooke: No, I didn't. I don't know where the wedding was. It wasn't necessarily here. I went to their house several times. They moved from here over to Brooklyn Heights, and I was there several times for parties and things like that.
But anyway, this is before he married her. You've been around this corner, and that awful tree, every time I walk by that tree, just before you get to the house, I think the city ought to take that tree down because the sidewalk is so treacherous at that point. Well, anyway, I ran
into Dr. Du Bois as he was approaching the tree, and he was just laughing. He said, "I really fixed your boyfriend today."
I said, "You did?"
He said, "Yes. I was not invited to speak at Mary White Ovington's memorial, yet I'm the only person in New York who ever worked with her. We worked together to see to it that the NAACP became a vital organization." He said, "I knew that Mary would want me there." So he went to Town Hall. He said, "I walked to the platform entrance, onto the platform, and sat down in a chair." Of course, he was a beautiful man and very visible. Roy was dumbfounded to see him there, but had to call on him. He said, "He had to call on me; so I made my remarks."
I think, actually, Du Bois was too progressive for Roy. Du Bois was very much like my father in what he believed. As a matter of fact, I don't know how many people know this, but during his last days in the United States, he worked very closely with many Communists that I knew. Doxey Wilkerson was one, since I was working with Doxey at the time in the People's Voice. Dr. Du Bois came in any number of times to see him. Doxey was a known Communist. He had left Howard University, possibly after Mordecai Johnson was there. Wasn't he president of Howard?
Cooke: It seems that Doxey was the person who would have become president, but he became a Communist and worked with the Communist party. I saw Du Bois and Doxey together any number of times.
When Dr. Du Bois went to Ghana, he came out as a Communist. He thought it was not really very safe to be a Communist in this country. But he became a Communist in Ghana.
Currie: And Doxey Wilkerson?
Cooke: He's still living.
Currie: He worked on the Crisis?
Cooke: No. He was a general manager of Adam Powell's paper, the People's Voice. I was working there at the time.
Cooke: It's interesting, because Powell knew Doxey's political interests at that time. He knew, and yet he was the general manager. I'm sure that Adam knew about me, too.
Currie: What did he know about you?
Cooke: Well, he knew my husband. They knew each other as students, but he knew about my political stance. He knew that.
Currie: How would you characterize your political stance?
Cooke: I was a member of the Communist party by the time I went to work at the People's Voice. Sure I was, because I became a Communist soon after that remark I told you that Ben Davis made: "She's not in the Communist party because no one ever asked her."
Currie: Actually, we didn't put that on the record. Maybe this is the time to talk about that story so that we understand that this was during the strike at the Amsterdam News.
Cooke: Yes. During the strike at the Amsterdam News, Ben Davis, who was a well-known Communist, used to come to strike headquarters. I was very flattered that whenever I'd go out on the picket line when he was there, he would come out with me. I'm talkative and very proud of
my parents and my past. It was very easy for me to talk about them. One day we were picketing up and down in front of the Amsterdam News, and Ben said to me, "You know, it's amazing. You have a much better reason to be a member of the Communist party than I have. Why aren't you a member of the Communist party?"
I said, "Because no one ever asked me." It was a naive statement, but you know, I was well dressed and had obviously had some education. At that time most of the black people in the party were factory workers and domestic workers, and they hadn't reached many people like me yet. They soon did, because quite a few around the Amsterdam News and other places like that joined.
Currie: That will be good to go back and talk about all that, too.
Cooke: It was a very interesting period.
Currie: Oh, yes.
Cooke: Because Richard Wright was around us at that time, too.
Currie: You have had such a fascinating life. I asked you if you ever thought Roy Wilkins would have achieved what he did.
Cooke: I don't think so. That may sound a little bit conceited, but these are the steps by which he got to New York. There's no doubt about that. I think even Roger would admit this, you know.
Currie: You really grew up in a white environment.
Currie: Totally white environment.
Currie: What effect do you think that had on you later? I know you said your best friends now are a white couple. Do you think—
Cooke: No, I think that my friends—I'm thinking about the people who are closest to me—are people who feel the way I do about the way this country is going, whether they're black or white. It just so happens that this couple and I were very active in the [American] Newspaper Guild together. We were together in some struggles we had at the Newspaper Guild. We just developed a very close friendship.
My husband died eleven years ago the day that you and I first met, on October 4. I got the message of his death from the hospital about 7:30 a.m., and the first person I called was Richard Carter. He lives in Ossining. He said, "I'll be there within an hour." He got here about 9:00 and he stayed with me all day. My husband was cremated, and he stayed with me until everything had been completed. Took me to dinner, brought me back home, and he would have taken me up to his house, but I had to be home. He said, "You're all right." He didn't leave me until 10:00 that night. We have that kind of close relationship. The nicest times I have socially are with them. I'm going up to their house tomorrow night to spend the evening and come home Sunday.
Currie: Do you think the fact that you grew up in a white environment has made you more comfortable with whites than other blacks?
Cooke: No. I'm comfortable with anyone with whom I can have an exchange of ideas, whether black or white. I know that I am not prejudiced against white people as a lot of black people are, you know.
It's just that I'm comfortable if we can talk about the same things, not that we necessarily have to agree. I have some disagreements with Dick and Gladys. As a matter of fact, I have a beautiful picture—I have to find it—when my husband died. This is the kind of relationship I have with Gladys and Dick. After my husband died, I had the urn with his ashes. What to do with the urn? So another friend, on a social level—I'd love for you to meet him and his wife—was the closest person to Paul Robeson. As a matter of fact, he wrote Here I Stand.
Currie: He ghosted it?
Cooke: Yes. Paul didn't really write that. Lloyd Brown did. Lloyd Brown and his wife among my best friends. Lloyd Brown is a black writer. He was born in Minnesota. His wife is Jewish, and they live very near here and I would say they're my second-best friends.
So Lloyd called me one day and he says, "What's wrong with you?"
I said, "I don't know what to do with Cecil's remains. I don't know what to do with them."
He said, "I do." Lawrence Brown, who was Paul Robeson's accompanist, had died two or three years before Cecil did, and we were all very good friends. Lloyd said, "There is space for another urn in Larry's grave, and there's no reason why Cecil—they were good friends, and the grave is very near Paul's—no reason that Cecil shouldn't be in that."
I said, "Fine."
Then he called me later and he said, "Marvel, there's a hitch. The cemetery allows only one headstone."
Well, I didn't want Cecil to be anonymous, and I said, "Lloyd, let me think about it."
Dick called me that day and he said, "What's wrong?" And I told him. He said, "Well, I know what to do with Cecil's remains." On the plot on which Dick and Gladys built their house, there was an old windmill. They had razed the windmill and polished the stones. In the center of this plot, they had the most beautiful flower garden. Cecil used to look at it and say, "That's the prettiest spot I ever saw in my life."
I said, "What would you do with the urn?"
He said, "Cecil loved that spot. I'll get the urn and put it there." And that's where Cecil is.
Currie: What a wonderful story.
Cooke: So Dick and Gladys are very close to me.
Currie: What a great story.
Just a few administrative things. How old were you when you graduated from the University of Minnesota?
Cooke: I was twenty-two.
Currie: What year was that?
Currie: Then when you visited Harlem before 1925, that was just a vacation?
Cooke: Yes, and when I saw Harlem, I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world to live, you know. [Laughter.] I thought, "This is where I want to be."
Currie: That's interesting to me, too. Can you describe your first impression of Harlem?
Cooke: There's such a vast difference now. Harlem, at the time I came, was from about 110th Street to 145th Street. I'm at 155th Street. Now Harlem is from 110th Street to—it's wherever blacks have moved. It's up to at least 168th Street and from river to river. It's just spread. Harlem, I think, is not a real district, but wherever the blacks live in this particular area in Manhattan.
Currie: So when you came to this place that they called Harlem, what can you remember?
Cooke: I'll tell you. What really amazed me was a Sunday afternoon on Seventh Avenue. It seemed that people, after church, there are a lot of churches adjacent to Seventh Avenue, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Mother Zion, and St. Phillip's Episcopalian Church, and churches all the way down. After church, these very well-groomed people would promenade on Seventh Avenue. To me, it was the most beautiful thing in the world to see these well-groomed people, so happy, promenading on Seventh Avenue. The corner of 135th Street and Seventh Avenue was called "the Campus." The young students would congregate, you know. It was alive! It was before the Depression, and there just seemed so much hope in this particular area—hope that isn't here anymore. You haven't ridden down Seventh Avenue?
Cooke: Riding down Seventh Avenue now, I feel so sad, because so many of the apartment houses looked bombed-out, you know, and so many homeless people you see on the streets. It isn't the same.
Currie: What did the apartment buildings look like then?
Cooke: They were very, very nice-looking, you know, well kept, and you never saw any houses boarded up. Some of them not even boarded up, empty—oh, it's heart-breaking to ride down Seventh Avenue now. In this area, that's not true. I made the remark a couple of summers ago, I was sitting out on the benches with a friend. I think you've noticed there are benches.
Currie: And a little park over here, where there are some benches.
Cooke: Yes. We were sitting out there, and I looked down the street. There isn't a bombed-out house up here, you know. It seemed pretty intact. But you just go over the bridge, get into—well, there's a couple of housing projects, but you get down to 145 Street and from then on down, it is dreadful.
Currie: Earlier, you referred to this as "the hill."
Currie: Edgecombe Avenue.
Cooke: Yes. It was called Sugar Hill.
Currie: How did it get that name?
Cooke: I don't know. But as a matter of fact, after the strike, I said, "I've got to work with the people." I chose to work with the Domestic Workers Union, and one woman liked me. Her name was Daisy, and she liked me very much. She kept asking me where did I live, and I didn't want to tell her because I didn't want her to feel that there was any difference in our perspectives and what we were fighting for. But she was so nosy about it, so she finally said, "Oh, you live up on Sugar Hill!"
So after a discussion, I made her understand that there was no difference in the things that I was fighting for and the things she was fighting for.
Currie: Going back to when you first came to Harlem, what things were people talking about in those days when you first came?
Cooke: You see, that's difficult for me to say because I so quickly became involved with the people in the arts. The people I talked with were mainly talking about how to make it as an artist. For instance, I told you about that statue, didn't I, the other day?
Currie: Yes, the statue by—
Cooke: Elizabeth Catlett.
Cooke: She was possibly my closest friend for a while, and what she wanted was to make it as an artist. Others wanted to make it as a writer or a singer. I was involved with people in the arts, although my heart was with the domestic workers and people like that.
Currie: You've described meeting Dr. Du Bois on your visit here. Then you went back to Minneapolis?
Currie: And finished.
Currie: Can you talk a little bit about how you came back to Harlem to stay?
Cooke: I came at a very low salary. There was a problem about where I was going to live. I had a cousin who lived in Brooklyn, and she insisted that I come and stay with her. I had no intention of living in Brooklyn. I didn't want to live in Brooklyn, I'll put it that way.
Currie: Why not?
Cooke: Because it wasn't where the life was. The life was really in Harlem. Most of the people I wanted to know lived in Harlem. Anyway, I loved my cousin and I had very reasonable rent there. She lived on a noisy elevated train line. Minneapolis is a very modern city, but we didn't have any elevated trains and stuff like that. I didn't like where she was living. She was not getting along with her husband. So I thought she was ridiculous, not because I wanted to move away from there necessarily, but I thought she was stupid. I didn't know anything about married people except my mother and father, and I thought she was stupid to put up with the things she was putting up with. I said, "Well, I don't see why you don't just leave him." She had two children. So I helped her and encouraged her to leave him. I helped her pack. In the meantime, I found myself a room in Harlem. I helped move her. Her father was a minister in Norwalk, Connecticut. I said, "They're responsible for you making this marriage. It's a stupid marriage. So what you should do is take the children back to them and learn a craft of some kind, and you and I can live together in Harlem."
With that, she moved her children to Norwalk, Connecticut, and I moved to Harlem.
Currie: Do you remember where you lived?
Cooke: Yes, 210 West 133rd Street. I had a room with a couple. My father had known the man, a railroad man, and I lived with them for a while. I had to leave because the man got fresh with me when his wife wasn't around, and I had to leave.
I worked with an artist in Dr. Du Bois' office. He was trying to make a living as an artist, but he couldn't. I don't know if you've ever heard of him. He's one of the artists in that particular period—Aaron Douglas.
Currie: I'm not familiar with him.
Cooke: He became the head of the Art Department at Fisk University afterwards. But he knew me and he lived here in 409 Edgecombe. He and his wife, who was a schoolteacher, encouraged me to come live with them. So I lived with them, and my husband, who was not my husband at the time, spent many lovely hours in that apartment.
Currie: Can you tell me how you met your husband?
Cooke: Yes, I can. My husband, I think I told you, was West Indian by birth.
Currie: No, you didn't.
Cooke: He was born in Jamaica. I met a young West Indian athlete. His name was Phillip Edwards. He was an Olympic athlete, but he didn't run for the American team, because he was West Indian, and had not yet become a citizen. He ran for Canada. My husband was a very good friend of this young man's older brother, and they thought that Phil was very naive. They had a system of putting notches on a door frame whenever they'd "made" a girl. See, my husband Cecil and his older brother meant —making a girl was really "making" a girl.
Currie: You mean having sex.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: It still is, I think.
Cooke: They felt Phil was being honest, but his notches went up so fast. So they didn't think that Phil had gone to bed with that many young women. Phil said to them, "I've met the nicest American girl." They didn't think Phil knew what a "nice" American girl was, really. I was still living in 133rd Street when this happened.
So one day Cecil was walking down Seventh Avenue, and saw Phil in a barbershop getting a manicure. He said, "What are you getting so dolled up for?"
Phil said, "I'm going to visit that nice American girl I told you about." He met my sister Helen, Roger's mother, at the same time he met me.
So Cecil went home and got really dressed up. He said, "Wait for me. I'll be back." He said, "I want to meet this nice American girl of yours." So they came to 133rd Street and Phil introduced me to Cecil. It seemed that Cecil had said, the night before, that he wasn't going to get married until he got a Ph.D. He received his M.A. from Columbia that year. Until he got a Ph.D., he wasn't going to marry any girl. So they came in and visited for I can't remember how long. It wasn't a long visit. Cecil was much taller than Phil and he stood behind Phil, and mouthed, "Can I call you?"
I said, "Yeah." And within five minutes he called me.
He said, "I would like to come back to visit you." And that night he went back to Phil's house and said, "I saw the girl I'm going to marry."
Well, he was a very interesting person. It was quite different from going around with Roy. He was certainly as bright as Roy, or brighter. He was also an athlete. He was a quarter-miler—got through college on athletic scholarships.
Currie: Where did he go to college?
Cooke: Syracuse. Some people are just athletes, but he was using his athletic ability to get through school. As Dick Carter said afterwards, he didn't realize how cultured Cecil was until he became so ill. They both liked to go to the horse races. He said he found Cecil knew a lot more about Shakespeare than even he knew. Cecil was really quite a guy.
Currie: He was studying for his M.A. at Columbia?
Cooke: No, he had already gotten it when we got married.
Currie: What was he studying?
Cooke: The social sciences. He was quite a guy.
Currie: What attracted you to him at first?
Cooke: What? What did? Well, in the first place, he had a very good mind, he talked very well. I had no idea he was West Indian. He had no accent. I remember one of the boyfriends I had after Roy was Eric Walrond, who was a part of the Negro Renaissance. He'd written a very well-received book called Tropic Death. It seemed to me that anytime anyone succeeded, Eric would say he was West Indian.
Currie: Was Eric West Indian?
Cooke: Yes, he was West Indian. Seems that I was attracted to West Indians. I didn't know whether they were West Indian or not until I met them. But anyway, Cecil's picture, in his running trunks, was on the front page of the Crisis. I had not met Cecil at this time. I was going around with Eric. And Eric said, "He's West Indian." And I remember saying, "Anytime anyone seems to have accomplished anything, you say they're West Indian."
I met Cecil. He had no accent whatsoever that I could detect. I thought to myself, "Eric was certainly wrong about this one." So after I had been going around with him about six weeks, he said to me, "You like ice cream. You have never eaten any ice cream until you've had some Schroft's Ice Cream." We say "Shraft."
Cooke: I looked at him. I said, "Are you West Indian?" Well, there was a great prejudice then between West Indians and Americans. Americans didn't like West Indians, you know, and vice versa.
Currie: Why not?
Cooke: You see, what I afterwards decided was that the West Indians who came here were those who were dissatisfied with the social and cultural conditions of their home, and came here for better opportunities. They seemed to all do well and take over jobs that Americans strove for—there was a great prejudice against them, but I had no such prejudice. You know, a man was a man, a woman, a woman. Didn't make any difference to me whether they were West Indian or white, whatever.
So I remember him saying to me, "Does it make any difference if I'm a West Indian?"
And I said, "No. The reason I said that—" and I told him the story. "Eric said you were West Indian and I didn't see any trace of accent." It turned out that he was seven years old when his parents moved to Panama, and he grew up in the American sector. When he came here, he went around with American athletes and he just didn't have any accent.
Currie: How did he court you?
Cooke: Well, how does one court a girl?
Currie: I've had lots of men do it different ways.
Cooke: Oh, you have?
Cooke: I guess this was different from anyone I'd had before. He didn't have any money, and I know what we did mainly was ride the ten-cent bus. The Fifth Avenue bus was ten cents then. And a big night with Cecil was to ride the ten-cent bus down to the Village and ride back and maybe get a hot dog on the way. It was the first time I'd had a physical contact with a man, too. So it was kind of a dynamic.
Currie: You mean you were strongly sexually attracted to him?
Cooke: Yeah, that's right.
But I remember I was so naive. I thought to myself—he talked about marriage from the very beginning. I still was wearing Roy's ring when I met him.
Currie: So you were really officially engaged?
Cooke: Oh, yes. Roy came to see me on my birthday in 1929. I had just met Cecil before he came. Roy was still in Kansas City. He was my birthday present, and I remember thinking: "How conceited can one be?" I remember that so well. He was my birthday present. I introduced him to my friends, the Douglases and some of the writers, and Langston Hughes, and people. He was a stuffed shirt. I thought to myself, "How on earth?" I didn't know how not to marry him. We'd been engaged through college. I felt like I was kind of bound. There was no way I could get out of it. My mother didn't like him. I think I told you that.
Currie: Yes, you did.
Cooke: So he went back and called my mother. No, I don't think he called her. He wrote her a letter. Roger has those letters. I gave them to him. I gave him a couple of very important letters.
Currie: I hope he preserves them.
Cooke: He said he would. I'm sure he did. Anyway, he wrote to my mother and said, "We are getting married in June." This is 1929, the year I did get married.
Currie: But not to him. [Laughter.]
Cooke: So he said, "We're getting married in June." He had told me, when he was visiting me as my birthday present, he had told me about this girl that was so crazy about him. I looked at him and thought: "You conceited so and so." I said, "There are a few men who like me, too." I remember saying that to him.
One of whom was Cecil and Eric and a lot of—I'd gone out with a number of men who seemed to like me. So we let it go at that. So he wrote the letter to my mother that we were getting married in June. My father had died in 1927. Oh, she was so angry. She didn't want me to marry Roy.
So I got two letters from him one day. I was living up here. I got two letters from him one day, and I happened to have opened the one that he wrote first. I didn't even look at the postmark. It said—however he called me, darling or whatever, "In fifty-six days, we will be one."
I thought, "Oh, God." I really did, you know. I'm not saying that. I think maybe—who is living now that would say I was making it up? Maybe my sister Helen. I don't know.
Currie: I think it's a great story.
Cooke: I thought, "Oh, God," to myself. "I'm going to be stuck."
I'm going back a little bit. When I went home one year, Roy and Earl had come up from Kansas City, and Helen was just graduating from college that year. I got there, and the three of them—I cooked very well. Not anymore, but I used to. Since my husband died, I don't. Anyway, they had decided we were all going to live in Kansas City. Helen, Roy, and Earl would work, and I would stay home and keep house. I got on the train and came back to New York as fast as I could. I was so angry, you know. I had as much ability to work as any one of them had.
Currie: Why did they decide that you would stay home?
Cooke: Because, at that time, Helen couldn't cook; I could cook. I would be the perfect one to keep house. All four of us [would] live together and I'm going to keep house for them. So I thought to myself, "That's another reason I don't want to marry Roy." I got home to New York as fast as I could.
I got these two letters. I started on that. I thought, "Oh, God, in fifty-six days I'm going to be stuck with Roy," or some such thing went through my mind.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Currie: The second letter said—
Cooke: "Darling, I don't know how to tell you this." He went on: a young woman had come to him and said that he couldn't get married, he said because—anyway, it indicated that they had had sex. But anyway, she told him she was three months pregnant. He said, "I'm going to straighten it out. Everything will be all right."
Earl wrote me a letter. Roger has these letters. Earl wrote me a letter in which he said, "She has been after Roy for I don't know how long. He's been very foolish to let her put things over on him." He indicated he didn't believe she was really pregnant and that he knew that Roy loved me and things would straighten out. It was a very sweet letter, but I was very happy. What they didn't realize, I felt a release. This is honest, you know. They may interpret it differently, but I felt so good. I felt free.
Soon after that, I got a letter from the woman. She said, "Dear Miss Jackson, I've heard a lot about you. You've always been like a figment of my imagination. Now you are real to me." She said, "Roy loves you. I'm going to have his baby, but you should marry Roy." Then she signed her name.
I wrote back to her and I said, "You are going to have Roy's baby. That's fine. I hope you'll both be happy." And I just went along on my merry way. I felt free then to take Roy's ring off, and I felt free to go out with Cecil. He started talking marriage almost immediately. I wasn't quite ready for that.
Roy had come to see me in April, and in June of 1929 Cecil asked me to marry him. We got a marriage license. I don't know that I was quite ready. I was very attracted to him. His mother liked me, I liked his mother, and we had a lot of fun together. He was certainly more
intelligent and prouder of being black than Roy. He had been an athlete, but you know, that was a means of getting through school. So we went down to City Hall. I'll never forget the day we got our license. It seemed that Cecil met everybody he knew that day, and they said, "Babe, what are you doing down here?" And he was embarrassed. He said, "Oh, I came down to get a license for my car," or something like that. We were going to go to the clerk and get married that day. He said, "Let's get married in a church. Let's go to the movies." So instead of getting married, we went to the Capitol Theater to see a movie.
I came home. I was living in this house then. I came home and I had the license, and I put it away. I said, "If he never mentions it again, I won't mention it." So we kept going together and had a very, very nice relationship that summer, and he didn't say anything about getting married. I had said to him that day, after we didn't get married, "Look. I will never support a man." He owed Columbia $800 he had borrowed to get his master's degree. That was a lot of money then in 1929. I said, "I would like to support myself. I'll never support a man. I think I don't want to marry you until I can support myself and we can have a good, equal relationship." He said, "That's okay," but he never said anything more about getting married.
So on September 4th or 5th of that year, his cousin rang our doorbell. I was home, and he said, "I can't find C." His whole family called him C. "I can't find C, but I'm sure this telegram he got refers to you." The telegram was from A&T College in Greensboro, North Carolina. It said, "We have positions for "you and your wife" beginning September 9th. Your wife would have to be here by September 9th." The job offered the "wife" was in the high school department. "But we would like to hear from you immediately. You should be here September 9th." Something like that.
Cecil turned up and I showed this to him. He said, "Well, you got that license?"
I said, "Yeah." It seems that since I had made this statement that I wanted to support myself, he had been making the rounds of the southern colleges for positions for "me and my wife."
Currie: So he was going to get you a job, too.
Cooke: Yes, because I said I wanted—
Currie: But he didn't talk to you about it?
Cooke: No! He wanted to get married immediately. I encouraged him to go home and get dressed. He had on—what did they call them? Used to wear these—
Cooke: Yes, knickers. I said, "I'm not marrying you like that." So he went home. This was on September 6th; it wasn't on September 4th. September 6, 1929. He went home and got dressed, and we found an Episcopalian minister. You didn't have to wait around like you do now.
Currie: Do you remember which church you went to?
Cooke: Yes, St. Luke's Episcopalian Church. Father Edmead, a West Indian minister, performed the ceremony. He's dead now. Of course—everybody's dead, except me. Aaron Douglas' sister-in-law and her boyfriend went with Cecil and me, and we got married. I remember standing there saying, "I haven't known this man very long." I was saying this to myself. Father Edmead evidently had a sight problem, and the marriage ceremony was in large print. Anyway, Episcopalians have a set thing for it. I could read it upside down.
Currie: The ceremony.
Cooke: Yes. He was reading it, and I was supposed to repeat after him. Cecil would repeat. I wasn't listening to him. I thought, "Should I be here marrying this strange man?"
Currie: While you're marrying?
Cooke: Yeah. Then when he'd pause, I'd read it. I could read it upside down. But Father Edmead realized what I was doing, and he insisted on talking with us afterwards. He was looking right at me. He made remarks about the seriousness of the step we had just taken, and God was in this whole thing.
We didn't know that the same friend that had introduced me to Cecil was planning an impromptu party for us. His family had a gorgeous house on 139th Street, which was called Striver's Row at that time. This is Sugar Hill. That was Striver's Row. The houses were designed by Stanford White, a famous American architect. They are still beautiful houses down that street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, and only people with means could afford to buy them. Phil's sister was a well-known lawyer. They had money, and they were in real estate. Well, Phil and his brother had gone out on Seventh Avenue, and to everybody they saw who knew Cecil or me, they said, "Someone got married, and we're having a party at our house tonight." They wouldn't say who got married, but, "Somebody you know got married, and we're having a party for them at our house." That's how my wedding party was organized—on Seventh Avenue.
I remember standing there before the party. They had a beautiful courtyard with flowers. I was standing there, and a young man came along. I thought, "Oh, my God, I had a date with him tonight."
Currie: [Laughter.] That's great!
Cooke: Ben came up to me and he said, "I saw Phillip on the street and he said somebody got married. I wonder who?"
I said, "I did." [Laughter.] Anyway, it was a very nice party.
Currie: Can you describe the party a little more?
Cooke: Well, they had large rooms, and we had music and we danced. They got together some kind of food. Some catering business brought the food in. It was very nice. I can't imagine anyone having a nicer party. It was impromptu, but it was very nice.
Currie: Sounds great. How long had you known Cecil when you married?
Cooke: I met him in February or March, just before Roy turned up as my birthday present. I liked him. He had made up his mind he was going to marry me.
Currie: That's a short courtship.
Cooke: I know, but we had a very good life together.
Currie: A good marriage.
Currie: Let me ask you this. What if Roy hadn't had his problem? Would you have married him?
Cooke: I think I would have, out of duty. I mean, that was a period when I was rebellious, but I didn't really know how not to marry him. You know? I remember his saying, when he came as my birthday present, I remember his saying, "One thing I know, that when I marry you,
that you have been untouched." Those are not his exact words, but this is what he meant, you know. You know, I had got beyond the point that I thought being touched—
Currie: A virgin.
Cooke: I had got beyond that, but he hadn't.
Currie: He had certainly been having sex.
Cooke: Yes, he had it, but he had a double standard. You know, he was a man of double standards.
Currie: It sounds like he was pretty traditionally sexist.
Cooke: I think he was. Anyway, my interpretation of Roy as a leader of NAACP, you know, he was very critical of Martin Luther King. I happen to know that's the truth. That's what almost broke my sister and me up when I said that.
Currie: When you think about it, what would have happened if you had married Roy?
Cooke: My mother's best friend, whose name was Mrs. B.S. Smith, she was the wife of the lone black lawyer out there, liked me. She was the one that had brought me to New York on that trip. She never wanted me to marry Roy. I never understood why she didn't want it, but she always thought I was too "good" for him. I don't know what was wrong with Mrs. Smith, but she never wanted it. When we didn't get married, she wrote me a letter and said, "Thank God." I don't know what her reasons were.
Roy was very nice-looking and he was very articulate, but he wasn't progressive. To answer the question you asked, I thought the same thing. What would have happened to me? But many people who knew both of us felt that I was stronger than he, and that he would have not taken some of the political stances he had if he'd had a wife like me. There are people who felt that I was the stronger. I don't know that that's true. I'm not sure that I wouldn't have become—I don't think I would have, not with a father and a mother like mine.
Currie: So you don't think you would have become a traditional—
Cooke: No, I don't think I could have. In my marriage with Cecil, I remember when he was picking me up, something we're going to talk about later, the strike—no, it was when I got caught in the [Senator Joseph] McCarthy thing. I had been arrested on a strike picket lines and stuff like that. I remember when I couldn't understand why I was being sought after by McCarthy. It did become apparent during the executive session with him. He was out after a young woman who had worked with Doxey and me, who was a real reactionary, but she had later worked for the Army. Because she had worked with Doxey, according to newspaper accounts, she was fired as "red" aide to the Army. She was a little red-baiter, you know, and she deserved—oh, she deserved everything she got! She used to be against the union, any union activity. But anyway, I would have liked to have thrown her to the dogs, but, of course, I couldn't, because I think I was a very good union person and I was a member of the Communist party. When they asked where I worked ten years ago, I said, "The People's Voice." I opened the door to what they really were out for. I didn't know. What did the People's Voice have to do with the Army and McCarthy hearings? Did I know a person by this name? They were out after her. I had to call on the Fifth Amendment. I would have liked to have thrown her to the dogs, but I called on the Fifth Amendment.
I remember Cecil had gone through an awful lot with me. I was not really a traditional wife. I wanted children and never had any children because of an accident I'd been in.
Currie: So you were unable to have children?
Cooke: Yes. I had had a number of miscarriages, and then I got that straightened out. Then I was in this awful accident.
Currie: What kind of accident?
Cooke: Automobile accident. We had been vacationing, our last vacation in a particular summer. It was the Labor Day weekend. I was working for the Amsterdam at that time, and we had to work on Labor Day. My husband didn't have to. So I drove home with a man who also worked at the Amsterdam. He was a bad driver. I think he actually went to sleep after we left Kingston, New York, and he hit the only tree in a two-mile area. He hit the only tree, and the car turned over. I was sitting on the right side, and two young women were sitting in the back seat with me. The car turned over on my side, and the back seat and the two girls fell on me. I'm the only one that got hurt in the car. I was hospitalized for a long time. When I tried to go back to work, my back hurt so bad, and after examinations, they found out I had developed tuberculosis of the spine. I had had two terrible operations that kept me out of commission for a couple of years.
Currie: We were talking about you and Cecil and your relationship.
Cooke: He went through that. So much he'd gone through with me. And here I am being called down. I thought I had done such a good job with McCarthy in the executive session, that he was through with me. He said, "Good afternoon, Mrs. Cooke. It's been very pleasant meeting you." [David] Schein and [Roy] Cohn said the same thing. I had a very good lawyer. He congratulated me. I thought, "That's the end of that." Well, the hearings opened on Labor Day, and I got an invitation to come down to Washington. I remember, I said, "Well, they're going to see the best-dressed, best-looking witness." I spent the weekend getting my hair done, finding a proper dress. It was a lovely dress—a navy-blue dress.
Cecil took me to the airport, and I looked at him and said, "Cecil, I wouldn't blame you if you divorced me tomorrow." He looked at me and said, "Baby, you look beautiful today." That's all he answered. He suffered a lot with me, I must say. [Laughter.] He cared about me and I cared about him.
Currie: Was that a terrible disappointment that you didn't have children?
Cooke: Yes. Awful. Maybe this is a little conceited. I think I'm the most normal mother of any of my sisters—despite the fact that Helen has been a very good mother. But I think I was more motherly, maybe because of my position in the family. I was the oldest one. I loved children. I still do. It was a great disappointment to me, and I think it was to Cecil, too.
Currie: Did you ever consider adopting?
Cooke: I was getting ready to say that. I did, but he didn't want to. I don't know what his reasons were, but he didn't seem to want it. I didn't push it, although we talked about it several times.
Currie: When you first got married to Cecil, did you assume that you would keep working until you had children? Would you continue working after you had children?
Cooke: You know what? By nature, I'm a homebody. I like a nice home, and I turned out to be the best cook in the family, and that was because my mother taught cooking to students living on an Indian reservation. I was the oldest one, and I was her second cook. She wouldn't let the others come near the stove. They had other duties to do in the house. I don't think it's that I'm more naturally a cook than Helen or Zelma, but my whole orientation was that way, and I turned out to be a good cook. I like cooking and doing things around the house.
Currie: Did you expect that you would keep working?
Cooke: I don't know. I think it would have depended on the circumstances. If Cecil had enough money, if we had enough money to see that the children were taken care of, maybe I would have considered working if I had an exciting-enough job. But I think my orientation was naturally toward a home and being a homebody.
Currie: Interesting. Did you go to Greensboro, North Carolina?
Cooke: Yes. It was a wonderful trip. Cecil, of course, was broke. He just got his master's that year. I had said, in talking—I didn't know he was looking for jobs for us—but I had said that I would never ride in the back of a bus or in a segregated section of a train. I would not do that. Cecil believed me. So we got married September 6th. He said, "I'll be back for you tomorrow." He didn't stay with me that first night.
Currie: How come?
Cooke: When I got home, the Douglases were having a party. Walter White was there, I remember, and the president of Bennett College—no, Fisk University. They were having a great time, and Cecil took me back to my room and he said, "Now we're married. You go to bed, and I'll see you tomorrow." I don't think anyone's ever had a honeymoon like mine. Anyway, I sat there for a while. He went out through all these people. They knew him. He was a well-known person. They said good-night to him and the music kept on. I said, "I'm not going to sit back here." I went and joined the party, and they kidded me, you know.
Currie: Did you tell them you had gotten married?
Cooke: They knew it! Alta and Doug [Douglas] knew it. Their sister had been part of my wedding. So I got properly kidded about it.
The next day came. It turned out to be a Saturday. The Douglases and I got up and had breakfast. I thought Cecil would come any time. I didn't see him, didn't hear from him, and I got properly kidded by the Douglases. "Where is this husband?" About 4:00, Cecil turned up, and he looked tired. It turned out that he had taken seriously the fact that I had said I wouldn't ride in the back of the bus and I wouldn't ride in the segregated section of a train. The only way he could solve that was by getting a car. He had borrowed money from a cousin or some relative to buy a second-hand car so we could drive down to Greensboro. That's what he had been busy doing.
So we started out in the worst rainfall that I think we'd ever—oh, it was an awful rain. I remember the dress I had on started shrinking up, you know. We got as far as Trenton, where Roger's mother was working then. She worked as secretary of the YMCA there. Cecil knew Helen, and he knew she lived there. He said, "Why don't we go by Helen's?" So we did. Helen was rooming, and she didn't know how to explain us to her landlady. I had been there the week before as an unmarried person. She didn't know how to explain to the woman that we were married, so I slept with Helen and Cecil got a room down the hall. That was my second night of marriage.
So we got to Washington, and the woman I told you about, Aunt Kate, lived there. I took Cecil by Aunt Kate's, to introduce her to my husband, and she had us to dinner. This was on Sunday. We started off for Greensboro. I thought we'd go to a motel or something on the way down. I was quite tired. He said, "Do you mind driving straight through?" I thought to myself, "What kind of man have I married?" I said, "No." I didn't know what else to say but, "No."
So we drove and drove. We didn't know where we were. It turned out we were near Durham, North Carolina, and Cecil got a flat tire. It was early in the morning, like 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. He didn't have equipment to change the tire. This was a new car to him, had just bought it, and didn't have the necessary equipment. He said, "I'll have to catch a ride to go to the next town to see if I can get someone to come back here and fix this tire."
He said, "Do you mind staying here? Are you afraid?" First time I'd been south! I was scared stiff. I said, "No, I'm not afraid."
So the car was on a list, you know. I haven't thought about this for years, but it was on a list. He pulled over to the side, and some fieldhands came walking through. This car was at such a funny angle, I remember one of them said, "Anyone dead in there?" And I said, "No." So Cecil got back and he got tools to fix the car. He was a very good mechanic. I saw him under the car, and he looked dirty and tired and sweaty. I said, "What kind of marriage is this? What kind of man have I married and I'm down south in this segregated place?" [Laughter.] So he finally got the car going.
Greensboro wasn't very far away, about forty miles from Durham. We got into Greensboro. He had telegraphed for rooms for us. We got to a certain corner and we wanted to turn into this street, and there was a Buick blocking us. Cecil said to the driver, "Come." The driver said, "You come." Cecil says, "Come." And he said, "You come." This [happened] two or three times, and Cecil said, "Goddamn it, man. Move!" I thought, "I've married a man—" I wasn't used to this kind of language either. I said, "What kind of man have I married? I'm down south? What is going on here?"
So we got to this house and Cecil took a shower, I took a shower, we went to bed, and he went to sleep.
Currie: Oh, no!
Cooke: When we awakened, I found out things were okay.
Cooke: I found out things were okay. I said, "Okay." And he said, "Why don't we find someplace to have dinner? But before that, go call on the president of the college." I thought that was nice. I got dressed up in my wedding dress.
Currie: What was your wedding dress?
Cooke: It was a navy-blue dress, chiffon, but it wasn't a wedding dress. It was a dress-up dress, you know, that you'd wear to church or to a concert or something like that. Just a plain little—I've always gone for elegant, but plain clothing.
So I got dressed up. Cecil looked very nice. We went up a couple of doors to the president's house. The landlady had told us that's where the Blufords lived. We walked up to the door and rang the doorbell, and this nice-looking little brown-skinned lady came to the door. We said, "We'd like to see President Bluford." She said, "Are you the Cookes?" I wasn't accustomed to being a Cooke yet, you know. "Are you the Cookes?" We said, "Yes." She said, "I told Dee that was who was coming in." It was to the president of the college that Cecil had said, "Goddamn it, man. Move!" [Laughter.]
Currie: No! [Laughter.]
Cooke: I don't think we were ever very popular with them, but the students were crazy about Cecil.
Currie: What did he teach?
Cooke: Science. He was a science major.
Currie: And what did you teach?
Cooke: I was supposed to teach English in the high school department, but I taught anything they didn't have anybody to teach. It was a very loosely organized school. I know I taught history, I taught Latin, I taught English. Anything that they wanted me to teach, I taught, as well as I could. I know in the Latin class, it was Cecil's fault. They had asked him to take the Latin class. I'd had about as much Latin as he'd had. He didn't want to do it, and he said, "My wife can do it." I used to have to study, burn midnight oil to stay ahead of the class, because I didn't want to do a bad job. It was a lot of work.
Currie: I took Latin. It's not my favorite subject. I never took to it.
I'd like to go back a little bit. We've gotten you married, but I'd like to talk a little more about the Harlem Renaissance.
Cooke: I really never was a part of it. I kind of came in at the tail end of it. It was a fascinating period. Jean Toomer was around.
Currie: Did you ever know him?
Cooke: I met him. I went with Eric Walrond. I really thought I was going to marry him.
Currie: How did you meet Langston Hughes?
Cooke: I don't remember just how. I know there was a club called the Civic Club, which used to have programs and dinners and stuff, and these people would be around.
Currie: Did you have to be invited to the Civic Club?
Cooke: You were invited. I was very lucky. I think that most of my life has been luck. I was lucky to have the parents I had, a parent who knew Du Bois. I didn't earn anything. My life drifted that way, you know. Even the meeting with Senator Shipstead was accidental, as far as I'm concerned. But I've just been lucky. I remember about Richard Wright. A few of us had started a writers' group, and Ben Davis, of whom I've spoken, was very interested in that. He was a very cultured person himself, a graduate of Harvard and a lawyer. He was very interested in the writers' group. I remember that I was in it, a young man by the name of Oliver Harrington, and Bill Chase, about five or six of us. Oh, George Murphy, of the Afro-American Murphys. He became a Communist at the same time I did. George was in that group. We tried to get Judge Bruce Wright into that group. You've heard of him?
Currie: No, I haven't.
Cooke: You've never heard of "Turn 'em Loose Bruce"?
Currie: No. Tell me about him.
Cooke: Bruce Wright went through the system and became a judge. He wrote poetry. He still writes poetry. He has a volume of poetry out recently. He lives in this house now. He moved in recently. But anyway, Judge Wright was sick of the black prisoners who were without money and didn't have any representation and they would be in the penitentiary system for a year, eighteen months, on petty charges, and couldn't get out. So when any of them would appear before Judge Wright and he felt it was a petty crime, you know, and they shouldn't be punished this way, he would dismiss them. So he got known as "Turn 'em Loose Bruce."
Currie: So you tried to get him in the group.
Cooke: Yes, we tried to get him. He was a student, but he was writing. We tried to get him in the group.
One day, Ben came to our meeting. I was remembering another person who was in that group. But anyway, he came to our meeting and he said, "There is a very talented young writer that is coming to New York from Chicago, and I'd like very much for him to be a member of this group." It turned out to be Richard Wright. He met with us for maybe six months or so, and then he asked for a leave, because he was writing a novel and he wanted to spend his time on that. It was Native Son. I was living in a larger apartment. I told you about that.
Currie: In this same building.
Cooke: Here. He used to come by every Saturday night to get some of my mother's hot rolls. I think I read that first chapter of Native Son a million times. Every time he changed a comma in it, it seemed to me he had me reading the thing.
Currie: Was that part of being in the writers' group, or just as a friend?
Cooke: As a friend.
Currie: What year did you get involved in the writers' group?
Cooke: It had to be after 1935. It was after the strike.
Currie: So this was after you came back to New York.
Cooke: Oh, yes. I only stayed a year and a half; Cecil stayed two years.
Currie: In North Carolina.
Currie: But before you went to North Carolina, were you involved in the writers' group or any of that?
Cooke: No. I was involved with writers.
Cooke: As friends.
Currie: How did you meet writers?
Cooke: I had a boyfriend named Eric Walrond. He just took me around every place, that's all. I was star-struck. I was lucky to meet all these people.
Currie: Is that when you would go to the Civic Club?
Cooke: Yes, during that period.
Currie: Where was the Civic Club?
Cooke: I believe it was in the Village. I'm not quite sure, but it was way downtown.
Currie: Do you remember, was it a library or—
Cooke: No, it was like an eating place, a place where there would be social gatherings.
Currie: It was for artists and writers?
Currie: How did you meet Langston Hughes?
Cooke: I don't know. For instance, the Douglas home was a meeting place for all of these people, and there used to be terrific parties there. I remember Wally Thurman. Have you ever heard of that name?
Cooke: Wallace Thurman. He was a writer. What did he write? A novel. I've forgotten the name of it. I could find it. But they used to congregate around the house, and white people were fascinated by this group of young black artists. They used to come in droves into this area. I remember one time Aaron—I was married and living here at this time—Aaron called and said, "I want you and Cecil to get dressed up and come to my house." We were like on a show. A very wealthy white woman, I've forgotten her name, but she was a millionaire, used to love to come to Harlem to meet these strange black people who were writers, artists, etc. He said, "Be on your best behavior." That's what Aaron said to us. I remember being interrogated. They asked you: "What do you do for a living?" We told the truth, but we dressed it up.
Currie: In what way? Give me an example.
Cooke: For instance, I worked for Du Bois. I did a lot of secretarial work for him, but I also wrote a column called "The Browsing Reader." I was editor of the column. I didn't talk about the endless filing and typing I did daily. Instead, I dwelt on the more creative part of my work— [Tape interruption.]
Currie: You said you were really in love with Eric Walrond.
Cooke: Yes, I was really in love with him, the first time in my life I had really cared deeply about somebody of the opposite sex. It wasn't just because of the exciting people he introduced me to. He was quite a nice companion.
Currie: He's the one who introduced you to all the writers and artists.
Cooke: That's right. He had met me before I actually came back here to live, and if I examined it, I wouldn't be surprised if he weren't one of the reasons I really wanted to come to New York. But anyway, it was a very thrilling experience for a little gal from Minnesota. I went to a lot of very interesting affairs with him, and I remember the shock I got one night when we went to a party. It was in some white person's home down in the Village. I don't remember who it was. Someone said to him, "So Eric, you've got a Rosenwald Fellowship." He hadn't told me. When he took me home, he said, "I'm going to have to leave you for about six months. I'm going to Jamaica to do some work on my book."
So Eric left, and I was just devastated because all my social life was built around him—he used to meet me from work. I was working with Dr. Du Bois on Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street. We spent every evening after work at the Forty-second Street Library, where I wrote and he wrote. We'd go across to the Automat and he would go over the stuff I wrote, and he expressed himself that he thought I had a lot of ability. I was really emotionally involved—it wasn't just for the writing, it was just that I liked Eric. He's the first man I had ever had any feeling for. So when he went, oh, I was just devastated. Then after six months, he got an extension of another six months, and he went to England. I didn't see him at all. Then I met Cecil afterwards.
Currie: Before you talk about Cecil, let me turn the tape over again. [Tape interruption.]
Cooke: One evening there was a gathering at the Douglas home. We decided to go to a club. We walked from here down through Striver's Row, 139th Street, and went over on Lenox Avenue to a well-known club. I've forgotten the name, but we were a mixed group, half white, half black.
Currie: Do you see that anymore in Harlem?
Cooke: I don't. Now, it might be, but my life is kind of restricted. I don't see it. I have a young friend who lives in this house. She's really, I think, the best friend I have in the house. She's a talented poet. Her name is Safiya Henderson-Holmes. She could really answer some of these questions.
Currie: The Apollo is having such a resurgence.
Cooke: Yes, it is. Percy Sutton is trying to recapture some of the old feeling. I've been to the Apollo recently. I saw "Sarafina" downtown, but they had the cast up here for a show and I attended it with a neighbor. It's amazing what he's done with the Apollo.
I mean to actually go there. The TV program is on too late for me, too, and I stay up late.
Currie: What was your impression of Langston Hughes?
Cooke: I liked him very much. He was a very friendly person. As a matter of fact, he and Arna Bontemps co-authored a book a few years ago.
Currie: Let me just change the tape.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Cooke: I think he liked me, too. I have a book up here. This is Langston's book.
Currie: "Especially for Marvel. Greetings from me and Jesse B. Sincerely, Langston. Harlem, USA, February 22, 1963."
Cooke: That's what I was looking for.
Currie: It's an ad for his—
Cooke: No, this is the cover. The Best of Simple—
Currie: Langston Hughes.
Cooke: What is this? Oh, something about Langston, something I went to.
Cooke: Anyway, Langston was very friendly with me, and when I was ill, I haven't seen it, but people have told me that in the book that he and Arna Bontemps wrote, letters between them, one letter from Langston to Arna said, "I heard Marvel is very ill." They wrote about it. I've tried to find it, but never have. Several people have told me that I am in one of the letters.
Currie: Who is Jesse B?
Cooke: The name of the main character in here is Jesse B. Simple.
Currie: I haven't read it. What were you working on? What were you writing that you went to the Forty-second Street Library?
Cooke: I was going to do a novel, and the novel was going to be titled Manassa. I had a title for it. There were a lot of inter-racial marriages in Minnesota, and a lot of offspring. Manassa, in the Bible, was the offspring, a child, of an African and, I believe, a Jew. These children of the
mixed marriages in Minneapolis were called Manassas. They were really discriminated against. I know I had an awful fight with some of my friends because I developed a good friendship with a little Manassa girl. I thought that this would be a good subject for a novel. Anyway, that is what I was working on.
Currie: Did you ever finish the novel?
Cooke: No, no. I didn't.
Currie: Was that the first time you'd tried to write a novel?
Cooke: Yes, but maybe I just wasn't a writer. Anyway, that's what I was working on.
Currie: Why do you say maybe you just weren't a writer?
Cooke: I don't believe that. I know that I could have written it. I didn't stick to it enough. I got diverted, you know, too easily.
Anyway, getting back to Eric, I was devastated when he left. You know, he was the first man I ever really cared deeply about. I told you, I think, that Eric had known Cecil was a West Indian. It turns out that Cecil's first girlfriend was Eric's sister in Panama. So it was a kind of—
Currie: Very small—
Cooke: Yes, it is. So anyway, I was not sorry I married Cecil; I got over Eric.
Then Countee Cullen*, you know the name?
Cooke: Well, Countee was a good friend of ours, too, a good friend of Cecil's. He was in high school with Cecil. Then he became a good friend of mine. Well, Countee was in Europe at the same time that Eric was, and Countee said, "You're a fool, Eric. If I had any chance to marry anybody, it would be that girl." This is what I was told Countee had said to him. And by this time, we were back in New York. This is when I had the surgery to try to see if I could have a child. I was in my hospital bed, and in walks Eric. I almost fell out of the bed. He thought that Cecil and I were separated. That was during a period when Cecil was in the south, finishing out a contract, and I was up here. He thought that we were separated, and he said, "I really came back because I made a mistake."
Then I didn't see any more of Eric until 1960. I went to Europe with Dr. Rosen, and we stopped in London to see Paul Robeson. Eric called, and I didn't have time to see him, thank God. But when we came back to London, he made it his business to see me, and he at that time said, "Why don't you stay a little while? I'll get a little pad for you." I said, "I have to go back with the people I came with." But had he said that many years before, it would have been a different story.
Currie: That's interesting. Also, we should say Countee Cullen was a poet, right?
Currie: Was he ever in any of your writing groups?
Cooke: No. No, he led a very strange life. He was a very sweet person. It was rumored that he was homosexual. He just didn't seem to make it, you know, with the virulent crowd that we went with.
* Countee Cullen, a poet, was prominent in the Harlem Renaissance.
I liked him very much. He used to come to our house after we were married to play a French gambling game called ballotte. He taught Cecil and me how to play ballotte. He used to come quite often. I liked him.
Currie: But he also never got the recognition that, say, Langston Hughes got.
Cooke: No, no, he didn't. Well, Langston was more a people's poet, you know. Rugged and yet a great poet.
Currie: Maybe I'll release you from the bondage and—
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Currie: Well, here we are at number three. I wonder if we could start today talking a little bit about your work with the Crisis. What year did you start working for the Crisis? Do you recall?
Cooke: 1926-27. I remember Dr. Du Bois was in Africa. He had hired me. I think I told you about having met him.
Currie: You did. Then how did you actually get hired, though?
Cooke: He said whenever I wanted a job, to apply for one. And I did apply there.
Currie: Did you send him a letter?
Cooke: Yes, and he remembered. I didn't have any trouble at all getting that job. He was in Africa when I got there, and the business manager of the Crisis showed me the ropes. I was quite comfortable by the time Dr. Du Bois got back. Jessie Fauset—I don't know whether you know that name—had been his editorial assistant, and she had left. I don't know under what circumstances she left.
Currie: Tell me about Jessie Fauset.
Cooke: I had met her only once on a visit to New York. She was a very literate woman who had ambitions to be a novelist. She had written a novel that was published. I don't know much more than that about her, but she was Dr. Du Bois' literary assistant. So he put me in that place. She was an older woman, and I felt very inadequate.
Currie: What were your duties?
Cooke: To help him with make up. I learned how to make up a magazine. He assigned me a column, "The Browsing Reader" and I would go through the black magazines and newspapers and pick out interesting things and capsulize them and put them in this column called "The Browsing Reader." I think it's the first time I ever had a byline—Marvel Jackson. Then he taught me how to physically make up the Crisis. I worked with him once a month on make-up.
Currie: What would that involve?
Cooke: You've worked in a newspaper—
Currie: Well, that's true, except that this is for other people who may not have been in newspapers, so that's why I'm asking.
Cooke: Oh, I see. Anyway, we would take the different articles. He had written his editorial. There was a spot for that. He taught me how to paste up. After the articles that we were going to use were put in type, we would take them and just paste up the magazine.
Currie: So you'd paste it on a board?
Cooke: As I remember it, not a board, but—yeah, cardboard. We would paste it up, and it was an interesting process for me, because I'd never done anything like that.
Currie: What if you had too much or not enough? What if the story was too long or too short?
Cooke: I learned how to edit stories, not to ruin them, as I've later had to argue with people I worked with, you know. They'd paste up the length of the story and lop off all the bottom, and maybe some important things were in the bottom. I learned how to edit enough to cut out the least important so that the article would fit into the magazine, which was an interesting process for me. I didn't take journalism.
Currie: So you'd never had any kind of experience.
Cooke: No, no. Journalism, when I was going to college, was not considered an important course.
Currie: It wasn't?
Cooke: No. I just got a degree in liberal arts. I never thought of going into journalism.
Currie: So did Dr. Du Bois work directly with you?
Cooke: Yes, yes. We worked together once a month. Off the record, I could tell you some interesting things about that, too. [Laughter.]
Currie: Okay, well, do you want to tell me, and then if you want to take them off—
Cooke: No, no. I'll tell you when we have dinner or something.
Currie: Okay. Sounds good to me. How many other people were on the staff?
Cooke: Aaron Douglas was the artist on staff. There wasn't another writer on the staff—just Dr. Du Bois and the little bit of writing I did. But there was the business manager, Augustus Granville Dill. He had two secretaries. That was the staff.
Currie: Where was the office located?
Cooke: 69 Fifth Avenue, which is at the corner of Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue. NAACP was there, you know. It was a combined office, NAACP and the Crisis.
Currie: Was the Crisis considered sort of a mouthpiece for the NAACP?
Cooke: I suspect it was. During World War I, even before my time, it had been considered the most important magazine in the country for progressive thought and things like that. It held quite a position in the magazine field. It wasn't just a mouthpiece for the NAACP.
Currie: Did Dr. Du Bois decide everything that went into the magazine?
Cooke: I don't think so. There were a number of people in the NAACP—Mary White Ovington and James Weldon Johnson. I'm certain that there was an editorial board—not an organized editorial board, but I'm sure that they went over everything, especially the editorials, the special pieces.
Currie: What kinds of pieces?
Cooke: Well, as I remember it, they were of a political nature. Dr. Du Bois had been in the Niagara movement*. He had been very active in that. They were of a political nature. Anything he did was really pointed toward freedom for black people whom he thought were still in chains. So it became a mouthpiece for the NAACP and for progressive black thinking.
Currie: What was the Niagara movement?
Cooke: Don't ask me that.
Currie: Okay. You don't want to talk about it?
Cooke: No, I don't know. I don't know. It was before my time, and I just know it—
Currie: I can look it up later.
Cooke: I will look it up as soon as you leave. [Laughter.]
Currie: Were the stories written with reporting, or did they have a strong editorial slant?
Cooke: It was mainly an opinion magazine, you know, not with stories, but opinion. I'm sure if we went back, we'd find that James Weldon Johnson,* people in the NAACP, wrote some of the articles. I really am a little fuzzy on that whole—I was there only a short time, and I'm a little bit fuzzy about it.
Currie: That's reasonable. Do you remember, by any chance, how much money you made?
Cooke: I certainly do. I was making $85 a month. It was the first time I'd ever had to pay rent, and I think my room rent was seven dollars a week. I had to eat. I could not have lived, even then, on that $85 a month, but my mother would write me letters and she'd always put a few dollars in and say, "Don't tell your father." And my father would write me letters and he'd put some money in and say, "Don't tell your mother." [Laughter.] And I was able to make it.
Well, after my father died in 1927, I told Dr. Du Bois I was going to have to leave. He said, "Why?"
I said, "I can't make it on $85 a month."
He said, "Well, how have you been making it?"
So I said, "My mother and father have been helping me. But my mother can't do it any longer." So he upped my salary to, I think, $100.
Currie: And that was the difference.
Currie: What do you remember about the office of the Crisis? How would you describe it?
Cooke: It occupied a whole floor of that building, which is still there at 69 Fifth Avenue. The Crisis occupied about a third of the floor. There were very many more people on the staff at the NAACP than there were at the Crisis. It was not a beautiful office, but it was very adequate.
* The Niagara Movement was a precursor of the NAACP and took its name from its founding statement.
*James Weldon Johnson was national executive director of the NAACP.
As a matter of fact, I remember that when [Charles] Lindbergh* came back from that first flight, we lined up around that office, the NAACP office, and watched that beautiful march up Fifth Avenue. It was a nice office and quite adequate for the work then. I don't think Thurgood [Marshall]* was on the staff that early, but he was when they moved later to Forty-first Street.
Currie: Did anyone show you the ropes in terms of the writing you had to do?
Cooke: Dr. Du Bois did.
Currie: How did he teach you?
Cooke: Well, what he would do is tell me to research the black press and get out things that I thought would be of importance and capsulize them. Then he acted like a teacher, told me what was wrong with it. I learned from him just how much space should be given to any given article. It came very easy.
Currie: Do you remember what some of the directions he gave you were?
Cooke: I couldn't remember that. It's so long ago.
Currie: I know.
Cooke: Sixty years ago.
Currie: A long time ago.
Cooke: But I know it was a dynamic period for me, a learning period, you know.
Currie: What did you learn during that period?
Cooke: How, really, to write for the press, you know, what's important, what makes a story important. I always had facility with words, but he taught me, for instance, to change places with the reader—I'm not explaining it well.
Currie: Maybe how to write something so that a reader would appreciate it?
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Did he tell you anything about principles of journalism?
Cooke: No. I think he thought I was going to absorb whatever, and it was easy. He was a good teacher, and it was easy to work with him and to learn how to paste up that magazine.
Currie: Did you ever hear about things like how to write a lead or the five elements of a story: "who, what, where, when, and why"?
Cooke: No, no. You see, it was mainly a magazine of editorial opinion. It didn't handle stories as we handle stories in the press. But it did teach me to think like a reader, what the reader would be interested in.
Currie: What else did you learn from Dr. Du Bois?
* Charles Lindbergh was the first aviator to make a solo flight overseas.
*Thurgood Marshall was a staff attorney for the NAACP. He argued, successfully, the landmark civil rights case Brown vs. Board of Education before the Supreme Court. Later, he became the first black named to the Supreme Court.
Cooke: How to make a cocktail. [Laughter.]
Currie: What cocktail?
Cooke: He was a very friendly person. Did I tell you that before?
Currie: Not in quite this way.
Cooke: I'll tell you. We had all these people on the NAACP staff, like Walter White* and James Weldon Johnson and others, and people felt that Dr. Du Bois was very, very stiff and unapproachable. He was actually the warmest person on that staff. He called everybody by their first name. He explained to me that he had to learn to not be friendly for the public, because when he went out to speak, after a speech, people would come up and shake his hand so hard that he was almost ill when he'd leave. So he learned how to put up this austere presence. But actually, he was a very warm, human, humane person. Very sweet. I went to a number of parties where—that's why I said about the cocktails—a number of parties where he was present.
Currie: What was his favorite cocktail?
Cooke: Eggnog. He used to make them.
Currie: Was there any difference in the way that women were treated on the staff and the way men were treated on the staff?
Cooke: On that staff there were only two men besides Dr. Du Bois: Aaron Douglas and Augustus Granville Dill. I'm sure that we were all treated equally. I'm sure of that.
Currie: Were you paid the same as the men?
Cooke: Yes, yes. At the very low rate.
Currie: Was there any discussion around the Crisis, because there's this much vaunted journalistic objectivity. What was the discussion around the Crisis about what the purpose of the magazine was?
Cooke: I don't even remember that, you know. It possibly took place between James Weldon Johnson, not even Walter White, and Dr. Du Bois and one or two others at the NAACP. I never was on that level. I only wrote my column and learned how to make up that magazine, which I could do whether he was there or not.
Currie: So you started doing it when he wasn't there?
Currie: That's quite a responsibility.
Cooke: Well, I didn't think so at the time. Didn't seem to me to be that much of a responsibility.
Currie: If he wrote most of that magazine, he must have been a very prolific writer.
Cooke: He was. He was. Articles came in from other people, you know, and they were edited and talked over, I'm sure, with the NAACP leadership. I would have to go back and look at that magazine again. I almost have no memory at all of it.
* Walter White at that time was assistant director of the NAACP.
Currie: I know I worked on a small magazine that I would have to similarly go back. It's a long time ago.
Cooke: It was not sixty years.
Currie: No, no. Not sixty years. I may ask questions and if you can't remember, it's no big deal. But do you remember if people got assignments from you, that you paid for?
Cooke: I don't think so. I don't remember that happening, but I think most of the articles were either done within the staff or by volunteers. I don't think people got paid for their contributions. See, Aaron Douglas was on the staff, so he got paid. And I was on the staff. But I don't think people were paid for those articles that came in. It was a prestigious magazine and people were very glad to get printed.
Currie: Who read the Crisis? What was the audience for the Crisis?
Cooke: I would judge from my own experience that most literate black people in the country took that magazine. I was very familiar with it, because it came to my home when I was a little girl. Every month we got the Crisis. As I say, during World War I, it was considered the number-one magazine in the country, black or white. Had great prestige.
Currie: Could people subscribe to it, or did they go to members of the NAACP?
Cooke: You could subscribe, because my parents, for instance, in Minneapolis, did belong to the NAACP, but had they not belonged, they would have subscribed to the Crisis.
Currie: About how many pages was it, do you recall?
Cooke: Let's see. It was a small magazine. I imagine that there weren't more than eighty pages in the magazine. It was quite small.
Currie: What was the role of the Crisis vis à vis other black newspapers, the black press?
Cooke: It was a magazine. I'm sure it was the number one. The Urban League had a magazine called Opportunity, but I'm sure that the Crisis was the number-one magazine. The editorial opinion was much more progressive and it, I think, caught the imagination of black people better than Opportunity did.
Currie: What role did the black press fill in the black community, and what role did the Crisis fill?
Cooke: It's entirely different, you know. The Crisis went into homes all over the country, and the black press usually is centered in whatever city it's in. Therefore, I would say that the Crisis had more clout than any of the black newspapers at that time.
Currie: Was it considered prestigious for you to be working at the Crisis?
Cooke: Well, I'd have to think about that. Yes, I think so, because it so recently had been considered the number-one magazine in the country. I'm sure. And Dr. Du Bois at that time was such a spokesman for the rights of all people, mainly blacks, that to be working at the Crisis and with him was prestigious. I didn't have enough sense to know it then, but it was.
Currie: Did you have a lot of people who applied for jobs there?
Cooke: I wouldn't know. I couldn't answer that. It seems to me the women that were on the staff, the secretaries—Dr. Du Bois had a secretary. I forgot that. Daisy Wilson. Anyway, there were three secretaries on the staff, and the women, except Daisy and me, had been there forever. They weren't about to leave that job. So there wasn't much fluctuation.
Currie: Did you ever do any reporting on this job?
Cooke: No. It wasn't that kind of thing. I just went over the black press and picked out things that might be of interest to our readership and put them in this little column.
Currie: Could you describe sort of a typical day, when you'd go to work and what you'd do?
Cooke: Well, one of my jobs was to get the black press and read it, get out things that I thought might be of interest. When Dr. Du Bois came in—and he came in almost as early as anybody else—then we would line up what had to be done for that day and do it, that's all. Just work. Aaron Douglas, Daisy Wilson, and I were on his staff. The other two women worked with Augustus Dill.
Currie: So essentially, there was Dr. Du Bois—
Cooke: Aaron Douglas, Daisy Wilson, and I.
Currie: And Daisy was a secretary.
Currie: So Aaron Douglas was on editorial?
Cooke: He did cartoons and whatever art work was necessary to be done. He helped with the layout, too.
Currie: So the only two members of the editorial staff were you and Dr. Du Bois?
Cooke: And Aaron Douglas. Daisy Wilson was his secretary.
Currie: That's a lot of copy for so few people to put out.
Cooke: It didn't seem so at that time. The magazine was a monthly.
Currie: Did you have a printing plant in the magazine?
Cooke: No. No, it was done outside.
Currie: So you would send your copy?
Currie: Then you'd get it back?
Cooke: And put it together, paste it together.
Currie: Did you get long pieces of type in columns?
Cooke: Yes, that had to be—
Currie: Do you remember how much the Crisis cost?
Cooke: The price? I couldn't possibly remember that. You know, I really should have done a little research on it.
Currie: Oh, no, no!
Cooke: I'm sure that at the library we could—
Currie: Maybe I'm being too minute.
Cooke: That was really the very first job I ever had. It didn't last very long.
Currie: How long were you there altogether?
Cooke: In 1929, early in the year. No, in 1928, late in the year, Dr. Du Bois came to me and told me that he was going to leave. He had some political dispute with the NAACP. I never knew what it was. But he wasn't getting along. He said, "I want to tell you that I'm leaving. I don't want you to be left hanging. If you want to stay, you can." But I decided I didn't want to stay if he was not going to be there. I started looking for a job. I found one in 1928, I'm sure, because I got married in 1929.
In 1928, I found a job at the Amsterdam News as secretary to the women's editor. In preparation—I don't think I said this to you before—but in preparation for the job at the Crisis, I didn't know anything about stenography—nothing. I didn't know how to type. I knew I was going to have to do this, and I took a six-week crash course in typewriting and shorthand.
Cooke: Shorthand. I didn't have to use it much at the Crisis. The typing, yes, but not the shorthand.
Currie: You mean when you were hired at the Crisis, no one asked you if you could type?
Cooke: Oh, he knew I could type. He knew I could type.
Currie: But you said you had to take this class.
Cooke: I took it because I knew I would have to type, but I also thought I might have to take shorthand.
Currie: So you knew how to type, but you didn't know shorthand.
Cooke: Anyway, I never had to use it, but when I went looking for a job, it came in very handy.
Currie: I'm sure.
Cooke: The women's editor at the Amsterdam News was a college graduate. I think she went to Hunter. But I've never known anyone dumber. Not everybody who graduates from college is bright. I hated that job. But I wanted to stay in New York. I had made some very good friends, you know, in the Negro Renaissance, and I wanted to stay here. But working for her was a dreadful thing, just dreadful. For instance, I'll never forget one story that she wrote about a tea party some group in Harlem gave, and they played games at this party, musical chairs. She wanted to say that they put these chairs in a row and would remove one. So she said, "They rowed the chairs." R-O-W-E-D. I looked at her, you know, and I said, "Do you want to say this?" She said, "Yes, they did row the chairs." You know, such inept writing, I've never seen anything like it.
One day they needed a little filler for a spot in the paper, and the editor asked me if I could write it. He couldn't find her. There was an empty spot on the women's page. I wrote this filler. He said, "You wrote that?" I said, "Yes." He said, "You shouldn't be here as secretary. You should be writing."
It was at this time that one of the reporters, Ted Poston, had heard about Heywood Broun and his Newspaper Guild. He attended a meeting. I've always thanked him for that.
He encouraged one of the organizers of the Guild to come and talk to our editorial staff. I must say we were very receptive. We formed a unit of the Newspaper Guild in my apartment—I had a large apartment then. We realized that we should ask the owners of the paper for recognition of the Guild. That's all we were going to ask.
I was always the first one to get to work in the morning, and I would stop by the business office and pick up the editorial mail. I went in one morning and the owner, a woman, Mrs. Davis, said to me, "Do you work here?" I said, "Well, I thought I did, Mrs. Davis." She said, "I have no mail for you." Our editorial offices were on the third floor of this building. I walked up, the first one there, and as each one came in, Mrs. Davis said, "Do you work here?" She had heard about the meeting we'd had the night before in my apartment. It wouldn't be of any interest here, but we all knew who was tattling. All we were going to do was ask her, not even for more money, just for union recognition.
Currie: This is really good, and I want to get it on the video.
Cooke: Don't talk about it?
Currie: Let's not talk about it quite yet.
Currie: I'd really like to go into great depth on the video.
Currie: So if we go back a little to the Crisis, then if we have to, we can skip over this period. Because I think this is important, and I'd really like to get it on video, and I don't want to exhaust you.
Currie: If you don't mind.
Cooke: I don't mind at all!
Currie: Let me go back to the Crisis. It's so interesting, because you get—
Cooke: I'm so foggy about it.
Currie: You get real charged up about it. It's clear about your Newspaper Guild organizing. What did you like about working at the Crisis?
Cooke: I liked working with Dr. Du Bois. He taught me a lot, how to present a story. They weren't stories, but how to get a good lead on that column that would make people want to read it, you know. And he taught me how to make up a magazine, which helped me later, you know. He was such an inspiring person. His persona was something unusual. I was in awe of him, you know. You come out of college, you get a job with the number-one leader in our country. It was really something!
Currie: What about Dr. Du Bois' politics? Did you get along politically?
Cooke: Oh, yes. I found that he was—you know, at that time we were not talking about the Communist party. I don't know whether the Communist party was in existence then. It was. But Dr. Du Bois was a progressive. He talked the way my father did. My father was a Eugene V. Debs socialist. He talked that way. He was a progressive man, which became apparent. He [Dr. Du Bois] never joined the Communist party in this country, but after he went to Ghana, he did. He said at that time that he didn't join because he didn't want to be a target;
he wanted to remain a leader without being a target and have to fight on that level. He found in Ghana he didn't have to. But I liked him because he was an extension of the way I was brought up. He talked the way my father talked. He never said this, but I'm sure he was also a Eugene V. Debs socialist. I'm sure he must have voted for Eugene V. Debs. It was just inspiring to work with him, to be in his presence every day.
Currie: What did you least like about the job?
Cooke: About the job? The pay. It was my first real job, you know, and I realized that I was working with an unusual man and that I was in an inspiring set-up. It was really the best thing that ever happened to me.
Currie: Very lucky, too.
Cooke: Yes. If he hadn't known my mother. You see, life is such a strange thing. To me, walking down the right street at the right time is the best thing you can do, because there are a lot of talented people out there.
Roy Wilkins, for instance, would never have been at the Crisis and the NAACP had it not been for Dr. Du Bois and me. He [Dr. Du Bois] said to me, he would like to meet that young man of mine when he went out to lecture in Missouri where Roy was working. I wasn't so sure that I wanted to marry Roy at that time. Roy was then editor of the paper, the Kansas City Call. Dr. Du Bois went out to make a speech in Jefferson City, and Roy went up to meet him. When he came back, he said, "I like that young man of yours, and I'm going to see that he gets a job here. But I don't believe in a man and wife working at the same place. It would mean that if you marry him, you'd lose your job." All I wanted then was to be married and have babies, you know, so that didn't bother me any. So that's how Roy got here. So to me, life in many ways is accidental, you know. There are other people, I'm sure, that had as much ability as Roy right here in this town, but Roy got the job. He got the job after I left there.
Currie: While you were working at the Crisis, did you think of yourself as a journalist?
Cooke: Well, I may have thought of myself as a writer, but I hadn't thought about journalism. I hadn't thought of myself as a working journalist. That never crossed my mind. But I knew this is the type of work I liked.
Currie: What did you like about the work so much?
Cooke: Handling words and thoughts, handling ideas and putting them into words was, to me, very exciting. It came naturally to me. It was very easy for me. So I liked it. I liked the field, so when that job came to an end, I looked for a job in the field of journalism.
Currie: Did you have any concept that the kind of writing you were doing at the Crisis was different than—
Cooke: Oh, yes, I knew that. I knew that very well. But of course, the first job I got in a paper was as a secretary. It was not as a journalist.
Currie: Did you think about trying to get a job as a journalist?
Cooke: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
Currie: Did you try to get a job?
Cooke: The strike took care of that, because everybody on the staff knew that I wrote better than the women's editor, for instance, and she was on strike with us, so her job was secure. But as soon as we went back in, I was put on the news staff.
Currie: Oh. Interesting.
Cooke: So I was a secretary a very short time.
Currie: Interesting, but in fact, we're getting to the end of this tape.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Cooke: People had been involved in the Negro Renaissance, and I was excited about that. My social life that grew out of being on the Crisis was as important to me as working there.
Currie: That's interesting. I turned the tape over, and you said that your social life on the Crisis was important.
Cooke: Social life that came into being because I worked on the Crisis. For instance, Dr. Du Bois was surrounded by all of those young people who were in the Renaissance. After work, for instance, my first boyfriend in New York, the one that made me feel I didn't want to marry Roy, was a young man who had been published, a young West Indian. His name was Eric Walrond. He had written a book called Tropic Death. He'd meet me after work at the library. This is why I said my life was so interesting afterwards. He'd meet me at the library, and we would write until the library closed, and he would read what I had written. I thought I was going to write the great American novel. I think I told you about this.
Currie: You did, a little bit. But it's interesting.
Cooke: My social life was an extension of working at the Crisis. I was very excited about it. I can imagine almost any young person just finishing college and getting into this sort of environment, being excited about it.
Currie: So did Dr. Du Bois include you in this social life? How did you get involved in it?
Cooke: Well, I don't know how I met Eric. I must have met him through Dr. Du Bois. There was a club in the Village where Dr. Du Bois ate. Many of the young literati would go there. I was included and I met them. My social life was with them.
Currie: What were the ambitions of all these young people?
Cooke: They were to write or to paint or, you know, to be involved in creative activities. Some of them, afterwards, did really do a lot of good things.
Currie: For example, Langston Hughes.
Cooke: Yes. Langston.
Currie: Do you remember how you met Langston Hughes?
Cooke: It was during that period, so I must have met him at dinner in this place, or Eric introduced me to him. But it was a close-knit group. They were talking about getting Guggenheim Fellowships. It was really an inspiring group of young people to be involved with.
Currie: It must have been very heady.
Cooke: Coming from where I came from in Minnesota, to this very vibrant and alive group of young people was wonderful. Here I felt a freedom I had not known in Minnesota where I didn't
realize that I was growing up in a racist society. I didn't realize it until I was sixteen or seventeen, and my best girlfriend, we used to sleep over with each other and all, I met her downtown and she refused to speak to me. She was probably with her very first boyfriend, and I guess she didn't know how to explain me to him. I never discussed it with her. I discussed it with my parents. They pointed out to me, "She probably didn't know how to explain you." That's when I first became aware of racism, that it was in the north, as well as in the south, and it was more difficult to handle in the north. You get hit straight in the South and you know how to fight it, but being hit at a tangent, you don't.
Currie: Veiled racism.
Currie: Are there any people that you knew from that time that you're still friendly with? From the Crisis days.
Cooke: Most of them are dead. But Louise Patterson, who was William L. Patterson's—I don't know whether you know that name or not.
Currie: No, I don't.
Cooke: Well, he was a lawyer who was involved with progressive politics. His wife is still living, but almost all of them are gone.
Currie: Did you meet Paul Robeson at that time?
Cooke: Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, when he and Essie—when Paulie was a little boy, were going to go to England, or going to Europe, I remember that Eric and I went to see them off. So I must have met him during that period. I didn't have any idea that he was going to be the world-renowned artist and activist that he did become.
Currie: What was he like then?
Cooke: I couldn't really—I would be not truthful if I'd tell you I knew. I didn't know. I just know I met him. Afterwards, we became very good friends, but not during that period. I was just happy to be at the farewell party down at the boat.
Currie: Before we got on tape, you said that this building, 409 Edgecombe Avenue, was very much a center for—
Cooke: The white people started moving out as black people moved north. When I first came here—I think I said this before—Harlem was only from 110th Street to maybe 145th Street. But as black people kept moving in, the white people started moving out. This house was built in 1917 as a home for the Yankee ball club. You can see the Yankee Stadium from here. One of the very interesting—I think I put this in a little story at one time—I went up to 555 Edgecombe, which is at 160th Street, and the other of the older prestigious houses, not quite as much as this one, but it's similar. I used to go up there often.
Roger's [Wilkins]* father [Earl Wilkins] had died and my sister moved here to New York. My mother moved here with them. I was up there having breakfast one day, before I went to work. I got the bus in front of 555, and two white ladies were sitting behind me. One said to the other, "We were foolish to have moved out of this neighborhood. They've taken it over." Then as the bus turned to go down 155th Street, she pointed to "409" and said, "They've even got that house."
* Roger Wilkins, Mrs. Cooke's nephew, formerly on the Editorial Board of the New York Times, and assistant attorney general of the U.S. during the Johnson administration, currently a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.
I think this is one of the nicest areas, this total area, in the whole city. Not like Park Avenue, but a lovely place to live, you know.
Currie: And you said today it's a very affluent area.
Cooke: It is. Living in this house now, even now, we have two judges and a young woman who is going to be the Alice Walker of her generation. She's one of my best friends. She's a poet and her husband is in the movie industry. There are certain people like that who are still here, as well as people working in the post office, you know, who are very good neighbors and good friends. But also there are some people in here that we wish were not our neighbors.
Cooke: Well, for instance, one of them is a street-walker and we know that.
Currie: It's interesting. Before we went on tape, I asked if you could contrast what 409 Edgecombe has been like over the years—because you've lived here.
Cooke: I've lived here, except for two years after I married—I went south to teach with my husband—but except for those two years, I've mainly lived in this house. I didn't live here when I first came. I roomed in 133rd Street, which was the heart of Harlem. But I moved in here before I married, when Aaron Douglas, who had an apartment here, and his wife were going on vacation, and they wanted me to babysit for them. She was as old as I am, but she was a little bit wild, and they thought I would be a good influence on her.
Currie: Their daughter?
Cooke: No, it wasn't their daughter. It was Mrs. Douglas' sister. She was also part of my wedding. But anyway, I moved in to be a companion to her while the Douglases were away. Except for the two years when I went south, I've lived here.
Currie: How has this area changed over the years?
Cooke: Physically, it hasn't changed that much, because you don't see any bombed-out houses here, as you do if you go down Seventh Avenue. If you go down further on St. Nicholas Avenue, the whole area is pretty devastated. Physically, although it's remained the same, this house has changed a lot. I can't talk about every other house, but I can tell you about this one.
It began to change in the seventies, when we had a landlord who knew he was losing the house to the city for lack of paying back taxes, filled it with anybody who would come. For instance, when we moved in here, when Cecil and I first came back, we got an apartment someplace else, but I had my eye on 409 Edgecombe. We were carefully screened. The landlord sent somebody to see us, to talk with us. We got in that way. But the landlord I'm speaking about would put anybody in here, just anybody. For instance, there's a woman living on this floor whom we know what she does for a living.
Currie: You mean the street-walker?
Cooke: Yes. Yes. He didn't care, just so they could pay the first month's rent. That's all.
Currie: This was a different owner?
Cooke: Than when we first moved in here. A very good black real-estate firm had this house—Austin's.
Currie: When you first lived here.
Cooke: Yes. They were very careful. I don't mean you had to have a title, but they were very careful about the people they moved in here. We had some very good people working in the post office, maybe a railroad porter or two, but they met a moral standard. But not this man. He rented to anybody who could pay the rent, and we know this woman who's on this floor, we know he had given her an apartment on the first floor, and she was soliciting from out the front window. We complained about that. She hit the numbers for quite a bit of money, and she could afford an apartment, a larger apartment. Financially, she could, and he gave it to her. But that didn't happen in the early days. You were really screened, you know.
Currie: Has the neighborhood changed?
Cooke: No, the neighborhood has remained about the same. Maybe little divergences, like I said. There might be that, but all in all, it's a pretty respectable, good neighborhood.
Currie: Do you feel at home here still?
Cooke: I feel at home here, but not as free to walk in the streets as I did, because you know how the whole society has deteriorated.
Currie: That's true.
Cooke: So the people who live down—we call it "down in the valley"—feel that the people up here are more affluent, and we are prime targets for "muggings" because they can jump over the fence and disappear into the heart of Harlem very easily. So I don't really like to go out at night unless I take a taxi home or I have someone to escort me. I don't go around at night.
Currie: When you first lived here in the thirties, was that true? Did you feel safe?
Cooke: We felt very safe. As a matter of fact, when I worked on the Compass, I'd get the lobster shift and I'd be coming home at 10:00 p.m.. It never occurred to me to be frightened about it, you know. Pretty safe neighborhood.
Currie: I was noticing it's a very quiet neighborhood, the times I've walked here.
Currie: And people are very friendly.
Cooke: It's true. It's a nice neighborhood.
Currie: And people would say, "Oh, what are you looking for?" and were very nice. Your doorman's great. Has he lived here a long time?
Cooke: Who's on the door now?
Currie: The guy when I first came in—
Cooke: Oh, he likes me. [Laughter.]
Currie: He does like you.
Cooke: I don't mean—I know he does, because I'm very friendly, and not everybody in here is as friendly as I am. I asked him his name, and I found out that he likes to play the horses. His name will come up later, the very best friend I have in life, he and his wife are my best friends, is known as Tom Ainsley. I have any number of books that he's written. That's his name when he writes his horse-racing books. He's supposed to be the number-one writer in the country on horses. Turns out that that doorman was talking about Tom Ainsley. I said, "Oh, I know Tom Ainsley!" And he was so impressed. Tom Ainsley is a talented writer, anyway. When he writes
his serious books, he writes as Richard Carter. But he is Tom Ainsley. He was very interested that I knew Tom Ainsley, you know. [Laughter.] He really kind of takes care of me.
Currie: He directed me up here. Is there anything else? Maybe we should sign off for today. Anything else about—
Cooke: The Amsterdam?
Currie: No, about the neighborhood and the changes that you've seen.
Cooke: Well, I haven't made a study of this, but I think that this neighborhood has changed less than other Harlem neighborhoods. It's changed a little bit. For instance, we have a chicken place at the corner here, that used to be a drugstore, you know. That draws people from outside the community. They sit across the street, since we do have park benches over there, and eat their chicken. You notice little things like that. But by and large, the neighborhood is still quite a responsible one, quite good.
Currie: Is there a tenants' association in your building?
Cooke: We have one, yes. That paper I showed you was done for the tenants' association.
Currie: You're trying to get the building made an historical landmark.
Cooke: Yes, and we're trying to co-op this building.
Currie: That would be great!
Cooke: We're trying to.
Currie: Is there some jealousy on the part of, say, other blacks who live in other sections of Harlem over people who live here?
Cooke: I don't think so. I know after the Amsterdam News strike, I was determined to work in the community. I decided to work with the Domestic Workers Union. I've always felt that they get a bad shake—they didn't have people interested in their plight. I remember this one young woman named Daisy. She liked me and I liked her. I remember she asked me, "Where do you live?" And I didn't want to tell her, because I felt that she might have a feeling if she learned I lived up on Sugar Hill, you know. So I said, "Oh, I live uptown." So one day she nailed me. She said, "Where uptown do you live?" So I told her, "Edgecombe Avenue." You know, you used to get in taxis, and you wouldn't have to say anything but "409." You didn't even say "Edgecombe Avenue." The taxi driver would know you wanted to come here. So I said, "I live on Edgecombe Avenue." She said, "Oh, Sugar Hill. Oh, I want to live up there sometime." It didn't upset her at all, but I was afraid that it would.
Currie: Well, I think that's it.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Currie: We talked about your job at the Crisis magazine. I wanted to ask you how did you go from the Crisis to the Amsterdam News.
Cooke: I think I mentioned that Dr. Du Bois told me he was leaving the Crisis, and that he felt kind of responsible for me, and he wanted me to know it, to make plans for my future. I didn't want to leave New York for many reasons, some of them purely social. I went looking for a job. It seemed to me to be logical to go to a magazine or a newspaper. The only newspaper I knew was the Amsterdam News, and I applied for a job and very easily got one.
Currie: Had you been reading the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: No, and I still don't.
Currie: Why is that?
Cooke: I don't like the political focus and other things about the Amsterdam News. I understand why black papers are the way they are, but I don't enjoy them too much.
Currie: How would you characterize the political focus of the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: They didn't have any political focus. It was whoever looked like was going to win, whatever party, they'd be for that. They didn't have a program, really.
Currie: So what role did they play then?
Cooke: They had very good crime stories. People like to read crime stories, don't they? I know I do. They had a pretty good women's section. It was a large paper, not a tabloid, and the women's section had two pages that faced each other. On the left-hand page, you would read about the doctors' and the lawyers' wives, who had social events. On the other page were the notes on "little people," you know. I challenged it once, and was put in my place that they knew what they were doing.
Currie: You were saying, Marvel, that you had challenged them on the coverage of the society on one side. How did that happen?
Cooke: I said I disapproved of burying certain items that were important, you know. I mean, maybe a group of workers would have a luncheon someplace, where they'd have someone come to speak, but they were not "in society." That would be relegated to the right-hand page.
Currie: So there was a huge emphasis on society?
Cooke: Oh, yes! Which I thought was a little bit ludicrous, in view of the kind of society we have here in Harlem. I was considered a little rebellious. "Tend to your work," I was told. So I did tend to my work. It was during this period that we got organized in the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: Before we talk about the Guild, which I think is very important, I'd like to go back. I know you applied for a job at the Amsterdam News. What kind of job did you apply for?
Cooke: I had applied for anything that I could do in the editorial office, and they asked me could I type. So I could type, and I got a job as a secretary to the society editor.
Currie: You had had a better job at the Crisis.
Cooke: Oh, yes, much better job at the Crisis, but I needed a job, you know. There weren't that many around. For social reasons, I wanted to stay in New York and not go back to Minnesota.
Currie: What year was this?
Cooke: It must have been 1928, because I got married in 1929, and I left the Amsterdam News at that time. I worked there a very short time, about possibly less than a year.
Currie: What were your duties as secretary to the women's editor?
Cooke: She'd dictate her stupid letters to me, and sometimes I would correct them, and was chastised about that, so I got so I was transcribing stupid letters and did the typing for her pages. She'd give me the copy, and I would type it for her.
Currie: So you didn't have an opportunity at this point to do any reporting?
Cooke: None. None whatsoever. I was just a secretary.
Currie: What did the women's editor do? What kinds of work?
Cooke: She attended many of the social functions in this area. I don't know what much else that she did do. Report them and lay out her pages, which I felt I could do. Since I had helped with the layout at the Crisis, I felt that I could do it even better. It was possibly a little presumptuous of me, but I did feel that way.
Currie: How did you get along with your boss?
Cooke: I get along with people, so I managed to submerge many of my instincts and go along with her, that's all.
Currie: the Crisis wasn't really journalism; it was an opinion [magazine].
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: So this was the first journalism job.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: How was it different?
Cooke: Oh, in so many ways. For instance, the social context was certainly different, but here I was an underling. At the Crisis, I was considered a person, you know. It was entirely different. I was just handling words; that was all.
Currie: But did you see any difference in the way in which the editors at the Crisis behaved, and the philosophy of the Amsterdam News? Did anyone tell you what you were expected—
Cooke: No, no, no. I was expected to do whatever the society editor wanted me to do. I expressed no opinions. That wasn't my job.
Currie: Did you have any ambitions to become a reporter?
Cooke: Oh, yes. I think from the time I left college, I wanted to be a writer of some sort, and I got a hint of that at the Crisis when Dr. Du Bois had me do that column that we spoke about. I always wanted to write, of course, the novel. As a matter of fact, I did start one that's still in the starting stage. At least the subject matter was interesting.
Currie: What was the subject matter of the book? [Tape interruption.]
Currie: You were saying that Dr. Du Bois had given you some direction at the Crisis.
Cooke: Oh, yes, and criticism. He gave me a great deal of encouragement. But at the Amsterdam News, I was just an automaton, somebody working for somebody else and following that dictation.
Currie: It doesn't sound like you had a lot of respect for this particular editor.
Cooke: The editor was also a pawn. Oh, the society editor?
Currie: The women's editor. Right.
Cooke: No, I never did.
Currie: Can you tell me why?
Cooke: Well, I grew up feeling that one must do something for our people, you know, join a crusade. I grew up in a crusading family, and here I found that here's a black paper just following the dictates of society, not making any impression at all, not addressing the problems that faced people in this area. I wasn't happy about it. It was just a paycheck for me.
Currie: You had said that you had some ambitions to become a reporter.
Cooke: Not a reporter; a writer. The reporting came with my employment at the Amsterdam News. I felt if I could ever get into the reporting stage of the paper, I would be happy. But I was just a secretary, an automaton.
Currie: Did you have a plan to become a reporter?
Cooke: Vaguely. This was in my formative years. I vaguely thought it might be exciting, and I afterwards found out it was. I had had no notion of what being a reporter was when I went with the Amsterdam News.
Currie: During this time, was that when you got involved with the Newspaper Guild?
Currie: How did you become involved with the Guild?
Cooke: There was a reporter on the paper by the name of Ted Poston, and he found out that Heywood Broun had started a union. It was not a horizontal union—just a union of editorial workers. It didn't encompass the other departments of a paper at the time. Ted [Poston] got involved and came back and talked to us about this new union of which Heywood Broun was the national chairman. We were interested, and formed the first black unit of the Newspaper Guild at the Amsterdam News. All of us, I think everybody on the staff, was pretty excited about the possibilities you might have in being a trade unionist. We had never thought of it before. Most of us thought of trade unions in a different kind of work force than an editorial work force.
I had a large apartment in this house at that time, and we used to hold our union meetings at my apartment. We finally decided that we wanted to ask the owner of the paper, Mrs. Sadie Davis, for recognition. We had somebody in the group who was reporting to her what we were doing, and one morning I walked in and asked for the editorial mail, and she said, "Do you work here?" I said, "I thought I did." And as each one came into the office, they were challenged that way.
Finally, the bookkeeper was sent up to us. His name was Unthank, which seems to be a pretty good name for him. He came and said that Mrs. Davis no longer needed the services of the editorial department. We were ready for that, I think, because the night before, we had talked about the possibility of having to strike. But instead of striking, we were locked out.
We quickly set up strike headquarters on 135th Street, across from the police station. I became quite familiar with that police station in the weeks that followed. Heywood Broun used to come quite often to our picket line. At that time, there was a police directive that only two people could picket at a time. When we wanted to be arrested and get some notice, we would send out a mass picket line. We had a lot of support from the community, from the doctors, the lawyers, the preachers. We were quite popular. I think that the Amsterdam News was unpopular and most of the people in this area wanted a better paper, and they supported us. We had a lot of support from other papers in the city—from the New York Times—from the Brooklyn Eagle.
So whenever we wanted to get a little publicity, we would throw out a big picket line, and almost immediately the police would appear to arrest us. We were only a block from the police station. Heywood Broun tried his best to get arrested on that line. He would go around the corner and hide in the shade of a drugstore, and when he saw the police coming, he would try to sneak into the line, but he never made it. He was very disappointed. This is the very first strike that the union had in New York City after the Newspaper Guild was organized. It was important for him to be involved.
Currie: This strike was in what year?
Currie: So that's after you had been at the Amsterdam News for quite a while?
Cooke: No. My stay there was interrupted. I got married in 1929, and my husband and I went to North Carolina to teach. When I came back for one Christmas holiday, I ran into the editor, who said that he had been wanting to locate me—that the Amsterdam News was starting a feature syndicate, and he had tried to get a male to head this department, but every male needed a secretary because he couldn't type. He knew that I could do the work, and I also wouldn't need the secretary, because I could type. So I went back to the Amsterdam News after I was let go at A&T College, where I had been teaching.
Currie: So by hiring you, he saved money.
Cooke: Yeah! Yeah. That's the way women are treated, isn't it?
Currie: What were your duties as head of this feature syndicate?
Cooke: Well, to seek out features, both in drawings and in articles, that might be of interest, and putting them together. It was a double sheet that went into the Amsterdam News. It didn't last very long.
Currie: Who did you syndicate the features to?
Cooke: To other black papers, like Chicago Defender, Kansas City Call, Afro-American. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: How long did your job as the head of this feature syndicate for the Amsterdam News last?
Cooke: It lasted a matter of months. It's very difficult for me to say. It didn't take off the way the editor thought it would. I don't think it's a reflection on anybody's part, maybe, on mine or on his, but maybe black newspapers weren't ready for anything like that. It didn't do well.
Currie: So where did you go from there?
Cooke: We had the strike, and when we went back in, I was given the job as a reporter.
Currie: So you were an editor at the feature service until the strike?
Cooke: That's right. We were out for eleven weeks. It was the fall of 1935. The strike was settled on Christmas Eve 1935. When I went back in, the decision was that I was to be one of the reporters on the staff, which I was very happy about it, because it took me out of the secretarial field, but I soon ran into some difficulties with the male editor, whose name was Earl Brown. I think that I was the first woman reporter at the Amsterdam News.
Currie: They had only had male reporters?
Cooke: They only had male reporters up to that time.
Currie: Did they have women reporting on society?
Cooke: Society. But they were not considered a part of the reportorial staff. I was the first leg man at the Amsterdam News, and I feel—this is purely speculation—I feel that the male staff did not want to see a woman reporter.
Currie: Now, what made you think that?
Cooke: The very first story I was sent on was a murder in 137th Street, and I feel that the editor, whose name was Dan Burley, knew what I was going to meet there. I often pass that house even now. It's a beautiful brownstone. But a woman had been murdered, the ugliest thing I had ever seen.
Currie: What had happened to her?
Cooke: Her throat had been slashed, and blood was all over the place. I was kind of a gentle person, you know, to meet this kind of horror was awful. It was just ugly. I know it turned my stomach, and I thought, "Well, this is either going to make or break me." And I went back. I did a little investigation around the neighborhood and found out what the woman's name was and what the neighbors thought about her. Walking back the two blocks to the office, I said, "I was sent on this deliberately," because there were a couple of men there that weren't doing anything at that time particularly. I was picked out to go on this murder. So I did a good story, and I realized that I was possibly going to face a little bit of male chauvinism, because they had never had a woman reporter before. I started doing a pretty good job as a reporter.
Currie: How did you know what to do as a reporter, since you never worked, really, as a hard news reporter before?
Cooke: I think I had a good imagination. I had decided what a good story would be, what the lead ought to be like, what the elements should be in the story, and anyway, it was accepted.
Currie: Was there anyone at the Amsterdam News who actually showed you the ropes?
Cooke: No. I just had to feel my way along. About that time, Adam Powell* started another paper in Harlem, the People's Voice. I was offered a job there almost immediately. I had had several by-lines. And besides that, my husband knew Adam pretty well and he knew me. I had been offered a job, but every time I tried to leave the Amsterdam News, even though my union activities were not especially liked, I was told, "Oh, go on back. We're not going to release you." So I felt pretty frustrated, because the job at the People's Voice offered more advancement. I was sort of stuck at the Amsterdam News.
So finally, the Amsterdam News played right into my hands by coming out with a headline that stated "Killed Sweetheart, Slept With Body," which I thought was pretty gruesome. So I went in to Dr. Powell—not Adam, not to be confused with Adam. He owned the Amsterdam News. I said, "Dr. Powell, I can't work for a paper that comes out with a headline like this." And he had no answer for it, so I resigned and went to the People's Voice.
Currie: You said they wouldn't release you.
Cooke: I kept trying to resign, and I may not have known how to resign. Dr. Powell would say, "We're not going to let you go. You're too good a writer. We're not going to let you go."
Currie: Did they try to keep you by giving you more money?
Cooke: No. I didn't get more money. Of course, after the strike, I did make considerably more than I had before the strike. The whole office, our salaries went up. But mine was $35 a week.
Currie: Was that before or after the strike?
Cooke: After. It was $18 before, which was about—even though it was in the late twenties, it was not a livable wage.
Currie: So $18 a week in the twenties was not a good salary?
Cooke: No, no.
Currie: But from $18 to $35 is quite a jump.
Cooke: Of course it was. Of course, there was a double salary in the family by then, because I was married. But even as a single person, I could have managed on $35 a week.
Currie: I'd like to go back and talk a little bit more about the Guild organizing. How did you first learn about the Newspaper Guild from this—
Cooke: From Ted Poston, who had heard about it. He had gone down to some meeting and came back with material, and discussed it with us. The whole editorial office was ready for a union.
Currie: Why do you think you were ready for a union?
Cooke: Because of the working conditions, the salaries, and the general bypassing of the editorial department. Mrs. Davis was more interested in the business offices, not realizing that the business office was really supported by a good editorial office.
Currie: So she wasn't interested in the content?
Cooke: No. She had inherited the paper. You know, I liked her, but I think she had no idea what a black paper should be to this community, what problems they should be addressing.
* Adam Clayton Powell was at that time assistant pastor of the prestigious Abyssinian Baptist Church. He later became U.S. congressman.
She was just disinterested. When we went on strike, she offered me more money to stay in. She offered two or three others, whom she liked for various reasons, to stay. "I'll give you more money." She tried to bribe us, but we didn't fall for that.
Currie: How many people on the staff of the Amsterdam News joined the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: It was, as I said, a union of editorial workers only. Of course, there was a business office, a large business office, a large advertising office. What was the question?
Currie: How many joined the union?
Cooke: Oh, everybody in the editorial office joined, with the exception of the editor-in-chief, whose position was outside the Guild. He couldn't have joined. But the whole staff joined.
Currie: How did you make the decision to strike?
Cooke: We did not make the decision to strike. We were going to strike when she locked us out. It was a lock-out, rather than a strike.
Currie: How did you make the decision that you were going to strike before she locked you out?
Cooke: We felt that if she did not recognize us as a union, we were going to ask for union recognition. If she did not, then we would strike. We had made preparations and we were ready for it. We were going to strike, but actually, it was a lock-out.
Currie: Who came to help you from the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: The whole Newspaper Guild office from Heywood Broun down, members of the Guild on the different papers, and there was a Guild unit at the Brooklyn Eagle, at the Times, at the Daily News, at the [New York Daily] Mirror. Anyway, all of the newspapers in the city that had Guild units supported us, and it became quite a popular thing to appear on the Amsterdam News picket line. We attracted a lot of the local socialites.
First time I was thrown in jail, I remember, there was no place for women, no cells for women at 135th Street. There still aren't. But they had cells for women down at 123rd Street, so the men who were arrested went to 135th Street, and another woman was arrested on the line with me, another member of the Amsterdam News unit. When we were thrown in jail, the matron, I remember, took away my belt. I said, "What are you doing that for?" She said, "We can't have suicides here." She thought I would use my belt to hang myself or something. But we were very happy to have been arrested, because we were tired. This was a place where we could rest. I remember going down into the cell block for women, and there were several women there. They said, "What are you in for?" I said, "Striking." They said, "Oh, that." They evidently didn't regard striking a crime. We were not really criminals, they thought.
I remember the matron came down to Margaret and me and said, "You have some visitors upstairs." We went upstairs. We were greeted by some local society ladies who thought it was a shame that that nice Marvel Cooke and that nice Margaret—what was her last name?—had been arrested. And they brought us some food. When we went back, the matron said, "You are well known. You're nice ladies, aren't you?" They hadn't had any prisoners like us.
Currie: While you were out on strike, did you get any help from the Newspaper Guild? Any money?
Cooke: I don't remember that. We must have, because—oh, yes, because we got the same salary on strike that we had inside. That had to have come from the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: This was the first strike against a black newspaper?
Cooke: I believe this was the very first strike in U.S. labor history that newspaper workers had struck. It's certainly the first time black workers had struck against a black ownership and won.
Currie: Did that give you pause, the idea of black workers striking against black owners? Did you think that perhaps you shouldn't do that?
Cooke: No! No! We felt we were completely right. You know, we were quite celebrities in this area. It is amazing, the number of people who supported us, who may not have liked the policies of the Amsterdam News. That could have been part of it. And part of it was that we were very nice people. What were we doing that we had to go out on a picket line and be thrown in jail? And all that.
Currie: The reason you were thrown in jail is because there were too many of you on the picket line?
Cooke: That's right. That's right. There was a law against mass picketing. Mass picketing meant more than two on the line.
Currie: What kinds of support did you get from Heywood Broun?
Cooke: Just his presence there as the national head of the Newspaper Guild and as a writer of note gave us—it really caused us to have much more attention in the press than we would have had without him.
Currie: What kind of a person was he?
Cooke: He was a very human person. He was a very large man, way over six feet and very heavy, and quite sloppy looking. But he was very recognizable because of things that he had written, and we got a lot of support because of his presence. He was there every day. He was quite an inspiration to us.
Currie: During the strike on the Amsterdam News is when a friend of yours approached you and said, "Why aren't you a member of the Communist party?"
Cooke: No, it wasn't a—he was a friend, in a way. His name was Ben Davis. Afterwards he became city councilman. He was very friendly with Adam Powell, and he had followed Adam as a city councilman. He would appear at our headquarters every day. Some part of the day, Ben Davis would come. It was not difficult for me to talk about my family. I thought my family was a pretty great one. And he "picked" me. He would ask me about my family, and I told him about my father being a Eugene V. Debs Socialist.
Finally, one day he said to me—we were picketing—he said to me, "Why aren't you a member of the Communist party? You have a much better background for it than I had."
I said, "Because no one ever asked me." And he thought that was a very funny and naive answer. Certain groups in Harlem have heard that story. "She's not a member of the Communist party because no one ever asked her."
Currie: So did someone ask you?
Cooke: He asked me, and I joined.
Currie: Why did you join?
Cooke: Well, I had the background for it, as he said. Here I had a father who was a socialist. That isn't very odd now, but growing up in the early twenties, I had heard many stories about injustices: "The Constitution's fine, the Declaration of Independence is fine. But this country is not living up to the things that it proposes." And when I asked my father why he would support a man in jail—Debs had been in jail—he told me that it was a protest vote, that he protested
certain things, the lynchings. Lynchings were prevalent during that period. He protested lynchings, and he felt that with the change from the Democratic or the Republican party to the Socialist party, we might return to the concepts that were proposed in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution.
Currie: Why don't we stop here. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: What I wanted to ask you, Marvel, is how active was the Communist party in the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: I don't think it was active in the Newspaper Guild. I never thought that. I know there were a number of people citywide in the Newspaper Guild who were members of the Communist party. But the Communist party was not active as a party in the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: How did you join?
Cooke: How did I join? Well, after I made that naive remark to Ben, he asked me to join, and I think because of the Depression and some of the problems that I had met in reporting conditions of people, that I was ready, emotionally, for it, anyway. I remember—it's so long ago, but I do remember going to a meeting when I was going to be formally admitted to the party, and I was surprised to see a number of the people, mainly white, who had supported the strike and who were there and very happy that I had joined the Communist party. It seems that it was a landmark, because there were other black women in the party, but they didn't come from 409 Edgecombe Avenue or from a profession that was considered an upper-class profession. They were members of the Domestic Workers Union and people like that. So it was considered a break-through. I didn't consider it that way, but it was considered a break-through.
Currie: What did joining the party mean to you?
Cooke: It didn't mean—well, it did mean a lot to me later. I think I progressed in the profession because of it. People in other sections of the city started recognizing me and including me in little meetings where we were talking about making the union, the Newspaper Guild, a paper-wide union, encompassing the business offices. It meant a great deal to me in political growth, I think.
Currie: So it helped you with contacts for your journalistic job?
Cooke: No, it didn't help me. It just helped me broaden my vision as to what society should be like, what we would hope for America to be like, to live up to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It addressed itself to organizing workers. So it was very important to me.
Currie: Did your colleagues at the Amsterdam News know that you were a member?
Cooke: Not across the board, but a number of them did join the party. As a matter of fact, I was helpful in recruiting some of them.
Currie: How were you helpful?
Cooke: Well, I talked with them. I'd go to dinner with them and we'd talk about problems that we had. And finally, I would ask them if they were interested in learning more about the Communist party.
It so happened when I went from the Amsterdam News—I think we've talked about this—to the People's Voice, the general manager of the People's Voice was a highly respected professor from Howard University. His name was Doxey Wilkerson. Doxey was a member of the Communist party. I didn't know that when I joined the staff that he was a member. He didn't know about me either. But I didn't want to be a recruiter or anything like that. But I did want my co-workers to understand some of the problems they faced as workers, as black workers.
I remember recruiting—I guess the only person I ever recruited after I left the Amsterdam News, was the theatrical editor of the People's Voice, who was Adam Powell's sister-in-law. [Laughter.] We went out to dinner a lot, and we'd talk about things. Finally, after about a year, I said to her, "You know, I'm a member of the Communist party." She said, "I felt you were." And Doxey and I recruited her.
Currie: Were you expected to do anything as a member?
Cooke: No, no, no. Nothing has ever been forced on me. I think there are a lot of incorrect attitudes about the party. The party has made some mistakes; they admit that.
Currie: What do you think the incorrect attitudes about the party are?
Cooke: Well, that we're a bunch of reds who want to overthrow the government, which is the furthest from the truth. We just want—I would like, and I'm not speaking for everybody, to see the Constitution work properly for people. I think I'm a good American.
Currie: How did your political beliefs affect your reporting on the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Not on the Amsterdam News. I wasn't a reporter there long enough to assess that. But I think it made me a better reporter, because I was interested in the conditions under which people had to work and live. That would come through in the things I would write.
Currie: What were some of the stories that you did as a reporter at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: At the Amsterdam News. I really can't remember. I was just sent out on anything that came up. If it was a police story, I was sent out on it. I didn't do any feature work at all. Just whatever would come my way. Like that murder I spoke about, which had no political content whatsoever.
Currie: There's a kind of vaunted rule of journalism that journalists are objective.
Cooke: That's right. That's right.
Currie: Did you ever have problems being objective on any of these stories?
Cooke: No. I think some editors had problems with me reporting things as I saw them. That was not at the Amsterdam News, and I did not do any reporting at the People's Voice, because I was given a position I don't think I was worthy of. I was assistant managing editor to an editor who was a drunk, and he was never there when it was time to put the paper to bed, so I had to learn how to put a paper together, how to write headlines. I did no reporting whatsoever at the People's Voice. I learned how to get a paper together, which was good for me.
Currie: At the Amsterdam News, was there anyone whose reporting you admired?
Cooke: Yes, St. Clair Bourne.
Currie: Why did you admire him?
Cooke: Because he felt—he was moved by inequities of the black worker, you know, and he did a really very good interpretive job, as far as a reporter can be interpretive, of stories he was sent out on. As a matter of fact, he and I were kind of lumped together at one point. We were sent out. I think everybody who had been on strike at the Amsterdam News was targeted for dismissal. They were dismissed two by two. I survived that process, I think, because I was a woman. I think the owners thought that the community would not stomach that.
I remember one time St. Clair—St. Clair was targeted for dismissal—and I were sent on a story that was impossible to have done within a week. It was to find out how many black
businesses there were in Harlem, how long they'd been in business, what kind of business they were, etc. To do this in three or four days was impossible. So the task was given to "Sinky" and me. We left the paper—the paper was then located at 134th Street and Seventh Avenue—and went over to Lenox Avenue, where we thought, "We'll look around and see what businesses we can find here, to see if we can make an in-road in this."
We ran into a man by the name of Abner Berry. Abner Berry was a brother of the Berry brothers, who were then in show business. But he was a well-known Communist. He said to me, "What's wrong with you?" I told him about this assignment. He said, "Oh, don't worry about it." He said, "I've done that. I did a pamphlet on that. Come on up to my apartment. I'll give you the pamphlet." So we got the pamphlet, and "Sinky" and I went to the Capital Theater and spent the afternoon in the movies and came back, and said that we had been working on the assignment.
We went to the movies for the three following days and came back, dog tired, and wrote a story that had been assigned to us. The basis, of course, was the pamphlet that had been given to us by Abner Berry. We turned out a real good story.
Currie: So they couldn't get rid of either one of you.
Cooke: No, they couldn't get rid of me that way.
Currie: Who was the editor of the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: The editor was a man by the name of Earl Brown, who was a friend of the owner of the paper. He was a graduate of Harvard University, had never been inside of a newspaper office, obviously, before in his life, and knew nothing about it. Anyway, he didn't know what he was doing. He let us get away with a lot of stuff.
Currie: Was there anyone at the paper who seemed to know what they were doing?
Cooke: Some of the reporters did.
Currie: How did they get their training?
Cooke: As most black newspaper people got at that time, just on-the-job training. There were very few courses in colleges in journalism, and it was mainly on-the-job training.
Currie: Was there anyone there who sort of gave pointers for how to go about things?
Cooke: Oh, yes, there were some, people who had been on the job longer than I had been, like Julius Adams, who died just last week. All the people I knew then seem to be dead. But anyway, they would criticize and help us. I remember Obie McCollum was very helpful and wanted me to succeed as a reporter.
Currie: Were you ever sent out on a story that presented an ethical dilemma for you?
Cooke: I can't remember that I was. I think I was a good objective reporter, and some of my philosophy, naturally, would come into it, if it was at work. I do remember doing a story on a member of the Domestic Workers Union and becoming very involved in the kind of life she had to lead—poor salary, and her struggle to bring up a family.
Currie: Did that affect the way you wrote the story?
Cooke: I think it did, but it was a human attitude and was accepted.
Currie: What do you think was the worst thing about working at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Well, I think it was the management. They never really accepted the union. As I said, they got rid of us one by one, and I was certainly docketed to go, too. I would have been fired from there, but I got saved by the bell, by being able to resign.
Currie: If they got rid of you one by one, could they then replace you with non-union?
Cooke: No. No, they couldn't. They could have replaced us, but the person would have to become a member of the union soon after they joined the staff.
And then during that period, the Newspaper Guild became a horizontal union, and we gained a lot of strength by being able to get into our ranks members of the business staff, the whole paper. So we did gain strength. We grew from a little tiny unit into a large one.
Currie: So part of the settlement after the strike was that the union would be allowed.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: And that editorial workers would have to belong to the union.
Cooke: Yes, yes, that's true.
Currie: So they couldn't get rid of the union, but they could get rid of—
Cooke: Workers, one by one, saying their work wasn't up to standard or they'd find some flaw. Which one of us doesn't have a flaw? They'd find some flaw. For instance, Ted Poston and Henry Lee Moon got better jobs and avoided being fired by going to better jobs.
Currie: Where did they go?
Cooke: Ted went to the New York Post and Henry got a job at the NAACP.
Currie: At that time, was this unusual to have a black reporter on the New York Post?
Cooke: Yes, it was. It was. He may have been the first one. I know I was not an admirer of Ted's for other reasons, but I was very proud to see by-lines by Ted Poston in the New York Post.
Currie: You say you weren't an admirer of his?
Cooke: He got word—he found out, or he thought he found out, that I had joined the Communist party, and he spread it around like wildfire, which might have meant that I would have been dismissed.
Currie: So joining the Communist party would have been enough to get you fired?
Cooke: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Not that alone, but I would have been set up in some way, you know, by being late, which I never was, or too much union activity, or something. They'd have found some reason to have fired me.
Currie: Is that something that concerned you?
Cooke: No, not really. I was at this time married, and married to a man who could support me. It didn't really—I would have been upset because I wouldn't want to be fired under unfavorable circumstances, but it didn't make me feel insecure about my living.
Currie: Who was your direct boss at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: The direct boss was a man by the name of Dan Burley, first. He left for another job. I don't know. Then Earl Brown, of whom I just spoke, became the editor.
Currie: So you reported directly to the editor-in-chief?
Cooke: Right. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: So you said you reported directly to the editor-in-chief of the Amsterdam News.
Cooke: Of the Amsterdam News. That's right.
Currie: Did he give you your assignments?
Cooke: Yes, he gave us that assignment I just told you about. He had never worked on a newspaper, and he had no idea what an assignment entailed if you were going to do it properly. So he gave us this all-encompassing assignment to do a survey on black businesses in Harlem for a three or four-day thing. It was impossible. He really didn't know. In my opinion, he didn't have the proper perspective on Harlem and the life of the people in Harlem. He came from, as really I did, too, the upper middle-class, but I had political orientation which he didn't have. He was disinterested in workers and things of that sort.
Currie: Why do you think he got the job as editor-in-chief, then?
Cooke: We're talking about two editors-in-chief.
Cooke: I'm talking about the one that became editor-in-chief after this strike.
Currie: And that was?
Cooke: Earl Brown.
Currie: And why do you think he got the job, then?
Cooke: Because he was a social friend of the owner of the Amsterdam News, Dr. C.B. Powell, not Adam, and because he was from Harvard. So he had to be good.
Currie: Were there many reporters on the staff who didn't have journalistic training?
Cooke: I really don't want to answer that, because I don't know. I feel that all of us were on-the-job trainees. This is what I think, but I really don't know that as a fact.
Currie: What do you think you learned from this job?
Cooke: How to present a story, what would be of interest to the community. I learned to be a good trade unionist, which was not a part of the writing part of the job, but it was exciting, something different every day.
Currie: Do you remember any story in particular that you wrote on this job that you liked doing?
Cooke: I did the very first story on the Bronx slave market. It was not an in-depth story at all, but it gave me a desire to want to go more deeply into the reasons for the Bronx slave market, the lives of the women, what caused them to go up there and be treated as slaves, be hired according to your brawn, and you know, I did that. That was the first time I knew anything about the Bronx slave market.
Currie: What was the Bronx slave market?
Cooke: The Bronx slave market was a street in the Bronx, near Westchester Avenue, where black women who were on relief or their husbands were making too little to support a family, would take a paper bag in the morning, with work clothes in it, and stand on this corner and wait for the women to come along and hire them. I had to be very careful in writing this, because it was a Jewish community, and I didn't want it to reflect on Jewish people, but women in the community would come along this street and view you as to your brawn, whether you looked like you were capable of doing housework, and hire you for 75 cents an hour, which was a dreadful salary at that time.
Currie: You did this story first for the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Yes, I went up there. It was not an in-depth story. I just talked to some of the women and asked them what they did, how they viewed their work, and it was just a superficial story, but I was interested. I got interested in it.
Currie: Was that an idea that you had?
Currie: And you proposed it to your editor?
Cooke: Yes, and it was accepted.
Currie: Then you later did a very in-depth story for the Compass.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Was that a typical story that the Amsterdam News would have done?
Cooke: No, it wasn't. Really, the police stories, you know, the murders and the sensational stories that they felt would cause their readership to go up. Sensational stories were what they did mainly.
Currie: I had done some research at Howard University, and I guess that's a big debate, even today, about what the role of the black press should be.
Cooke: Well, I think that the People's Voice addressed that. The People's Voice did more social stories for the betterment of the community, and it really was on a good road. Adam Powell, who was the editor-in-chief, was very interested in this community in a basic way, and I think that paper was on the road to being a good paper, but it was fraught with economic problems and was not able to exist.
Currie: You went from the Amsterdam News to—
Cooke: The People's Voice.
Currie: How would you contrast those two?
Cooke: Well, the Amsterdam News, very simply, was a sensational paper, and the People's Voice was a social-minded paper, interested in the betterment of the community. Certainly they would not hesitate to present a story that was newsworthy because it was sensational, but the editorial policy was more to building the community, to building the unions, and to building churches. It was just a very humane paper, very dedicated to the betterment of the Harlem community.
Currie: What was the worst thing about working at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Worst thing was if you were like me, the sensational stories that came out week after week after week, and not paying attention to some of the real problems of the community and presenting them, as I feel every black newspaper should be addressing itself to.
Currie: Was there anything you learned on the Amsterdam News that you were able to take with you to the People's Voice that was helpful to you?
Cooke: Oh, yes. The make-up of the paper. I was allowed to see how a paper was made up, and when the staff got bogged down by something else, I was able to put it together.
Currie: When you went to the People's Voice, your main responsibility was putting it together?
Cooke: Yes. It had to be, because as I said, we had this very charming man who was the editor, and I was his assistant, but he was seldom there because he was out on the street, drinking. Much of the "Jimmy Higgins" work had to be mine. I had to learn how to write headlines, how to go down to the make-up and learn how to put the paper together, and proofread. I didn't have any of the chores there that would lead to writing better or anything like that, but I did learn a lot.
Currie: As we're getting toward the end now, I'd like to ask you about the strike. What do you think you learned from the strike, from participating in the newspaper strike?
Cooke: What everybody learns from—should learn, not does learn—from a strike, that in numbers, there is power. In working together, there's power. It was a very, very good experience for me.
Currie: Did you ever have an opportunity to maybe go out on strike again in your life?
Cooke: No, no. That was the one and only time, and it was a very good time, because it became historically important that this black group did this.
Currie: Why do you think it's historically significant?
Cooke: Because it's the first time that it had ever happened, and it would make black workers coming behind us unafraid to join a union. I think it was an exceptionally good thing.
Currie: You also said, while we were changing tape, that it wasn't too popular to be a Communist in those days. Do you want to talk a little more about what you meant by that?
Cooke: Well, I think there has always been a misconception of what a Communist is, as somebody going out to break up things, you know, wherein I learned that the party was interested in unity and in bettering the condition of workers and communities.
Currie: But was there ever a time when you felt that that worked to your detriment, being a member of the party?
Cooke: No, I have never felt that way. I have come up against some problems, but what organization doesn't have problems? Some things that I questioned, but here we were able to put on the table what we disagreed about. This is a way of humanity. It will always happen that you will disagree about some things.
Currie: If you could go back and work for the Amsterdam News again, would you?
Currie: That's pretty definite.
Cooke: Not unless—if I felt that I could bring a change in policy, yes. But not as a worker. There's no way. Not the way it's set up now. I don't know. The new owner, I've seen him on
television, saw him recently. He seems to have a better grasp on what the community needs than the owners did when I was there, and probably, you know, he could effect a change. But it's still a sensational paper.
Currie: If you could go back and you were faced with the same opportunity to organize a Guild and strike, would you do it the same way?
Cooke: I don't know whether I'd do it the same way. I haven't thought about that. But I would do it.
Currie: Were there ways in which you might have been more effective?
Cooke: I don't think so. You know, I'm sitting here very forthrightly and saying that I joined the Communist party, but most of the people who know me don't know that.
Currie: Why don't they know that.
Cooke: They haven't asked me. I certainly don't hide what I think about the social inequities. If they ask me, I would say yes. But I don't go around the sixth floor of 409 Edgecombe and say, "I am a Communist." My friends here know it. My two friends in "409" know that I have been, or am now, a member of the Communist party.
Currie: You're such a straightforward person.
Cooke: Well, if anyone asked me, and if I felt that they were not trying to set me up for a fall or something like that, I certainly would not deny it. For instance, I said I recruited somebody, the theatrical editor. I mentioned her name. I said, "You know, I am a Communist."
She said, "I knew that."
I said, "How?"
She said, "By the things that you said. If you're not, you should be."
And I said, "Why are you not?"
She said, "If I'm asked, I will be."
I said, "I'm asking you." So that's how I recruited her. But only talking about ideas for a whole year, you know, things that we both believed in. Not knocking her over the head. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: You were talking about your conversation with the woman at the People's Voice and how—
Cooke: You see, my husband was working nights. He was a district manager of a brewery, and he wasn't home at nights, so I ate out. She was alone, and she ate out. We talked for a year before this came up. I didn't avoid talking about things that I felt were interesting to the community at large and things that I believed in, but I never tagged it.
Currie: In the thirties, I understand the Communist party was doing a lot of organizing, particularly in the black community.
Cooke: I don't really know that, because I never was at that level.
Currie: I see. That was done at a different level?
Cooke: I guess so, if it was done. I know that one time—I've forgotten who said it—this, "Why don't you get Marvel Cooke to do so and so and so and so?" "We prefer her doing what she's doing and moving around in the circles she moves around in," and not being tagged. And I think it was proper.
Currie: What do you think they meant by that?
Cooke: Well, the Communist party has not always been popular, it is not popular now, you know, with the general public. They felt that I was more effective just talking to my friends the way I do. There would come a time I did recruit. Maybe I recruited half a dozen people in my life, not more than that. But it was proper that I just move around the way I do. Nobody ever said this to me, but I'm sure that's what was true. This is considered a very special address, and I lived here and knew lawyers and judges and they respected me. I know the support I got in the McCarthy period, I know how they supported me. Maybe they would not have supported me had they felt I was going to—what are Communists supposed to do?
Currie: I don't know.
Cooke: They're supposed to start revolutions and stuff.
Currie: So they thought you were a real subversive.
Cooke: No, they thought I was a very good advocate of decent living.
Currie: Have you ever regretted joining the Communist party?
Cooke: No! Why? Why should I? I have never regretted it. It was a gradual growth to me, you know. I've said my father was a Eugene V. Debs Socialist, and I grew up believing in equalities of all kinds, not only racial, but all kinds of equalities, equality of women. It was a natural progression for me to have joined the Communist party. It's funny. I say that because my sister, whom I admire greatly, she avoids addressing this problem with me. She doesn't want her friends to know that I have been this person who went along advocating the things that I might advocate. I don't think she even knows what the Communist party advocates, but she thinks she knows.
Currie: So it makes her uncomfortable? [Tape interruption.]
Currie: You said a member of your family—
Cooke: Yes, my sister. Not the sister who recently died, because she followed me every place I went, and she also became a member of the Communist party. I remember when I was on strike, a very interesting incident. I was very tired and dirty and disheveled, not a way that anyone would have seen me in Minnesota, and a woman came up to me and said to me, "Aren't you Marvel Jackson?"
And I said, "Yeah."
She said, "Wait 'til I go home and tell your mother what you're in New York doing."
And I said, "If my mother were in New York, she'd be on this line with me." And that came to pass. My mother came here to visit one of us a year or so later. It was my sister she was staying with, Zelma. The tenants were on strike there, and I went by the apartment house after work, and there my mother was with the tenants' group, picketing that house. So I'm sure my mother would have approved of what I had been doing. She would have wanted me to be more comfortable, but she would have approved of the things that I think and do.
Currie: Did you ever talk to her about your activity in the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: Oh, sure.
Currie: What did she say?
Cooke: She was very appreciative of it, and she said, "Your father would have liked this."
Currie: Is it possible for you to be a Communist and a good journalist at the same time?
Cooke: Why not? What is the conflict there?
Currie: Well, you're such a political person. So what I want to know is, journalism is supposed to be a profession where you're completely objective and you don't have views. Politics is so central to your life.
Cooke: I think that I approached every story that way, as a journalist would approach it. I may have put a little more content into it, but I certainly didn't—I never consciously colored a story. When I did the series that we'll talk about later, the slave market series, I certainly did have attitudes about how black women were treated like slaves in that domestic market. But I think if I had not been a Communist, as a humanitarian, I would have felt the same way.
Currie: Did you ever get assigned a story that you didn't want to do?
Cooke: I don't think so. The reason I don't think so is that whole period where I was at the People's Voice, I wasn't out doing any reporting, and the Compass, where I ended my journalistic days, the Compass was a paper that addressed itself to people's problems, and I was never sent out on a story that I didn't want to do. Never.
Currie: At the Amsterdam News, most of the stories you did then were the kind you could objectively report on?
Cooke: Oh, yes. The reason I was possibly successful is because they said I wrote well, you know, and you should never project your opinions in a news story, and I never did that. But I might have emphasized some part of a story that somebody else might not have emphasized, the work conditions or something like that.
Currie: I probably asked this before. What do you think you brought away with you from the whole experience at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Well, the best thing about it was the fact that I became a member of the union at the Amsterdam News. As far as the work experience was concerned, that was the first time I ever did any leg work and got out into the community to report objectively on things going on in the community. But the biggest thing was the fact that I became a member of the union, and I was active in the union.
Currie: Did you continue your union membership?
Cooke: All the way through my work as a journalist, which ended in the early fifties.
Currie: The leg work in the community, did you learn something about the community you hadn't known before?
Cooke: No, I don't think so, but it became a practical knowledge. Before, it was just intellectual. But you know, I actually got out there and rubbed shoulders with domestic workers and people who were having dreadful problems living in this community.
Currie: As a last question, because we should wrap this up, and we'll have many hours together still, but do you think that you would enjoy working on a newspaper today?
Cooke: I can't think of one that I would really enjoy working on. I don't think I would especially enjoy working on the communist press, because there isn't enough latitude. I wouldn't have enough room to do any creative work.
Currie: What about a newspaper like the New York Times?
Cooke: No. See, I'm a little too old to think of myself as a journalist now, but even if I were younger, I don't think I would want to work on the New York Times.
Currie: Why not?
Cooke: Because you know, I think I know too much about it. For instance, I had a relative who worked on the New York Times. He was on the editorial board of the New York Times. I learned that before any editorial—I heard; I didn't learn—I heard that before any editorial appears in the New York Times, it is sent to a contact in Wall Street to be approved of. If that is true, that frightens me.
Currie: That kind of—
Cooke: Yeah. I believe it may be the truth. Take the elections, the coming election, how the whole thing seems so slanted, you know. You're told one thing, and after the primaries, we learned another. We were told that the gap has been closing between Dinkins and Koch. Wasn't true at all.
Currie: So you don't—
Cooke: I don't trust what the papers are—necessarily trust. I read them all the time, but I don't necessarily trust them.
Currie: That's an interesting place to stop, then, for a former journalist to say she doesn't really trust the newspapers.
Cooke: Well, I don't. I'd be dishonest if I said otherwise.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Cooke: Do you think this is going to be a good interview?
Currie: I do.
Cooke: I hope so.
Currie: You seemed concerned.
Cooke: I am, because it's been so long since I've done anything like this.
Currie: I think you'll be pleased. Also, what you have to remember is we're interviewing for future generations, so I asked a lot of detailed questions. It's not like I'm looking for a sound bite here. I'm looking for information. It's different.
Currie: Gee, this is number five!
Cooke: Is it number five?
Currie: I wanted to go back a little bit to the Amsterdam News.
Currie: You really want to get out of there, don't you?
Cooke: Yes, because my journalistic life was so short there and it was so long ago.
Currie: I'll ask you the questions, and if you don't remember, we'll move through quickly.
Currie: I just want to go back a little bit, before we go back to the People's Voice.
Currie: You were one of how many women on the Amsterdam News staff?
Cooke: One of three, one being a secretary, the second one being the women's editor, and me.
Currie: So you were the only hard news [reporter].
Currie: How did you get along with the men?
Cooke: At first I found it difficult. People, at this point, would not realize that I might find difficulty working with blacks, but most of them did not want a woman on the staff. It was the fact that I was a woman, and they weren't accustomed to that. Most news staffs up to that time were all male. They felt that they had to cater to what kind of story I went out on. I had to prove that I was capable of going on any type of story, barring some violence that might occur, but I was capable of covering it.
Currie: Did your male colleagues treat you any differently, do you think, because you were a woman?
Cooke: Some of them did. The majority didn't. They regarded me as a newsperson, not as a female newsperson. But the editor, for instance, Dan Burley, was friendly with me on the outside, but he really didn't want a woman on his staff. It was difficult for him to send me into a sensitive area, and I can understand that. He was male oriented, anyway. So I think he tried to get rid of me. I told you the story about that first story I went on. It was a brutal murder: I felt that I almost got the blood on my feet, I had to get that close to it. Really, it almost turned me off, but I had to argue with myself that, "I have to do this if I'm going to be a reporter. I have to do this." But I'm sure he would have preferred me as a women's editor, to cover dance recitals or music, anything but hard news.
Currie: What do you think kept you working for him?
Cooke: I honestly think it was the fact that I was very active in the Newspaper Guild. I looked up that since. The Newspaper Guild came into being in 1933. We must have joined in 1934, because we had the strike in 1935. We must have joined in the very beginning of the Newspaper Guild. I think it was my life in the Newspaper Guild, my membership in the Newspaper Guild, that kept me—
Currie: From getting fired?
Cooke: That's right. No, not from getting fired. They never had a reason to fire me. But for my not leaving, you know. The way Dan was treating me, I would have been happy to have left, but I felt that I couldn't. I must do this. There weren't any other women reporters in Harlem. There had been another paper here before the Amsterdam News, even, the New York Age. But I was the first woman around here assigned to hard-news stories. I enjoyed my life in the union. It took me beyond the boundaries of Harlem, and I could share experiences with a lot of other people, some women in the Newspaper Guild. They were having a tough time, too.
Currie: Were they having similar experiences?
Cooke: Yes. They weren't accepted with open arms into the hard-news area. So I enjoyed that. I enjoyed listening and hearing and growing, and I was always very happy with—I'm happy with that part of my experience at the Amsterdam News, that it took me outside the boundaries of Harlem.
Currie: How do you think you coped with the resistance you got to being a woman? What ways did you decide to deal with that?
Cooke: I don't know that I actually had a program of how to deal with it, but I think, actually, coming up in the kind of family I did, with a father and mother who said, "We want you to get through college, but we want you to work for a couple of years before you get married or before you do anything, because we want you to know how to take care of yourself," and I think it was that kind of background that made me easily able to cope with anything that happened to me in the work force.
There were two other women on the Amsterdam News strike. Both of them resisted going onto the picket line. They didn't want to go out there and picket.
Currie: Why not?
Cooke: It was not ladylike to don picket signs and march up and down. It thrilled me. I never minded getting out there on the picket line, and I enjoyed going to jail, even though I know that the women's editor shivered at the thought. We had two mass picket lines that one day, and I'd been caught in the first of them. After we got downtown, we heard that another line later had been picked up. I said—I hate to mention her name—but I said, "She wasn't on that!" Yes, she was. I couldn't wait to see her be arraigned, you know. [Laughter.] I can remember like it was yesterday. Those of us who had been picked up earlier had been cleared. My husband had come down to meet me—take me home. He said he was not coming home to meet me anymore; he was going to go down to night court and drag me out. I said, "We can't go. I've got to see. I've just got to see how she's going to take this arraignment." I can see her now, opening the door and peeking to see who was there, how tentatively she crept up in front of that judge. She was very embarrassed. But I enjoyed that whole thing. I thought it was wonderful!
Currie: Now, why did you think it was wonderful?
Cooke: Well, I felt that we were establishing a trade-union movement in the newspaper field. It was at the beginning.
Currie: So it was the courage of your convictions?
Cooke: Yes, I think it was. And it was like an adventure. I was young enough to feel like this was an adventure.
I did tell the story, didn't I, about the woman who saw me on the picket line?
Currie: Yes, you did. We've got that one.
Currie: What I wanted to know, too, was did you socialize with your colleagues at the paper? Did you go out and have drinks with the guys?
Cooke: Some of them. Some of them. Yeah. St. Clair Bourne is one. We mentioned him yesterday. Bobby?
Currie: Bobby. He was on the camera crew yesterday.
Cooke: He knew Sinky. No, Sinky's son he knew. Well, we enjoyed ourselves very much, going out and doing things. I did tell the story about that impossible assignment we got.
Cooke: And we did beautifully with that and spent the time at the movies and dinner.
Currie: Had a good time.
Currie: Would you say that most of your socializing was done with journalists?
Cooke: No. You see, when I first came to New York—I told you that—I got to know the people who were active during the Negro Renaissance. As a matter of fact, before I married, I roomed with one of them, whose name is—I got a letter yesterday. His biography is being written, and I have been asked to share some of my moments with him. He was possibly the best known of the artists during that period—Aaron Douglas, who lived in this house. My associates, besides a few that I had at the paper, in the Newspaper Guild, were mainly people like Langston [Hughes], like Richard Wright, like Aaron Douglas, and others, so it was a mixture of the two. I never lost contact,
and even today I haven't lost contact with those people, if they're still living. I seem to outlive all of them.
Currie: Good genes.
Cooke: I'm sure that's what it is.
Currie: Did working on the Amsterdam News require that you work long hours? What kinds of shifts did you work?
Cooke: Let's see. Yes. Working hours are usually 9:00 to 5:00. If a story broke that would require me to be out at night, I would be out at night. I remember one incident very well. I was very disturbed—and I still am disturbed—at the way the police go about arresting people, you know. And I had done a story about how the police treat people that they've picked up for various—sometimes not serious crimes at all. My husband was an athlete and a very well-known one. He was the best quarter-miler in the world at one time. He had a high-school friend who ran into us at a party one night, and this man said, "What have you been doing, Babe?" He was known as "Babe" Cooke. "What have you been doing, Babe?"
He said, "Oh, I've been teaching, and I'm now trying to get into an area that would make more money than teaching."
"You're a fool!" he said. "I am in the police department." I remember my back going up when he said [this]. And he said, "In two years, let me show you." And he showed his bank book, how much he had made. Now, this was way back. He had in the bank close to $100,000 in two years. Well, that was phenomenal money, as far as, you know, we were used to.
Currie: This was in the thirties!
Cooke: Yes! My husband worked at A&T, head of the science department at this college, for $3,000 a year. You know? And my salary was considerably less than that, maybe $1,800 to $2,000, something like that.
And so I remember my husband saying, "How on earth, on a policeman's salary, could you accumulate anything like that?"
So he told us the story of how he did it. That was during Prohibition. If he knew a man who had a little restaurant, and had no right to serve liquor, he would go in as a customer and find out that he was serving drinks in teacups. He said, "I would show my badge and arrest him for violation of the law. He went on: "When he was arraigned and I was called to testify, I testified in a way that I knew he could not be found guilty, and the man would pay me off." And that's how he was able to accumulate all of that money. Well, that didn't make me love the police too much, either.
One night I had a late assignment. I was working for the Amsterdam News, and I came home in a taxi. I saw somebody, a policeman, manhandling a woman, and I stopped the taxi and got out my press card, and I was really going to do a job on this cop. It happened to be my husband's friend. He was shocked to see me. It underlined all the things I had thought about the police. And, of course, we didn't remain friends. But I say that to say I would have assignments at night, because I know that incident happened at night.
Currie: Did you do something with that?
Cooke: I didn't. I don't think I was very brave. You know, we were friends. He wasn't a friend of mine, but he was a friend of my husband's. I did tell my husband about the incident. My husband's "friend" was shocked to see me. He never came back to our house, never got in touch with us again.
Currie: Did you tell him you were going to write a story?
Cooke: I said I had intended to. "I have to think about it." And I don't think I was very true to my convictions, because I didn't.
Currie: What stopped you?
Cooke: I think just the fact that he was a friend of my husband's. I'm not proud of it, but I think it was that.
Currie: I think journalists often face these dilemmas. Were there other instances where—
Cooke: I don't remember another, but that one I remember. Well, when we get into the Compass, there were a couple of things. But not too many.
Currie: That feeds into my next question. When you were on the Amsterdam News, did they ever want you to do a story that you didn't want to do?
Cooke: I can't remember now. I imagine so.
Currie: You talked about the murder.
Cooke: Oh, yes. I certainly wouldn't want to do—well, they sent me on everything. It didn't matter. They didn't pay any attention to my sex afterwards. As a matter of fact, I feel that the editor would have liked to have gotten rid of me, so he sent me on anything any of the men went on. I managed to cope with it.
Currie: Journalists' prime responsibility is to get a story. Was there any place where you would draw the line in order to get a story or not get a story?
Cooke: There must have been. I can't think of any specific instances. Having the attitudes about society that I do have and always have had, I'm sure that that must have been true. But actually, my tenure as a journalist on the Amsterdam News was fairly short.
Currie: At this point, what was your husband doing while you were on the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Did I tell you about Adam Powell playing a part in his getting a job?
Currie: Not on tape.
Cooke: I didn't?
Currie: No, not on tape.
Cooke: Well, this is the job he had during this period.
Currie: So how did he get the job? He had been teaching?
Cooke: Yes, he had been teaching. In the meantime, he was a trainer for high school basketball and baseball teams, you know. He didn't get very much working like that, but just to fill in the time. Between the time we left A&T College until he got the kind of job he wanted, he worked as a trainer for different high-school teams in New York City. He was paid by the job.
Currie: So it was freelance?
Cooke: That's right. The people wanted him. He had been recently famous, so it was very easy for him to get that type of job. It didn't pay too well, but it kept us alive. With the small salary I got at the Amsterdam News, we were quite affluent.
Adam Powell had been raising hell on 125th Street, which is certainly the heart of the Harlem business area. Black people were having difficulty getting jobs at Bloomstein's, a department store on 125th Street. Childs had a restaurant and black people couldn't even go into it as patrons, let alone having jobs. So Adam had a massive picket campaign, a massive campaign for jobs and decency among the merchants on 125th Street. There was a very famous restaurant here called Frank's, which had been one of the most famous restaurants in the city and had a white patronage, regardless of the fact that it was right in the middle of the black area. Black people could go in as patrons, but they were seated in a segregated spot. So Adam picketed them. I happened to be on that picket line, and I went in with him. I was one of the few that went in with him when he discussed his program to procure responsible jobs for blacks in Harlem.
After he really cleaned up 125th Street, we had black workers in all of the places, and we could go in as patrons in all of the places. He started on the firms downtown. Among them was Ruppert's Brewery. The head of Ruppert's Brewery had been a graduate of Syracuse University, where my husband had graduated. So my husband thought that that would be a perfect place for him to apply for a managerial job, and he did. I know. I typed the résumé. Adam finally got to Ruppert's Brewery, which was on the East Side in the nineties, and presented his program to Mr. Ruppert, who sat there very carefully listening. My husband had applied at Ruppert's maybe a year before Adam got to the brewery. So Mr. Ruppert said, "Well, we are about to hire a Negro representative." We weren't black yet; we were Negroes.
And Adam said, "You are? Would you give me his name?"
And he said, "It's Cecil Cooke." Well, Adam and Cecil had been friends in high school, and in college. Adam went to Cornell. Cecil went to Syracuse. There were so few black students in these colleges upstate, they all knew each other.
So Adam said, "Oh, that's fine." And Mr. Ruppert said, "Yes, we'll be very happy to have Cecil Cooke here. You know, he's a graduate of Syracuse, where I graduated." And Cecil got a job within the next few days, financially the best job he had up to that time. I don't think it was the best job that he ever had, but financially, the very best job he ever had.
Currie: What did he do?
Cooke: He was the field representative for Ruppert in the metropolitan area, which included northern New Jersey and the area around New York City, not necessarily New York City, to go in to see how the merchandise was being moved, if there were any complaints. It was a very interesting job, and actually very lucrative. And it gave me a lot of freedom to do many of the things that I wanted to do. Upon reflection, I think that my activities later caused Cecil to lose that job. I always felt that. I can't prove it, but I felt that.
Currie: You mean your being called up before the House on Un-American Activities Committee?
Cooke: That's right. The reason I say that, I was already working for the Compass, and I had been called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee. One afternoon—the editorial office of the Compass was on the same floor with the switchboard—Katherine, on the switchboard, called me and said, "Marvel—" I always went as Marvel Cooke. I never went as Mrs. Cecil Cooke. "Is your husband's name Cecil?"
I said, "Yes, it is." And when I got home, Cecil told me that he had been released from his job, that when he went in that day, he was given his notice. I always felt guilty about it, that my activities had caused him to lose this job that had no political connections at all, you know.
Currie: What made you think that he had lost his job because of you?
Cooke: Because it turned out that it was Ruppert Brewery that had called to ask was I Mrs. Cecil Cooke—was Marvel Cooke Mrs. Cecil Cooke. And that day he lost his job. So I always felt that way. Cecil always pooh-poohed it, said it was not true, but I think it was true, because times were kind of hysterical during that period.
Currie: Did he share your political beliefs?
Cooke: Oh, yes. He wasn't as identified as I was, but the reason—this is a little "in" story. I think I told you that Ben Davis was the person who actually recruited me into the Communist party. Ben told me that people had said to him, "Cecil is such a well-known person. He's a well-known athlete and he has a lot of connections. Why don't you recruit him?"
He said, "Leave Cecil alone." Ben would say this. "Leave Cecil alone." He said, "Whenever I run into him on the street, he always asks me, 'How are things going, Ben?'" And Ben would say, "Oh, not too well. It's difficult for us to exist financially." And he said, "He always gives me at least $50 whenever he sees me."
Afterwards, I found out Cecil had actually joined the Communist party without telling me, and then he dropped out. When I found this out, I said, "Why didn't you tell me?"
He said, "Oh, I just wanted to get myself set before I involved you in any way."
I said, "Why did you drop out?"
He said, "I got tired of all those long meetings and the way they talked and talked and talked. I feel the same way, but I just am not ready to attend meetings like that, spend so much of my time that way." What I'm trying to say, he was utterly sympathetic.
Currie: So it wasn't a point of conflict.
Cooke: No. Never. Never. Never.
Currie: That's important.
Cooke: It was important to me.
Currie: Were you living here at 409 Edgecombe?
Cooke: I've always—I've lived here from the time I took my first breath. [Laughter.] No. I think I told you I babysat for Aaron Douglas' sister-in-law. I stayed here. I got married that year, and we went away. When we returned to New York we tried living one or two other places, but were very unhappy, and applied for an apartment here. Possibly in 1934 or '35—I know in '34 I had to have been here, because the Newspaper Guild meetings were always at my house. I had a large apartment then. I've been here ever since certainly the end of 1933 or '34. I've lived in 409 Edgecombe.
Currie: In different apartments?
Cooke: Only two.
Currie: So a larger apartment and your apartment now?
Currie: Your one-bedroom apartment.
Currie: That's a long time in one place.
Cooke: It certainly is. Maybe it means that I'm not progressive.
Currie: [Laughter.] I wouldn't think so. Maybe we can go on now to the People's Voice. I guess we need to get a little bit of background on the People's Voice. This was Adam Clayton Powell's paper.
Cooke: That's right. He and a businessman by the name of Charles Buchanan, who owned the Savoy Dance Hall—I don't know whether you've ever heard of it. It was a famous dance hall in the city. You know, all the most prestigious social clubs would have their dances at the Savoy. Anyway, they felt that there was a need for a paper that would help build the community, rather than sensationalize it, as the Amsterdam News had done. They started this paper, the People's Voice.
I must say it reported the little police doings and the police stories, but in a very different way. There was a crime column—I've forgotten the title, but the sensational stories were no longer than a paragraph, one, two, three, four. They weren't played up. If you wanted to know about an arrest or anything that was against society, it was in this little column, this little kind of police column. The rest of the paper was made up of stories that would help build this community.
Currie: Can you give me some examples of what you mean by stories that would help build the community?
Cooke: Adam was a very interesting man. He believed in sensational headlines. He thought that that would bring attention to the paper. So he once came in—we saw him once a week when he came—to discuss the content of the paper, go over the stories. One story, I've forgotten what it was about, but he thought the headline should be "White Race Doomed." I'll never forget that. Big headline with some sort of cartoon or picture illustrating it. But the headline was "White Race Doomed." We had a long editorial discussion. "We don't want the white race to be doomed! What we want to do is participate in the life of the country." And we finally talked him out of that sensational headline. I've forgotten what the story was, but it had to do with some group that was trying to build the black community. It seems to me the story had to do with the National Education Association, which was meeting in Cleveland or some place like that, because Doxey Wilkerson, who afterwards became general manager of this paper, was very active in the National Education Association [NEA]. He had made a presentation about black students in white colleges. It had to do with a positive story like that.
But anyway, Adam thought that the headline should be "White Race Doomed." Anyway, the white race wasn't doomed, obviously.
Currie: Was this financed by—
Cooke: The interesting thing about that paper was that its orientation was toward building this community. His best friend politically was Ben Davis, Ben Davis was like the editorial department behind the editorial department. [Laughter.] He really advised Adam as to what kind of stories he felt, as an activist in the community, should go into the paper. He really gave him a lot of good advice, and the paper became a reflection of what black people wanted, needed to do, their participation in the school system, in government, you know. It started out as a very good paper. In my opinion, it's just a shame that it didn't live.
Currie: So do you know whose money financed it?
Cooke: I really don't. I wouldn't be responsible if I said. I don't know.
Currie: Was Adam Clayton Powell at the Abyssinian Baptist Church at that point?
Cooke: Yes, because it was after the paper was founded that he became congressman. He was at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and he was a sensational minister. He participated on our picket line at the Amsterdam News. [Laughter.] He organized a ministers' picket line for us.
Currie: This would have been about 19—
Cooke: '35, the strike. The People's Voice came into being after that and died in 1947. I know that that was the last of the People's Voice.
Currie: So you went from the Amsterdam News in what year to the People's Voice?
Cooke: It must have been about 1940. Yes, around 1940, '41.
Currie: How long did you end up staying at the People's Voice?
Cooke: You asked me about who financed it. I really don't know, but I know that there was an element that wanted to get rid of Adam as the editor, wanted to take the paper over, and it was done, as I remember it, in a very sneaky way. What was the man's name? He was very active with some very progressive people like Ben Davis, but he became a real enemy of the party and of political growth in this city, and he must have had some backing. Somebody must have wanted to get rid of Adam. He lost the paper to this man—I'm trying very hard to remember the man's name. He lost it to him. Fredi Washington—you don't know who she was?
Currie: No, I don't.
Cooke: Fredi Washington was the first black actress who ever had a role in a movie that wasn't an Aunt Jemima role. She was in "Imitation of Life," and she looked like a white person. Some of the big moguls out in Hollywood had—I'm straying.
Currie: No, no. Please, this is interesting.
Cooke: These big moguls who had contacted her after her role in the "Imitation of Life," felt that she had great potential as an actress. If she were not black, if she would change her race, her name, that they could make a real star out of her, that she was the best thing in that picture. I remember becoming interested in Fredi at that time. I was at the Amsterdam News. She made a wonderful statement, saying that she enjoyed her work in the movies, but she wanted to make it as a Negro actress, and that she would not change her name or race for anybody. She was a Negro, and she wanted to make her way as a Negro. She happened to be Adam Powell's sister-in-law. Adam had married her sister, Isobel.
After she made this statement and it was pretty well publicized, Adam started the People's Voice and asked her if she would be the theatrical editor. I think I mentioned her before, how we used to have dinner together every night, and I would talk with her. She certainly was as progressive as I. So finally, after about a year of just playing around with ideas, I told her that I was a member of the Communist party. She said, "I knew it." And Doxey and I recruited her. She wasn't active in the party in the Harlem area, but she was active with some group that was working in the theater. Why did I get off into this?
Currie: Because I asked you what year you had gone to the People's Voice.
Cooke: Anyway, the People's Voice was having financial difficulty, and we knew it. Fredi knew it, I knew it. So Fredi and I felt that it would be good if we could relieve the paper of our salaries for a short time. We both took a leave of absence at the same time in June of this particular year, and we were just about to finish our leave when Doxey Wilkerson called me. He always called me Lady. He said, "Good morning, Lady."
I said, "Good morning."
Currie: Let me just turn over the tape quickly.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Currie: So Doxey Wilkerson called you and said, "Good morning, Lady."
Cooke: He said, "I have been fired from the paper."
I said, "That can't be!"
He said, "Yes, I was fired this morning."
I said, "I will be the next one fired, I predict."
He said, "I don't think they'll touch you."
I said, "Of course. If they fire you, they're going to fire me." I called Fredi and I said, "Fredi, Doxey's been fired. I know I will be fired."
And she said, "And I will be fired." It happened just in that sequence.
The morning after Doxey called me, my lease was to end. That very morning I got this letter signed by a man that I'd always felt was a friend—he was a lawyer and he was an advisor to the paper—saying that they no longer needed my services.
I called Fredi. She said, "I got mine, too." So actually, I feel they were trying to get rid of people who had any political clout.
Currie: Were you all Communist party members?
Cooke: Well, Doxey was, I was, and Fredi was. But immediately afterwards they fired a few others who were good trade unionists. They fired them one by one. Florence Murray, who was a very good reporter, very good writer, was fired. Doxey's secretary, Madeline, who was very, very good, was fired. Everybody on that staff was not Communist, but they were firing anyone who was active in the Newspaper Guild. I think that was the biggest thing.
Currie: Were all these people active in the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: We were all members of the Newspaper Guild. It was a closed shop.
Currie: Who was the person in back of these firings?
Cooke: Max Yergan. That's the name I've been trying to remember. It's funny how these things come to you. Max Yergan had—I can't say that he was ever a Communist, but he had participated in many activities with well-known Communists, and he leeched onto Paul Robeson, who was never a Communist, never a member of the Communist party. I feel a lot of people are Communists who don't even know it, you know. But he made his reputation going around with Paul and participating with Paul. After Doxey left, Yergan became general manager of the paper, and all of us were fired one by one. This began the death of that paper. It died soon after that.
Currie: So he had wrested control from Adam Clayton Powell?
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: So Adam Clayton Powell was no longer in charge?
Cooke: No, he wasn't. No. It would not have happened that way had he been, but I think it must have had a weak financial structure, and Max was able to control it by bringing in money—and I always felt it was enemy money—into that paper.
Currie: Enemy money?
Cooke: You know, people who were against the progressive attitudes taken by the People's Voice.
Currie: So what year were you fired from the People's Voice?
Cooke: The end of the paper, I happen to know. I happen to remember that because it came up in the McCarthy hearings. So this had to have happened in 1946, '47.
Currie: So you spent six years at the People's Voice?
Cooke: I would say five or six years.
Currie: A good long time. Why don't we talk a bit about what you actually did at the People's Voice. What were you hired to do?
Cooke: I was hired in a very strange capacity, as the assistant managing editor. I felt quite incapable of that type of job, but I said, "I have to do it." The managing editor was a man by the name of John Louis Clark, a very, very good journalist. He taught me, really, how to write headlines, how to put a paper together, how to make a paper up, and I was a fast learner. It didn't take me long to learn these things. So much so that, unfortunately, he was a very nice person, but he was an alcoholic. I shouldn't say "but." A nice person who was, in my opinion, an alcoholic. He got so that he trusted me. I learned how to put that paper together. I learned to do it by myself, write headlines, spot the stories, where they should be, etc.
I must say that Doxey was learning as fast as I was, because as general manager, one of his jobs was to see that the political orientation of the stories was correct, that many things were correct. Not that they had to have a Communist orientation, but they had to be pro-rights of the black people. It had to be like that.
Currie: So there was no question that you were not objectively reporting the news.
Cooke: No. That's right. So I would write the headlines. Doxey never learned how to do that. I would take the stories in to him and he would check the headlines. If he had any question about it or criticism, we discussed it and straightened it out. We worked together very well. Then we took the paper down to the Village someplace, where it was made up—a print shop.
Currie: Where was the office of the People's Voice?
Cooke: The office was on 125th Street. It had to be like 210 West 125th Street. It was right over the Woolworth store, which is still there. There were offices up over the Woolworth. They're no longer there. There's a new Woolworth, but it's at the same location.
Anyway, I would take the copy in to Doxey and discuss problems I might have. I had a problem with a friend who did a column from Washington, one of the Murphys, George Murphy. He never learned to—he just wrote and wrote and wrote. I told him because we were a tabloid, nothing could be long. We had to get a lot of copy into it, and people had to learn how to capsulize. I remember writing to him. I said, "George, you have three half-pages." We asked people to do their copy on half-sheets so that they would realize they couldn't just write and write and write.
Currie: What are half-sheets?
Cooke: You know the legal size paper?
Cooke: Just divide it in half.
Currie: So you wanted them to write little?
Cooke: Yes. George's column had to be contained within three half-sheets. Never! And I remember talking to Doxey about having so many problems with this copy, because often some of the most important things would be at the end. So you had to cut it sometimes right in the middle. So I wrote again to George. We were good friends. I said, "Look, George. We really have to have your column within three sheets." But he just kept writing in the same manner. So Doxey, who was friendly with George, too, said to me, "Tell him that you'll just have to lop off after three sheets. Whatever is on the next has to go." George didn't believe it. So we started cutting it after three sheets, and he complained, "Some of the most important things were at the end." I said, "Well, get it in within three sheets." That was the type of problem we had. George learned how to do that.
Currie: This was a different experience for you, having to manage writers.
Cooke: That's right. I didn't do any writing at the People's Voice, none whatsoever. I remember once I got to work early and some little incident happened on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, and I was the only one in the office. I went out and did a little short on it. When Doxey came in and said, "Who did this?" I thought, "Oh, my God, I guess I've lost my touch." I said, "I did. What's wrong?" He said, "It's the best thing I've seen for a long time. You mean to tell me you write like that and you're not writing?"
I didn't have time to write. Really, it turned out I was managing. I was assistant managing editor to no managing editor, because John Louis Clark finally just resigned. I remember Adam saying to him, "Who's going to run the paper?" He said, "Marvel. She's been doing it, anyway." I became assistant managing editor to no managing editor. They would not hire a woman as a managing editor, and I was happy, because the designation "managing editor" was not within the Guild contract. Assistant managing editor was.
Currie: So you couldn't have been in the Guild?
Cooke: I couldn't have been in the Guild.
Currie: So you didn't want to be managing editor?
Cooke: No, I didn't want to. I just inherited the job. I wanted to be out in the street, writing stuff. I didn't want to be managing editor.
Currie: Did they pay you the same as they were paying John Louis Clark?
Cooke: No. No. I got my same—I've forgotten. It was a very small salary, like $85 a week. I think that that was it, because of a conversation my husband and I had afterwards. Eighty-five dollars a week, that's what I was hired at, that's what I got the whole time I was at the People's Voice.
Currie: You never got a raise in five years?
Cooke: No! The paper didn't have enough money.
Currie: Did anyone get a raise?
Cooke: No. No.
Currie: How were the women paid as compared to the men?
Cooke: They were paid according to position, just as the men were. I know Florence Murray, who was the best reporter on the staff, got paid the same as the male reporters. I had a lot of trouble with the men.
Currie: What were the problems with the men?
Cooke: They didn't want a woman criticizing anything they wrote. For instance—I remember his name but I'm not going to say it—the sports editor was almost illiterate. It so happened that I had been married to a man who knew about sports, and I could have been a sports editor, really. But I'd get his copy and it would almost kill me, it was so—there wouldn't be a sentence in the whole thing. It was just terrible. So I rewrote everything he did. He went in to Doxey and complained about me. He said, "She murders my copy. I just can't function with her."
So Doxey, who was a friend of mine, as well as a comrade, called me in and said, "What's this between you and (he mentioned the man's name)?"
I said, "Nothing. I just try to make his copy readable."
He said, "Well, he's complaining about you, that you just murder his stories."
I really didn't know how to criticize a person. I didn't want him to lose his job, particularly, but I wanted Doxey to understand what I had to put up with. This man turned in a particularly bad piece of copy. It was on one of our little half sheets. I "accidentally" left his copy the way it was in the basket that I used to take in to Doxey before it was sent to the printer. I knew Doxey would call me in. I was prepared for it. He looked very puzzled. He said, "What is this?"
"Oh," I said, "I've been looking for that. That is part of So-and-so's copy."
He said, "You mean to tell me that this is the way he writes?"
I said, "All the time and worse than this." So I had my problems. I'm sure that the fact that I was a woman played a part in this man's criticism of me. He didn't want to work under a woman.
Currie: Did you think about firing him?
Cooke: Thank God I wasn't in the position to fire or hire. That was Doxey's business.
Currie: So why do you say "thank God"?
Cooke: Well, because I would never want to be in the position of firing somebody, unless he was really a thug or something, you know. There were too few jobs around then. I would hate to have been put in that position. I don't remember what happened to him. That was near the end of my time at the People's Voice. I don't really remember what happened to him. I see him. He's still around.
Currie: Is he still working as a journalist?
Cooke: I think he must be. I don't know where or who would hire him, but that's all he ever did. You see, unfortunately, too many—and I think too many not only black journalists—but too many journalists have not been trained, even in how to handle the English language. It's a fascinating field, and they got into it one way or another, but not through an ability to write.
Currie: So why do you think these people were hired in the first place? Didn't he have to show copy that he'd written?
Cooke: We inherited this man that I just told you about. Most of the people on the People's Voice wrote quite well. They may not have been trained journalists.
Currie: They may not have been trained journalists, but they knew how to write copy?
Cooke: That's right. Fredi was very interesting. I don't think that any black paper up to that time—I'm not talking about the black papers now—had ever had a columnist who was as well versed in her field, or his field, as Fredi was. She had worked as an actress, as a dancer, and she'd worked in Hollywood, but her copy was miserable. She couldn't write a straight line. But I knew that this column was important to the life of the paper. I remember that what I would do was to edit her copy the last, when I could spend a lot of time on it. She realized what I was doing to make it readable. Fredi was just a natural born whatever she was. She had never had any formal schooling. But I knew she was important. Her name was important to the paper, and her copy, the things that she was presenting about difficulties blacks were having in the theater, was important. So I would spend hours rewriting that copy, not changing her ideas, but rewriting that copy to make it readable. She was offered a job on one of the white dailies as a result of this column, the theatrical column, and I was flattered. She said, "Well, you'll have to hire Marvel Cooke, too, because I can't work without her." She never left, but anyway, it was quite a compliment to me.
Currie: So she knew?
Cooke: She knew. She said, "I wish I could put it like that." But anyway, it was an important column. She was important to the paper. It was an important contribution that the paper was making to the arts, and I was willing to work hours and hours and hours to make it palatable.
Currie: What about the other women on the staff? How did you manage them?
Cooke: I didn't. We just worked together well. For instance, Florence Murray was very good. I have a book of hers here. Florence Murray was a very good journalist. She was a very good investigator. She wrote well. I had no problem with any of them, and we liked each other. I never felt like a boss, and they never treated me that way. We got along fine.
Some of the men resented me. The sports editor before the one I just spoke about, who wrote well—no, he came after. As a matter of fact, this man must have left. Yes, he did, because Joe Bostic came after. Joe knew how to write, and his sports columns were pretty good—were good. I shouldn't say "pretty good." They were good. He didn't like to work under a woman. He gave me quite a bit of trouble.
Currie: What did he do?
Cooke: He would say, "What do you know about sports? What do you know?"
I said, "Maybe I don't know what you know, but I feel I know how I'd like to read it. I think I know a little bit about presentation." So we managed, battling back and forth like that. It wasn't too bad, but I know that he would have preferred working for a man.
Currie: You said you were hired as assistant managing editor, and you weren't at all sure you deserved that.
Cooke: Because I had never worked in that capacity. All I'd done was write. I never worked in that capacity. But I have a feeling—this is only a feeling—that Ben Davis, who was the spirit behind the editorial board, credited me with more ability than I thought I had at that time, and he influenced Adam and his associates to hire me as assistant managing editor.
Currie: John Louis Clark, who was, as you say, alcoholic, what had his background been as a journalist?
Cooke: He had been the editor of the Kansas City Call before he came to New York, and he had worked with Roy Wilkins, who was a trained journalist, and had been the editor of the Kansas City Call. John had quite a background and he was really very clever—but unfortunately, was an alcoholic.
Currie: So he was well qualified to be managing editor.
Cooke: Oh, yes. There was no doubt about that. I'm sure, if I go back into it, that he taught me a lot about writing headlines, about make-up, about all of the things you needed to know in order to edit a paper.
Currie: Was it difficult working for him? I mean, he must have been erratic if he was an alcoholic.
Cooke: Well, I was so stupid, I didn't really realize it. I just knew he was absent, he wasn't there, and the paper had to go to bed. It had to go to bed. I was committed to the paper. I knew it was having financial problems, and we just couldn't fool around. We had to meet deadlines. We had to do this. So I functioned that way.
Currie: And you didn't question that you were doing his job?
Cooke: No, it didn't occur to me. I think I felt I was learning so much, I was gaining skills that I didn't know I had.
Currie: Do you think if that were to happen to you today, you'd feel the same way?
Cooke: I don't think so. I possibly would have made a complaint about it, you know, in an organized way, not just pop up and make a complaint, but through the union, and see if we couldn't straighten it out. Of course, in those days, not as much was known about alcoholism as is known now. I imagine a lot of our journalists, as in other creative occupations, were alcoholics.
Currie: So there was nothing said specifically about his alcoholism?
Cooke: Just accepted it. We had a woman on the staff who was an alcoholic. She was also a good writer. Right in the middle of the day—there was a bar across the street from the People's Voice—I would send somebody over to the bar to get her. I said, "She'll be over there. Tell her to come get back here. We need this story."
Currie: There certainly is a tradition of a hard-drinking journalist.
Cooke: I know. I know. Unfortunately.
Currie: What were some of your other duties as assistant managing editor? Did you see all the copy before it went out?
Cooke: Every bit. Everything. Not the advertising copy, but every bit of the editorial copy went through my hands. I didn't think it was anything unusual then. I was young and had a lot of energy, and it never occurred to me that this was a lot of work. Then when we'd go down to make up the paper, that was something. I worked pretty well with the men in the printing office. Doxey, who knew nothing about make-up, would go down there, get up on one of the make-up tables—
Currie: A light table?
Cooke: Yes. And go to sleep. We'd come out of there at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, after the paper had been made up. I had assistance from the men in the print shop, and somebody from
the office would be there with me. Often Florence Murray, the woman I spoke about, would come down with me. She had a good background in news and make-up, because her father was the publisher of a paper in Alexandria, the little town in Virginia, very close to Washington. He had a paper there, and she had grown up in a newspaper. She was very good and very helpful.
Currie: So she knew how to help you make up the paper?
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: I have to say it sounds like most of these men were sort of skating along. [Laughter.]
Cooke: Well, I guess they were. I guess they were.
Currie: I mean, Doxey went to sleep, the managing editor—
Cooke: Doxey did his job.
Cooke: His job wasn't an editorial job; it was sort of an advisory position. He was the general manager, and he set the tone of the paper. He did a lot, but had nothing to do with the Jimmy Higgins work to get that paper out. He saw to it that I got proper transportation home and things like that. [Laughter.] I think Doxey was really very misplaced. I think it was an improper decision—I don't know who made it—for him to leave Howard University as a professor, to get into this horrendous field, you know.
Currie: Why do you say that?
Cooke: Well, because I am sure—what was the man's name who was president of Howard so long? Oh, yes! Mordecai Johnson.
Currie: I used to know that.
Cooke: I know that name, too. Anyway, it was felt by students at Howard that when Mordecai Johnson left Howard, Doxey was the natural inheritor of the presidency. He would have been a tremendous president, because he understood so well the problems that black people generally, and particularly students, had. He would have been wonderful. I just feel that it was unfortunate for education—for Doxey—that he was ever lured out of the field of education into this crazy, crazy profession.
Currie: Was the People's Voice a weekly newspaper?
Cooke: Weekly. As a matter of fact, there have been, if any, very few black dailies.
Currie: That's what I understand.
Cooke: Which I am going to talk about that when I talk about going into the Compass, because I had difficulty.
Currie: How many people worked for the People's Voice?
Cooke: You mean entirely in all divisions?
Cooke: Let me see. I can only estimate at this long distance, but I would say there were ten in the editorial office, maybe six in the business office, and maybe four or five others.
How many would that make? I don't imagine there were ever more than twenty or twenty-five workers at the People's Voice.
Currie: You were all located in the same—
Cooke: In the same general area, the floor over the Woolworth's. It was not even divided. We were sort of in sections. There was a reception desk. I remember it very well. And the business offices, which included advertising, and then in the front of the building, which was the back as you came in, editorial offices.
Currie: So you were all out in the open?
Cooke: That's right. Except Doxey had an office. We had a library, which had a door to it. The editor had an office, which I never physically—I could have gone in, but I never physically moved into that office. When we had conferences and things like that, we had them in that office.
Currie: So after he left, you just left that office empty?
Cooke: That's right. I didn't even want physically to go in there.
Currie: Why is that?
Cooke: I don't know. I just always worked with people. I never wanted to work away, secluded, you know.
Currie: Was there ever a time at the People's Voice where you had to make a tough decision about a story, killing a story, or assigning a story?
Cooke: Well, of course. Any "editor" would have had to do that. There must have been many times like that. I think I was in the decision-making of keeping a story within three half pages. Don't write too long. We had to make stories short and effective.
Currie: Did you ever have to kill a story?
Cooke: Of course you would have to.
Currie: Do you remember any?
Cooke: I don't remember. I couldn't remember. That's an awful long time ago. But naturally, a story would break, and they did often, I remember that, that we hadn't contemplated in planning for the next edition. Something would have to go. We tried to keep the paper as fresh as possible. We had to! We had competition. Or we were the competition.
Currie: So who was your main competition?
Cooke: Amsterdam News, actually the only competition we had.
Currie: How did your circulation do in comparison to theirs?
Cooke: It did very well for a while. All the time we were there, it did very well, until these—I mentioned Max Yergan and his—I'm sure that they were sent in to destroy the paper. It did quite well. I know so many expressed that they hated to see the paper die. It played the sort of role in this area, anyway, that PM and the Compass played in New York City, and possibly it died for the same reason that those papers died.
Currie: What role did they play, and why did they die?
Cooke: Are you talking about the Compass now?
Currie: The People's Voice.
Cooke: I feel that there were forces here in this area—there still are, I guess—that were against the kind of leadership that Adam Powell and his paper played in this community. And it died because it was too progressive. There were forces that didn't want to see it thrive. They'd rather see a sensational paper. We felt our paper was quite sensational when it exposed discrepancies of a landlord.
Currie: A slum lord.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: But that's something the Amsterdam News was not doing?
Cooke: At that time, it was not. I have a feeling that now it does that. But at that time, they were more interested in the type of story that caused me to leave there: "Killed Sweetheart, Slept With Body," which the People's Voice would never have headlined. They may have capsulized that story in that column that they ran, but they never would have played that story up. They would play up a slum-lord story that caused devastation to the general population.
Currie: What was the thing you liked the most about the job at the People's Voice?
Cooke: Oh, the excitement of being where the news was and handling it and helping make the decision to dispense it to the community. I enjoyed it very much. I didn't enjoy not writing, because at that time I felt that I was going to be a fine American writer. [Laughter.]
Currie: About how old were you when you came to the People's Voice?
Cooke: Maybe thirty-six or thirty-seven, in that age bracket. Yes, about that.
Currie: What's the thing you disliked the most about the job?
Cooke: Not writing. Not having the time to write. I felt that I had some ability and that I could have contributed to the editorial polish of the paper.
Currie: Then from the People's Voice, you went to the Compass?
Cooke: Yes, but I think that there is a story that should come in here. It has to do with the Newspaper Guild.
Cooke: Richard Carter was a young writer on the Daily News or one of those papers. I think he had been at the Herald Tribune. But he felt that he would love to become an organizer for the Guild. The Guild was new, and when he joined the staff, he said that he would prefer to work with the two black units. A friend of mine at the Guild headquarters called me and told me about Richard Carter, that he wanted to work with the uptown units. We were called the uptown units. She thought it would be very good if he talked with me. I remember exactly what I said to her. Her name was Gladys Bentley. I said, "Is he to be trusted?" And her answer was, "All the way."
So she set up a meeting for us at Frank's Restaurant, and I recognized him immediately. He was quite young. He was under thirty. We had a long discussion about the Guild, and he became a really very good representative of the two uptown units. Whenever we had any problem with the management, he was always there and did a heck of a job. It was very interesting, because Richard Carter is the product of a very affluent family, of course not black.
He grew up on Fifth Avenue, in the sixties someplace. But he was very interested in trade unionism, and he was a heck of a good trade unionist. When the paper died, he was in there all the way fighting for protection of the workers. He, afterwards, left the Guild. I don't know why he left. He started working on PM.
Currie: I need to change the tape.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Currie: You were talking about PM. Could you just tell me a little bit about what PM was?
Cooke: PM means "afternoon." What was that person's name, from Chicago, who wanted to get some tax relief, and he started the paper? Marshall Field. Actually, the story was that he was seeking tax relief and he started this paper with a very good staff.
Currie: It was a very liberal paper?
Cooke: Very liberal. It went very deeply into social problems facing New York City, and it did a number of stories about Harlem and what was going on in Harlem. All of us who read the press were delighted with the entrance of PM into the newspaper field here. Dick Carter was one of my friends in the Newspaper Guild, a liberal person and a good writer, who was lured to work at PM.
PM didn't last too long. As a matter of fact, only for a very short time. I think it may have started about 1947 or '48, and Marshall Field, after he got his tax relief, sold it out to somebody. I don't know to whom. It became known as the Star, and then finally the Compass. Jack McManus was the editor of PM, and he went through the Star and into the Compass staff.
Currie: Were the Star and the Compass different papers?
Cooke: For possibly some legal reason, they couldn't keep the name PM. I don't know. But they generally had the same kind of editorial focus. It was just a line from the PM to the Star to the Compass.
A man by the name of Corliss Lamont, a millionaire liberal here in New York, he's still living, bought the Compass.
By this time, the People's Voice was no longer in existence, and good trade unionist that he was, Richard Carter, at a Compass Guild meeting, moved that the next editorial vacancy should be filled by a "qualified" black journalist.
At this time I wasn't working, and a vacancy did occur. My name was proposed. I'll never forget the day I went down to be interviewed for the position. I didn't realize this was a history-making thing, because this was the first time—well, I'm getting ahead of myself. But anyway, I told my husband, who knew Richard Carter, that I had this offer and I was going down to have an interview. I remember he said to me, "Don't you dare accept less than $100." I had made $85 a week at the People's Voice.
So I went down to be interviewed, and I was interviewed by friends. The city editor had been a friend of mine in the Guild. As a matter of fact, he was a very good newspaperman. He had been city editor of one of the dailies around here. He had helped us design and set up the People's Voice. He was a very good journalist and was city editor of the Compass. His name was Sol Abramson. He told me what my duties would be and introduced me to the people on staff I didn't know. I knew a lot of them because of my activity in the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: What did he say your duties would be?
Cooke: I would be a reporter assigned to whatever came up. I thought this was quite challenging, especially since I'd had that hiatus at the People's Voice, where I did no writing at all.
Currie: He introduced you to other people on the staff?
Cooke: Yes, those I didn't know. There were only two or three that I didn't know, anyway. They knew me. It was a very friendly atmosphere. I remember Sol taking me to the elevator and he said, "We haven't discussed salary." He went on, "I feel very embarrassed to tell you how little the salary is. It's $125 a week, but the paper is new and is struggling, and this is what we pay." I was kind of surprised. I'd never made $125 a week.
I remember coming home. I was still in the larger apartment. Cecil said to me, "Did you get $100 a week?"
I said, "No."
He said, "You didn't? I told you not to take anything less. You've got to get at least $100. What did you get? What are they paying you?"
I said, "One-hundred and twenty-five." But that's how I went to the Compass. I always felt that there could have been somebody better suited to that job than I. But there was nobody in the black press who had been as active in the union as I had been.
Currie: And you knew all these people.
Cooke: Yes, I knew them, and they were very protective of me.
Currie: Protective in what way?
Cooke: Well, Jack McManus was no longer in the Guild because of his position.
Currie: He was the editor-in-chief?
Cooke: Yes. Jack McManus gave me a very, very hard time, and rightfully so in the beginning, because in the black press—and it still is true, I imagine—we had at least three or four days to develop a story. I was accustomed to taking my time to go into the background, you know. I wasn't accustomed to that kind of pace.
Currie: A daily pace.
Cooke: Yes. I was approaching stories in a not-correct manner. Jack McManus was quite right when he criticized me in the beginning, but my friends on the staff realized what my problem was and they helped me overcome it.
Currie: What did they do?
Cooke: Well, they said, "You know, you're on a daily now. We don't have time to go into backgrounds in the way you have been accustomed to. Maybe tomorrow you can bring another facet to the story. It has to be done at a different pace than you've been accustomed to." I understood that, and I think I was young enough then to have made the adjustment. It wasn't that hard.
But I still seemed to have trouble with Jack McManus. Everything I wrote, he criticized. Finally, Richard Carter—I call him Dick—and the other members of the union, felt that I was being unfairly criticized. "Let's make a complaint about this." I'll never forget the day we faced Jack McManus. I didn't want to go in with the committee, but I had to. Dick said, "We on the desk can't understand why you complain so much about Marvel's copy. It certainly is superior
to some others on staff." And he mentioned a few names. "You don't have any complaints about their copy, but every time something by Marvel Cooke is brought into your office, you have a complaint about it."
And I must say, to his credit, Jack McManus said, "Well, I'll tell you what happens to me. I'm not accustomed to women on the desk, and when I walk out there and see her, I feel I can't use my four-letter words. I just can't express myself the way I want to."
I remember my answer to him. I said, "I don't use those words myself. Actually, they never have been in my vocabulary, but I know them. I couldn't have walked the streets of Harlem and written stories and not be familiar with them. I can write them and they don't disturb me. It just disturbs me that people are unable to express themselves except in these kinds of words." After that, we started getting along. But I found myself still trying to please Jack McManus. I worked so hard to please Jack McManus, I was sort of like in a straitjacket, you know.
I remember I was doing a story on Brownsville. There was some disturbance in the black community. There was a very good reason that I was assigned to that story. I remember sitting down, trying so hard to please Jack McManus, who was a very fine writer himself, I remember his calling me in after I turned in my copy. He said, "Marvel, this story is almost good, but it isn't what we need. Would you like Dick Carter to rewrite it?"
I remember getting so angry. I liked Dick's writing. I still admire him as a writer. But I said, "Nobody, nobody rewrites my stuff. I'll do it myself." I was about to go on vacation the next day. I remember going back to that typewriter and writing the story the way I felt like writing it. And I remember going in to Jack's office and putting it down on the desk. I said, "This is the best I can do. I hope it pleases you." I felt it would not, because I approached it very differently than what I thought, "I must please Jack McManus."
I came home. I had some guests here, one staying overnight, a friend of mine from Minnesota. I got a telegram the next day and it was from Jack McManus. I waited until my friends left before I read it. I said, "I know he's going to fire me or something." I called Jack, and he said, "Marvel, it's the best copy that's ever come in here." He said, "There are a couple of things that I would like, to discuss with you, a couple of things, but it is beautiful copy." I went down and we straightened it out. It was something minor.
Currie: So what did that tell you?
Cooke: Well, I knew what the paper was about. I agreed with its perspective, but I write the way I want to write. I'm not trying to write for somebody else; I'm writing for myself and expressing things the way I want to.
Jack died soon after that. It turned out that he had planned to do a book, the best writing from the Compass, and he had intended to make that the lead story.
Currie: What a compliment!
Cooke: Yes, but that's what he told me, and I believe he meant it. After that, we became very good friends.
Currie: Were you the only woman in the newsroom?
Cooke: That's true. I was not only the only black, but the only woman, so I had a double, you know, burden to bear.
Currie: How was it being the only black and the only woman in a news room like that?
Cooke: I don't think it bothered me too much being the only black, because I'd been the only black all my life from grade school, you know. That didn't bother me so much. But being the only woman did bother me, because I felt, in Jack's case, after this incident, I felt that he was being a little tentative about the stories I was assigned to cover.
Currie: How would they do that?
Cooke: I wouldn't be assigned to something that was violent. I did get into one because I was black. There had been some violence in Brownsville.
Currie: This is the story?
Cooke: No, it wasn't the story, but it was my introduction to Brownsville. I'm recreating things.
Currie: That's great!
Cooke: Some young black man who had gone afoul of the law had been sent to an institution for the mentally unbalanced. Because of overcrowded conditions,—he was one of the least violent,—he had been released. He lived in Brownsville, a section in Brooklyn. He suddenly went berserk and went out of his house, and he killed a couple of people, one or two. I don't know how many. But the community was in turmoil over this incident.
There was a very good newsman and a friend, who is now not living, named Dan Gilmore, on our desk. He had been assigned to this situation in Brownsville. He called the office and he said, "I think Marvel is the only person that can get through this community. The community has locked arms around that family. It's a well-liked family, and they're not letting any newsmen through. A white newsman can't get through, can't get into that woman's abode. I think Marvel's the only one who can do it."
So I went over to meet Dan. We actually, with some suspicion, did walk through that community. Because of my racial identity, I was able to go through. They didn't suspect me. They didn't want any media attention, the community didn't. They were protecting this young man's mother. I'll never forget. I think I even mentally visualize that apartment. We walked up the steps. She lived on the second floor. We knocked and said who we were, and she said, "I'm not talking to anybody from a newspaper." And I remember saying to her that, "I am black. Somebody's going to write this story. It would be better for you to have reporters who are sympathetic to the situation here than to have it sensationalized the way it will be." So she let us in.
I remember that Dan said to me—we took a taxi back to New York—he said, "You take this part of the story. I'll take the other." We actually had the story almost written in the taxi before we got to the Compass—we were hitting a deadline. Oh, everybody was so excited about the fact that we were the only paper in the city that had that story.
So when Dan and I came in to work the next morning, I remember Sol, the one that I had seen when I went to get the job, he was the city editor, was pleased with this story. Ted Thackery, the general manager, called Dan and me in. Everybody said, "You're going to get praised for this story. It's a good story. You approached it properly."
We went in. We got hell. Ted Thackery said, "No other paper had a story like this! What do you mean by this story?" Oh, he gave us hell.
Currie: Why did he do that?
Cooke: I don't know. He wasn't the editorial department. He just thought maybe we'd gone berserk on this story.
Currie: That's interesting. Because no one else had it, he didn't want you to have it?
Cooke: He said, "It's sensationalism, and we don't go for sensationalism." It wasn't sensational. We were just telling the truth.
Currie: And everybody else would have run it if they could have gotten through.
Cooke: That's right. But anyway, he didn't like it, and we came out crestfallen. Well, the people in the union were mad as heck at that. Afterwards, things settled down in Brownsville and it was proved we had done a good job.
Currie: And the other Brownsville story that you were writing?
Cooke: After that, we felt, in an editorial conference, that it might be a good thing to do, a good, in-depth story about race relations in Brownsville. I was sent over to do it.
Currie: What was Brownsville like?
Cooke: Brownsville was a mixed community. I don't know what it is now, but part of it was completely black and part of it was not, and there were conflicts, many problems. I don't remember what the story was like, but anyway, I was sent to do it. I think I chose to do it. I think I suggested it, that it might be well to have a story on Brownsville. But I was still trying to please Jack McManus.
Currie: Did you treat different people in a different way when you reported on them? Did you feel a special responsibility, for example, to report on Brownsville? Did you feel constrained, because this was a black community that you were reporting on?
Cooke: No. No. I think I reacted mainly to slum conditions that caused many outbursts in the community, you know. I don't think I just took a favorable attitude. I didn't have a favorable attitude to people just because they were black. I did—and still [do]—resent slum conditions that cause violence in communities.
Currie: What about because you were a woman? Do you think you looked at stories in a different way?
Cooke: I don't think so. I don't think so. I never thought about it at the time. I wasn't conscious of it.
Currie: Did you propose stories?
Cooke: As a matter of fact, I did propose the slave-market series.
Currie: Tell me how that came into being.
Cooke: Well, many, many years ago, when Roy Wilkins was editor of the Crisis—no, before he was editor, I had heard about the slave market in the Bronx, and I had done a very not-in-depth story at all, just a little story, about the slave market. I think I gave it that name. When Roy Wilkins became editor of the Crisis, he used to come to my house a lot. He lived in this apartment, in this complex.
Currie: Everybody's lived here.
Cooke: That's true. So a young woman who was running for alderman or something, a young black woman, was very good politically, but she was harem-scarem. She was kind of nutty. Anyway, she used to come to my house a lot, and she started talking about the slave market. Roy was fascinated, and he asked her if she would do a piece on the slave market for the Crisis. She said yes. Of course, the other woman, who was visiting me at the time, and I knew that she would never do it. She just wasn't disciplined enough. And she didn't. We felt kind of responsible,
so this woman and I went up to Westchester Avenue and we did a little piece—it was constrained by space—for the Crisis on the slave market. We did it, and we let her use her name on it. But I actually became fascinated with the slave market at that time. It was many years after that, that I said something about it in an editorial meeting of the Compass.
Currie: And you did something at the Amsterdam News on it?
Cooke: A little, but it wasn't in-depth. It was just that it was there and it was a shame. I didn't say it was a shame, because that would be editorializing, but I presented it that way.
So the editorial board bought it. They thought it would be a good idea. I did go up and establish the fact that the slave market was still thriving. As a matter of fact, thriving better then than it had in days before, because we were deep in the Depression at this time. So I remember getting myself together—I think we were in this apartment then—trying to look like I thought the women on the slave market would look.
Currie: Essentially, just for the record, the slave market is made up of day workers?
Cooke: Day workers, yes. People who needed to augment their very small income in order to live. They did it this way. They'd go up and stand and be assessed as to their brawn, and hired by the women of the community to do day work.
Currie: And there was a place in the Bronx where they would go?
Cooke: There may have been more than this one place, but I did know about Westchester Avenue, about 176th Street. I'm not quite sure, because I don't know the Bronx that well. But I know it was Westchester Avenue.
Currie: So you decided you'd pose as one of these women?
Cooke: Yes, pose. I had never done anything like that before.
Currie: Whose idea was it that you were going to pose?
Cooke: It was mine. It would take a black woman to do it. I was the only woman on the staff, and thank God I was black and I could do it. So I remember getting myself together like I thought these women—I'd seen them, so I knew how to do it. I had my proper paper bag with my work clothes in it. I went up and stood with several women at that corner, hoping to get hired. The women were suspicious of me because, I guess, no matter how hard I tried, I didn't look quite like they looked.
Currie: How did they look?
Cooke: Well, their nails weren't done, you know. I mean, their lifestyle was so different from mine that I guess I just didn't look the way they looked. They were suspicious of me. They didn't know what I was doing up there. They had never seen me before. I remember my husband used to drive me up there and drop me two blocks away, and he'd say, "I wouldn't speak to you for anything in the world. You just look awful." But I obviously didn't look "right." So I remember there was a bet on at the paper that I would not get a job.
Currie: Why is that?
Cooke: Because they didn't think I could look like these women, you know. I didn't look like I could do day's work, anyway, and nobody was going to hire me. And the bet was, I remember, a quart of Scotch. If I didn't get a job, I would give them a quart of Scotch so they could have a party, and if I did get one, I'd get a quart of Scotch.
So I went up there several days, I think at least four days, and stood there hours. I had five days to get this experiment going. I stood there hours with my little bag, looking downcast and harassed, and I couldn't get hired. Nobody would hire me.
Currie: Did someone talk to you?
Cooke: Nobody! They'd just look at me and pass me by. So the last day—this was the last day of the experiment, I said, "I'm just going to owe my co-workers a quart of Scotch. I'll never get hired." A man came up to me. We were standing at a corner where there was a men's store—featured shirts and things like that. And a man came up to me and he said, "Are you looking for a job?"
I said, "Yes, sir."
And he said, "Do you clean?"
I said, "Yes, sir." I thought to myself, "I know what you're supposed to do."
Currie: You know what you're supposed to do, but you don't really clean.
Cooke: That's right! [Laughter.] So there came a rap on the window of this store, and a man beckoned to me: "Come here." He said, "I've noticed you out there. No woman should go off with a man, because you don't know, really, what he wants. If I were you, I would not take that job."
So I went back. I said, "The man in the store has hired me." And I thought, "This is the end." I went back to the corner and stood there for a few minutes. Then I was very hungry, and there was a ten-cent store, Woolworth's, up the street. I thought, "Well, I'll go up there and get a cup of coffee or something." Walking up the street, a woman, I guess, noticed my bag and my downcast look. She said, "Are you looking for work?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am."
Currie: She was on the street, too?
Cooke: She had obviously come from that corner, and there was nobody on it, because I had just left. I was the last one. So she said, "Do you do day's work?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am." This is the first time in my life I had ever said "ma'am" to anybody. I said, "Yes, ma'am."
And she said, "Well, I came to the corner too late to get someone. Would you work for me?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am!" I didn't say it like that, but that's the way I felt. "I got my quart of Scotch now!"
Anyway, I will never forget that experience as long as I live. I had a woman who used to come in once a week to help me, and that very day, Rebecca was at my house, but I never asked her to do things I was asked to do.
Currie: Did you get in her car with her?
Cooke: She didn't have a car. We walked to her apartment, which was close by. She had exactly the number of rooms as I have here, not as well arranged or anything. Of course, it would be better if I had linoleum on my living-room floor now, because it couldn't be as dirty as this carpet is. But she had linoleum all the way through her apartment. Her bedroom had linoleum on the floor, the living room, kitchen area. She didn't have a real kitchen. She said, "I want you
Page 110 to clean the bedroom first." And she gave me a pail of water, not a mop, but a washcloth. I had to do it on my knees, wash up this woman's floor on my knees. I had never—my mother had had people working for her in Minnesota. Nobody had had to do anything like that! But I did it. I was very happy to do it, because you know, it was part of the story.
She was cooking, and I noticed she was very clean and I wouldn't mind eating anything that she cooked. I remember it was lamb stew and it smelled very good, and I was getting hungry. I had to do the bathroom on my hands and knees. Just before I was to do the living room also on my hands and knees, she had asked me what my name was, and I said, "Marjorie." I said "Marjorie" because if she called me anything else, like Kathleen, then I wouldn't answer. But it began with M-A-R. So I said, "My name is Marjorie." So she said, "Marjorie, would you have something to eat?" I thought, "Thank God!" And she sat down and gave me some crackers and a glass of tea. I wasn't used to drinking hot things out of a glass, but a glass of tea and some marmalade or something like that, and she sat there and ate her lamb stew. You know, I couldn't imagine doing Rebecca, who was here at my house, that way. That's what she gave me to eat, and she ate her lamb stew—with relish.
When we got through, I finished up the living room on my hands and knees, and she asked me would I do windows. I said, "That's one thing I don't do."
Well, I'm a little ahead of the story, because the girls on the corner had decided I wasn't a plant, and they had become friendly with me. They said, "You've never had a job. You've never done this before. If you get a job, be careful to see what time it is that you go in, because they have a way of setting back the clock on you. If you've put in five hours, they'll say it's four. But you set your clock with whatever time you see in that house," and gave me a few other pointers like that. I had set my watch. She had a clock on the wall, the kitchen wall, and I'd set it with that.
So anyway, I did her floors, all of them, and then she asked me to iron. I am the world's worst ironer. I don't believe anyone irons as poorly as I do. What she had was some men's shirts and some curtains, the kind of curtains that have the flounces around them, you know. I ironed those shirts, and I told my husband afterwards I didn't put a wrinkle in them. I didn't know that I was capable of ironing that well. But I ironed well, and I ironed those curtains with the flounces around them. I was so tired, I was about to drop dead.
So she said, "Well, I have some windows I would like you to wash."
I said, "Well, I don't do windows." I thought, "I've had enough experience here with this woman now."
Currie: You had enough for the story.
Cooke: Yes. I said, "I don't do windows." I said, "By the way, I have some children. I always am home when they come home from school, so I have to leave."
So she said, "Oh, I'm so sorry, Margie, because I really like you."
I said, "Thank you."
She said, "Would you come next week?"
I thought, "You've seen the last of me!" I said, "Yes, ma'am. I'll be up on the corner." [Laughter.]
The pay was seventy-five cents an hour. That was sort of standard. So I had set my watch and it was now three o'clock. I had gone in there at ten o'clock. So I was owed five times seventy-five cents, whatever that is.
Currie: You were owed five hours.
Cooke: Five hours. She had set her clock back to two o'clock. I said, "There's something wrong with your clock. It must have stopped, because I set my watch with it, and my watch says three o'clock."
She said, "Oh, yes, I guess it must have stopped." But she was going to fleece me out of that seventy-five cents.
Currie: Let me turn the tape.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Currie: She was trying to fleece you out of the seventy-five cents.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Did you get the seventy-five cents?
Cooke: Yes, I did. She said, "Oh, my clock must have stopped."
I said, "Yes, it had to, because my watch is accurate."
So she said, "Margie, I'm looking forward to seeing you next week. You can come straight here."
I said, "You can meet me on the corner."
So I went to the ten-cent store, I called up the Compass office, and I said, "I worked today. You owe me a quart of Scotch."
Sol said, "Get it. Go home and take a drink and go to bed and come in tomorrow." [Laughter.] That's how I got that story. You see, I did it in five parts, but I had got enough material from the girls on the street, the women who were there trying to get work, and the man who tried to get me to work for him, which made me realize that this was possibly a red-light district, too, you know, where women could be picked up to be used in that manner.
Currie: Do you think some of these women were prostitutes?
Cooke: I don't think they were. I don't know. I would never try to answer that, because it's possible that some of them would have gone off with that man, knowing what they might be getting into.
But the difficulty that we all had with this series, the presentation of it, was this is largely a Jewish community and we did not want to make this an anti-Semitic story. So we had to be very careful in the presentation. I must say that Sol Abramson, who was the city editor, and Dick, went over the series with a fine-tooth comb. Sol was Jewish. I never have known whether Dick is or not. It never has come up between us. But Sol was. He worked very hard so that there was no anti-Semitism in the story whatsoever. I was very proud of that, you know.
Currie: This is an interesting example that if you hadn't been black and hadn't been a woman, they wouldn't have gotten the story.
Cooke: That's true, absolutely true. I started this series, [with the sentence] "I was a slave." I afterwards did a series on prostitution, and I remember Sol saying to me, "I hope you don't come in here and start this one with, 'I was a prostitute.'" [Laughter.] But anyway, it was an interesting experience.
Currie: What about the series on prostitution?
Cooke: It was my suggestion, also. I felt that the fact that a woman is a prostitute does not mean that she is by nature a prostitute, but that certain circumstances in her life had made it impossible for her to get into the work force, for one reason or another. There are and were many black prostitutes. How I prepared for that series was to attend Women's Court for a couple of weeks, where these women who were prostitutes, who had been jailed, would come before the judge. There would be trials.
To me, I remember sitting there thinking, "My God, I want to get out of this court as fast as I can. I'm bound to see somebody in here I know. Some day I will see somebody I know, and I'll be embarrassed." Because it became apparent that many of them had gone into this field of work because it was impossible to get work otherwise.
I remember I used to carry the current copy of the Compass to see what was going on while I was away. I remember one day going to the ladies' room at lunch break, and a very beautiful black lady, young woman, was in the washroom. She was sitting there. I felt that she was possibly one of the prostitutes. She spoke excellent English, and she was beautifully dressed. She looked like she could be a friend of mine. She could easily have been a friend. So she said, "What is that paper?"
I said, "Oh, it's the Compass." I didn't say I worked on it. I said, "It's the Compass. Do you know the Compass?"
She said, "No."
I said, "I think you'd be very interested in it. It's a very good and a very liberal paper. Would you like to read it?"
And she said, "I'll give it back."
I said, "No, you can have it. You keep it." Her case came up that afternoon. It was held over until the next day. Of course, I was in the court the next day. I said, "This is the last. I'm not coming back in here anymore. I've heard enough stories, anyway."
Currie: What kind of stories did you hear?
Cooke: Well, of course, everybody said that they were not out to pick up a man. But it was obvious what they were, and nobody went into the social reasons that caused them to go into that line of work. This woman worked as receptionist at a massage parlor. The massage parlor was raided, and she was picked up in the raid, although she was not actually prostituting herself. She worked for a house of prostitution. It looked like they were going to be found guilty. She was there with two other women. She was the only black; the other two women were white.
We got together again at lunchtime, when I went to the washroom. It turns out she said, "I hope that nothing happens to me, because my husband is a seaman. He's not in town now." Her husband was—and this is actually the truth, just like I ran into this girl this day—her husband was a young man from Minnesota—a member of a family I knew very well. His mother and my mother were very good friends. I had said when I went in there, "I'm going to run into a friend." You know? I remember. I'll never forget that. That was my last day in Women's Court.
Currie: Did you interview her?
Cooke: No, I didn't. Dick and I went down to a bar prostitutes were known to habituate.
Currie: You tried to get picked up?
Currie: Well, how did you do that?
Cooke: Well, Dick was sitting down at the end of the bar. I felt from stories I had heard in Women's Court that police often set these women up. They pick them up. A man next to me got very friendly with me. Dick was watching from the other end of the bar. He said, "You know, I like you."
I said, "Well, you're pretty nice."
He said, "Would you like to go and have a little date with me?"
I said, "Date?"
He said, "You know what I mean."
I said, "No, I don't."
By this time, Dick came up and he said, "You know, I've been watching you. I'd like to have a date with you, too." So I got out of it that way. Dick got me out of that one. I would have got out of it, anyway, but—
Currie: So you just wanted to see.
Cooke: It turns out he was—Dick felt he was a policeman. Dick had sat there, watching and hearing the conversation. The man was trying to pick me up.
Currie: So he was a policeman?
Cooke: Yes, he was a policeman.
Currie: Then you wrote a story about it?
Cooke: I did a whole series on prostitution. I can't remember what other series. I did the Slave Market series and the one on Brownsville. But otherwise, I did the Jimmy Higgins work of any reporter, you know.
Currie: You've used this term "Jimmy Higgins." What does that mean? Is that a journalistic term?
Cooke: I don't know. I thought it was. I did the routine work, just day-to-day work. I did whatever came along. But I did those two or three series that interested me a lot.
Currie: What was the thing you liked least about working on the Compass?
Cooke: There was nothing I liked least. I liked working on the Compass. As a matter of fact, I was very unhappy when the Compass closed. I was deep in the Rosenberg case at that time.
Currie: You were covering it?
Cooke: Covering the Rosenberg case. I know I was sitting in court that particular morning, the day after the election of that particular year. Corliss Lamont had not won, although we all voted for him. But you know, it's pretty hard for progressives to win-even now. Anyway, it was nearing the end of the Rosenberg case.
Currie: Had you covered it all along?
Cooke: I hadn't all along, but it was assigned to me at some point for some reason that I don't remember. But I was fascinated with this case, and it's always played a big part in my life. You know, when we talk about McCarthy, I remember that case. It was so obvious to me, as a reporter, that these people were being set up because they were progressive, you know. I think that Ethel was on the stand, when one of the workers from the paper came to me and said, "They want you back at the paper right away."
I went back. The paper was closing. Corliss Lamont had got everything he could out of the paper and he was dumping it.
Currie: How much notice were you given?
Cooke: It just seemed, as I remember it, it was as of that moment, but we possibly got the notice dictated by in our contract. Anyway, that was the end of my working on a newspaper.
Currie: How long had you been at the Compass?
Cooke: Maybe two years, not more, not less. About two years. It was very exciting—the most exciting time I had as a journalist.
Currie: What made it so exciting?
Cooke: Because I was able to do a series like the slave market, which I think—I don't know now, in retrospect, I don't know how well I did it, but it exposed a social ill. The story on prostitution, showed how women are exploited. I spent a whole day in jail at Women's House of Detention while I was doing research for that series.
Currie: Was that on the prostitute story?
Cooke: Yes. I've forgotten how I got in. I think some friend got me in. I talked with the women who had been set up or had really been prostitutes. It was very interesting to me to work at that level, you know.
Currie: To really feel the impact?
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Why were you able to do that at the Compass and not at other papers?
Cooke: Well, in the first place, at the Amsterdam News, I didn't work long enough as a reporter. I wasn't developed. I did know about the slave market, for instance, but I didn't realize what impact revelations about it might have. And I wasn't there long enough. I got to the People's Voice, which I adored, but I was doing the mechanical work. I'm glad I had the experience, because I learned how to put a paper "to bed". But I was not able to do any reporting. I could have assigned somebody to such a story. Often, for instance, Florence Murray did stories I would have liked to have done.
Currie: What were some of those stories?
Cooke: I can't remember now, but they would be stories of some social significance. But I wasn't working, you know, really as a reporter. At the Compass, after I broke through the strangle-hold that the editor put on me, I was able to do many things that I enjoyed doing and exposing. It was creative work, you know. It was creative work.
Currie: We've been going for well over two hours. Maybe this is a good place to stop today, and we can pick up tomorrow.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Cooke: When I was a little younger, very much younger, we used to go to a lot of dances. Are you on?
Currie: Yes, we're on.
Cooke: Oh, I'm not going to talk, then. I'll tell you later.
Currie: Why not?
Cooke: I used to love to dress up. I had a beautiful evening dress, and some man told somebody, "You know, she was the most stunning person at that dance." And I used to see him coming down the street, and I would duck and go some other way around. I didn't want him to see me. [Laughter.]
Currie: How come?
Cooke: I felt embarrassed. I was just embarrassed.
Currie: You didn't like being regarded as an attractive woman?
Cooke: No, no. It upset me. I never thought I was. I said, "I don't want him to look at me." So I'd duck around corners to keep from running into him.
Currie: So you never thought of yourself as an attractive person?
Cooke: It was inbred in us, you know. The first thing was this [pointing to her head].
Currie: You had to be smart first.
Cooke: Yes, that's right.
Currie: That's interesting.
Currie: I thought maybe we could go back to the Compass and talk a little more about your experiences there. Tell me if I'm missing anything. This is the point in an interview where I get real nervous that I'm missing something.
Cooke: What would you have missed?
Currie: I have no idea.
Cooke: We talked about the slave market.
Cooke: And I told you about the series on prostitution.
Cooke: I went on any assignment that came across the desk. It was a mundane job.
Currie: Do you think they ever didn't give you an assignment because you were a woman?
Cooke: I don't think so. You know, the Guild was very active, and even though it was a long time ago, that was a group of very progressive-minded people. I don't think that that was true. I know that when I went on that prostitution thing, I really wanted to see how a woman got picked up. I remember that Dick [Carter] said, "You're not going by yourself." That type of thing, you know. He really protected me.
Currie: So he volunteered to go with you.
Cooke: Yes. It turns out that socially, he and his wife are my very best friends. I don't know any people closer to me as Dick and Gladys, and it all started back there in the forties when we were active in the Guild.
Currie: Did you socialize with any of the other people on the Compass?
Cooke: I guess so, you know. We would go to parties at the Guild headquarters and things of that sort. Oh, Sol Abramson and his wife—he had two wives during the time I knew him—his first wife died. My husband and I socialized with them and the Carters and the Siens. But none of us liked the female Sien very much, so we weren't around them too much.
Currie: Who were the Siens?
Cooke: Max Sien. I think he's still living. I don't see him anymore. He was a reporter, as I was, on the staff, a very nice man. Dan Gilmore, who came from a very wealthy family, God knows what he was doing there working. He's the one I went to Brownsville with. We didn't socialize with him. He socialized with people on Park Avenue. Somebody I've run into recently, Hugh Deane, you know, I've been to the Deanes' house as a guest. He's been here. Yes, we did socialize.
Currie: Did you socialize primarily with newspaper people?
Cooke: No. That isn't the makeup, really, of Harlem. This house was at one time a very social-minded house. A lot of my friends lived here. My very best black woman friend lives down on 139th Street. I'm a member of a sorority, which I pay no attention to whatsoever. But in the early days, I did. When I first came here, I did make contact with them.
Currie: You mean Alpha Kappa Alpha?
Currie: The Compass, as a successor to PM—
Cooke: It didn't come that close to PM. It was PM, and when Marshall Field got all the tax break he could get out of it, he sold it to a group of people and they named it the Star. Then it became the Compass. Ted Thackery, whose wife was—I think she owned the Post, and they had separated, but anyway, he came over as the general manager. It's so long ago.
Currie: It was a long time ago. It was still a very progressive newspaper.
Cooke: Yes, it was.
Currie: When you went out on assignment for the Compass, how did the other reporters regard you, since you came from such a clearly progressive newspaper?
Cooke: The Compass was the progressive newspaper. Oh, you mean the People's Voice?
Currie: No, the Compass. I guess what I'm trying to get at is, how did the other reporters treat you since you came from a newspaper that so clearly had a progressive stand? Did they regard that as a little bit illegitimate in terms of journalism?
Cooke: Not the staff. I think I told you that we thought we'd done this wonderful story on Brownsville, and the general manager, who was not a part of the editorial staff, was the boss. He didn't like it. He thought that we—anyway, no other paper had printed this story. "What do you mean by sympathizing with this young man who shot up the place?" We repeated the things the mother had said. Who believes in anyone shooting up? He should never have been released from the institution where he had been held for several years. He was not a well person. This came through in the story, blaming society, rather than blaming him.
Sol Abramson, who was the city editor, thought it was great, but Ingersoll—his name wasn't Ingersoll.
Currie: Corliss Lamont?
Cooke: No. Corliss Lamont owned the paper, but Ted Thackery was the general manager. I think that he thought maybe—oh, Corliss Lamont's a progressive, you know. I don't think he would have—even though he's a millionaire, he's a progressive—I don't think he would have objected to the story. Corliss Lamont is on our board now, you know, American-Soviet Friendship Society.
Currie: I guess what I'm trying to ask is a different question, which is that other reporters, say, if you would go out on assignment and there would be a pool of reporters—
Cooke: It was such a small paper.
Currie: Reporters from other papers.
Cooke: Oh, from other papers.
Currie: Right. Say, reporters from the Daily News or the New York Times, how did they regard the reporters from the Compass?
Cooke: I think they thought we were a little mad, you know. Those that were members of the Guild, however, didn't feel that way. We were very close-knit in the Guild, in the early days of the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: When you say they thought you were a little mad, what do you mean?
Cooke: Well, that we were a little too progressive. But our friends in the other papers were all members of the Guild, so, you know, they didn't necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the papers they worked for. They were progressives that had to write the way they thought that—they knew the editors wanted it. But they were good trade unionists.
Currie: Other than that one experience with the Brownsville story, did you feel that on the Compass, you had room to express a progressive point of view?
Cooke: Oh, yes, yes. Editorially, it was progressive, and certainly when we went out into the street, we could report the way we saw it. Of course, there were discussions, and if there was anything that Sol, who was really one of us, thought was incorrect, after discussions, it was corrected. We had to be very careful, particularly in a series like the slave market. I think I said that before. Because I was in a Jewish community, and we didn't want it to be anti-Semitic.
Sol himself, who was Jewish, saw to it that none of that came through. He read it and there was no anti-Semitism in it.
Currie: What about racism? Was there ever a time when you felt that you needed to be super conscious of racism?
Cooke: I don't think so. You know, New York's a funny place. I don't know what you mean, whether in the work force I felt that?
Currie: In the stories.
Currie: If you ever felt that, for example, there was a story that was racist and you felt you needed to point that out and argue for it.
Cooke: Well, of course, as a reporter, you report facts; you don't report opinions. But the way you couch your questions or answers—I never had any feeling, you know. Maybe I'm not quite understanding your question.
Currie: Let me maybe put it a different way. If you felt that you had to be a watchdog on the Compass for racism.
Cooke: No, I never felt that. Well, as a matter of fact, some reactionary people referred to the Compass as the "Uptown Daily Worker." You know. It was known as a progressive paper with progressive viewpoints, certainly not a Communist paper. I don't mean that. But people would refer to it as the "Uptown Daily Worker."
Currie: So you felt that everyone was pretty aware of the fact that they were trying to report in a fair way?
Cooke: Yes, that's how I got my job, because as Dick put it to the Guild unit there, "Here we are reporting ills of the black community, and we don't even have a black person on the staff. It's ridiculous." You know. It was really a progressive paper, a nice, comfortable paper, place to work, for a person like me to work.
Currie: Do you think, for example, you could have worked for the New York Times or the New York Post?
Cooke: I think I could have, but only because I was already a union member. There were so many good people on all of the papers. When I say "good," you know what I mean, good reporters on all of the papers who did not like the political standpoint of their paper, but they produced what was necessary to produce. You don't editorialize a story.
Currie: How would you describe the political persuasion of the people who worked for the Compass?
Cooke: Well, I really wouldn't know, except they were progressive. I think every single person—I don't know their political affiliations, but I think every single person there was a progressive, a progressive Democrat, or there were several parties around then, the American Labor party. You know. They were progressive people, and I never questioned what their politics really were like.
Currie: Were there other people on the Compass who were members of the Communist party?
Cooke: I wouldn't know that. I really wouldn't know that, because my activity was mainly in Harlem, and the paper was downtown.
Currie: Can you describe how the Compass was set up physically?
Cooke: It was not too unlike the setup I described at the People's Voice, except it was a great deal larger and we occupied at least two floors of a big barnlike building in DuWayne Street. It's down in the Village area. The front of the building was the editorial department—it was very much like the People's Voice. There was the office for the sports editor. Jack McManus was the editor. Behind us, the general manager had an office. It was a big floor, and we worked out in the open. That's all. It wasn't fine like the offices are now, but it was a nice place to work.
Currie: So you all had desks side by side?
Cooke: No, no. We worked around a big round desk. The city editor, who was Sol Abramson, had a desk of his own, but we worked around a circular table. I worked side by side with two Dicks, Dick Armstrong on one side and Dick Carter on the other.
Currie: So it was one complete circular desk that you sat at?
Currie: You typed your own stories?
Cooke: Oh, yes. Typewriters, and underneath there was a section that you could put your papers and stuff. It's so long ago. I know it was like that, but to tell you the details, I couldn't.
Currie: A lot of news rooms are very busy kinds of places with lots going on.
Cooke: Yes, I guess. It had to be, because we had a morning shift, an afternoon shift, and a lobster shift. It was busy.
Currie: So the morning shift—how many editions did you have?
Cooke: Only one. Only one, but we worked almost around the clock, so that when a story broke, there would be somebody there to cover it.
Currie: Did you work the same shift all the time?
Cooke: No, we alternated, because when I was on the lobster shift, my husband would meet me up at the top of the hill. I came home around ten o'clock at night.
Currie: Whose work did you admire when you were working on the Compass? Which other reporters' work did you admire?
Cooke: Hugh Deane's, Richard Carter's, certainly. All of them. They were all very good craftsmen. They'd all worked around on different papers here, the Herald Tribune. I don't think anyone there, while I was there, was from the Times. But the Daily News, the Herald Tribune, the Post. They were glad to work at the Compass—they were just a compatible group of people, very progressive-minded. I don't know their political affiliations, but they were progressive, good trade unionists, and it was just a very pleasant place to work.
Currie: When you say they were craftsmen, what do you mean by a craftsman?
Cooke: I mean they wrote well. They wrote well. It was a challenge for me, you know. I first thought, "My heavens, I can't do this. I don't have the expertise for this." But they were very helpful. Did I say that my problem was going from a weekly to a daily? And they realized it. I didn't realize what my problem was, but they did. They took me under their wing and said, "Look, you know, you have to do this story in one day. You don't have two or three days to develop it."
Currie: What did they mean by, "You have to do this story in one day"? What did you have to do differently?
Cooke: Probably knowing what the lead really is and putting it there, and not expostulating, you know. I was too wordy, and I had to learn how to tighten up and present the story. You know, you didn't have forever to develop it. I was accustomed to taking my time: "I'd think about a lead sometime, you know. Tomorrow." But there are no tomorrows; it all had to be done today.
Currie: Also, I think a problem I would have, you have to do enough research to be able to write the story, so you have to know when to cut that off.
Cooke: That's right. That's right. Anyway, it was a new experience for me, and I certainly was in a highly competitive field, because all the reporters, even today, in today's market, would be considered good. They're fine reporters.
I was a little frightened when I first went there, you know. "How can I compete with these people?" But they were friends and they helped me.
Currie: Other than Jack McManus, was there anyone who gave you a hard time?
Cooke: No, not one. Not one. I see yet those who are still living, and that would be Hugh Deane and Richard Carter. I imagine Max Sien is still living, but the rest of them have died. They're not here.
Currie: How were decisions made about the stories that you covered? Why were you assigned the stories that you were assigned?
Cooke: I have no idea about that, but I never felt I was not assigned a story because I was a woman. If a story broke, whoever was available in the office, whoever was there and was available, would be sent out on it. I never felt that there was any discrimination.
Currie: Was there ever a story that you wanted to cover and they wouldn't let you cover?
Cooke: Not that I remember. Not that I remember. I remember, you know, the series I did, there were three or four of them. I suggested them and they were accepted. I never felt any type of discrimination there because I was a woman or because I was black.
Currie: Also, it's interesting that this slave market story was something that you did several places and finally did the series.
Cooke: What I did at the other places, it was something I knew was there, and it wasn't in-depth. There was nothing in-depth, but this time I really went to the market. I'd just seen it, driving by with my husband, but when I wrote about it before, it wasn't really serious. I just thought it was a shame that women should be standing up there doing that, and who I did it for, like the Crisis, I could even editorialize. You don't editorialize anything on a daily, but I just think it's a shame that these women are standing up here like this. I'd have to go back and read what I really said. But here I went and really experienced it myself.
Currie: That story stayed with you for a number of years.
Cooke: Well, I'll never forget it. As a matter of fact, I've threatened several times recently to go up there and see if it's still going on. I have a feeling that whenever our economy is at a low ebb, that that would go on, that that type of thing would go on.
Currie: I know it definitely goes on in Los Angeles with the Hispanics. There's a whole black market in that. I'm sure it goes on here.
Cooke: I'm sure, too.
Currie: There are a lot of illegal people who have to make some money on the economy.
Cooke: Most of those women were on relief. The women who were standing up there trying to get jobs were on relief and couldn't make it on what they got. So they worked for seventy-five cents an hour, which was, even at the rate one was paid as a worker then, it was dreadful. What could you do with seventy-five cents an hour?
Currie: Not much, but it was better than nothing.
Currie: I wanted to ask you, too, if the Rosenburg case was the last assignment you had at the Compass.
Currie: Did that bring up any feelings for you, having covered this trial, of two people whose politics essentially—
Cooke: I remember sitting there, listening to them, and thinking that, "There but for the grace of God, go I, because I'm progressive." I don't know, you know. I can't compare my feelings about the political setup in this country with theirs, but I remember saying, as I said in a case later, I actually said it in Angela's [Davis]* case, "There but for the grace of God go I." You know? It's hard not to personalize when you're out on a story like that, to bring yourself into it. It's hard not to. But I remember that Rosenberg* case so vividly. I wasn't on it very long. Somebody else had had it, and for some reason was pulled out, and I was delighted to—I wasn't delighted with it—but I was delighted to get that assignment.
Currie: But it was closer to home base than—
Currie: How did you write that story with these conflicting emotions?
Cooke: I think I had learned just to present a story on its merits, and I didn't try—you don't editorialize, anyway; you just present it. I think it's in the way you present it, the things that you emphasize, that you get across your message. The way, perhaps, I would have described Mrs. Rosenberg and how she appeared, you know, but you don't editorialize at all. You just present the—
Currie: This is interesting. So as a journalist, you think you could describe her in a way that would be more sympathetic than less sympathetic.
Cooke: That's right. That's right. If you use words correctly, I think you can do that. But you don't editorialize the content.
Currie: I think that's an interesting point to be made. I guess what I'm exploring is this whole idea of objective journalism, and is there such a thing.
* Angela Davis was a Communist and a political activist during the turbulent sixties, who was jailed and tried in California trumped-up charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy.
*Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage against the U.S. for the Soviet Union and were executed in 1953.
Cooke: Well, I do believe, on reflection—I wasn't on PM or the Star—but I do believe that the reporting at the Compass was objective and good, and yet it got across a story as well, or better, than other papers in the city were doing.
Currie: Did you ever approach public figures in a different way than you approached private figures? What I mean by that is, for example, did you treat the women that you covered in the slave market differently than you would, say, a public figure that you were covering?
Cooke: I don't think I could possibly do that. You know, I know that I am lucky to have had the kind of background I had, and I was utterly sympathetic with those women. They were more suspicious of me. I didn't look like them, you know. It was difficult for me to establish rapport with them, but I certainly, in writing about them, I'm sure I did it in a very sympathetic way.
Currie: Maybe another question would be: should you approach people who do not have experience with the press, give them more leeway than you would public figures who know about the press and deal with the press all the time?
Cooke: I don't know. It's difficult to answer. Can you ask me the question again?
Currie: For example, should you, in fact, be more protective of, say, "common people," average people, than you are a public figure, like a David Dinkins, for example, who deals with the press all the time? Should you have a different standard for dealing with those kinds of people?
Cooke: I don't think so. I think it should come through in your writing, where they are on the—I hate "the social scale," but so that the reader knows that these are good, honest, lovely human beings. I know I always had difficulty having anyone come and work for me, you know. I know how I feel about people. My husband used to say I worked harder getting the house ready for them to clean than they did, you know. [Laughter.]
Currie: I guess my question is a little different. Do reporters owe more consideration to people who are not versed in the ways of the press than they do the public figures?
Cooke: I think they do. I really believe they do. For instance, you just mentioned David Dinkins. Everybody knows who he is. He doesn't need to be—I'm very proud of him—but he doesn't need to be handled with kid gloves. I feel that I kind of owe it to my sister, who hasn't had the opportunities I have, not to insult her, not to make her feel insulted.
Currie: Do you think that reporters do that?
Cooke: I think the reporters I knew, and that was a long time ago, but I think that reporters I knew did that. Even Dan Gilmore, who came from a wealthy background. We were union-minded people. I don't know whether I'm getting—
Currie: Oh, no! I just wanted to know what you think. What do you think you learned from working on the Compass?
Cooke: Well, that's a hard question to answer. What did I learn? It's forty years later?
Currie: What year did you leave?
Cooke: No, it's not quite that. Thirty-five years later. We still don't have a paper in this community that treats the common man with dignity. That paper did, you know. The Times—I think the press is pretty brutal. The media. Not everybody, but just the media, generally, is pretty brutal. I wish I were younger and I wish I could work on a paper.
Currie: What in your life experience do you think helped you as a journalist? Other than the jobs you had, was there any life experience you had that helped you as a journalist?
Cooke: As a journalist?
Currie: For example, experience in the community or organizing or anything like that, that you think helped you as a journalist.
Cooke: It's difficult to answer. It seems to me my whole life, you know, because of the father and mother I had, my whole life and my work in the union and when I chose to work for the Domestic Workers Union, when Ben Davis came to us and wanted us to work for different people, different groups, I wanted to work with the Domestic Workers Union, because I felt it was difficult for them because of the kind of jobs they had, to have a union, and that they were kicked around.
I'm not answering your questions properly.
Currie: You're doing fine! Going back to the Compass, what do you think you learned in terms of being a reporter?
Cooke: What I learned, everything was so gradual. I started at the Amsterdam News and I handled copy at the People's Voice. Everything I did in the years during the thirties and forties was preparing me to work on a paper like the Compass. I find that a little difficult to answer.
Currie: What if you had been able to go and take a journalism degree or work on a school newspaper? Do you think that would have been helpful to you?
Cooke: When I was in college, had I done that, of course it would have been. I learned on the job, and that is difficult. I feel, in looking back, I feel that most of the black reporters I knew learned on the job. And I'm not sure that that wasn't true with the white reporters I knew, too. So it was a gradual getting to know what to do and how to do it. I wish I had taken courses in journalism. I read everything I could about how to present a story, and in the union, we would talk about it. So I think possibly I had as much training on the job as I might have got in the schoolroom, but it would have been easier.
Currie: What year did you leave the Compass?
Cooke: Let's see. It was an election year. Let's see. It was possibly 1952.
Currie: Then did you ever try to get another job in journalism after that?
Cooke: I didn't try to get any job. [Laughter.] It was during a period that my husband was doing—for us, very well. I didn't try to get a job in journalism, no. As a matter of fact, the next job I went to—I don't know whether you want to get into this. Are you through with the Compass?
Currie: I have a few more questions.
Cooke: All right. But when it closed, it was a shock to us, to everyone on the staff. As I said, I was jerked out of the courtroom where the Rosenbergs were on trial, and asked to come back to the office where the announcement was made that the paper was closing. It was an election year. Corliss Lamont obviously bought the paper so that he could get coverage. He was seeking some state position, and he didn't win. He lost, and he closed the paper. We were kind of incensed about it. I don't know that any one of them got jobs in journalism—I stayed close to Sol Abramson. All my life I will be close to Richard Carter and his wife. But Sol did not get another job on a newspaper and he was considered the best city editor in the whole city. He had that reputation in the Newspaper Guild, that he was the very best. Richard Carter was known as one of the cleverest and best writers in town. He never went back to a newspaper. Sol is now not with us; he's dead. I don't remember what he did. I know he used to meet me at my job and we'd have dinner together often. But he didn't work for a newspaper. The one who came more closely to working with a newspaper was Hugh Deane, who was interested in a Chinese organization.
It's like the one that we have. It's a peace organization. I don't know what it's called, but they have a magazine. I see articles in it by Hugh Deane. I have a few articles here by him. Richard Carter has done some writing. He's written several books, but he never went back into the newspaper field.
Currie: Why do you think these people didn't go back to newspapers?
Cooke: Well, actually, it was 1950, and you know, [Joseph R.] McCarthy was trying to make it difficult. What paper in New York could they have gone to? There was the Times, there was the Post, and there was the Daily News, and there was another paper here then. It was a tabloid—the Mirror. I imagine—I haven't talked with any of them, but I have certainly talked with Dick and Sol, as long as he lived. I don't think they wanted to really go back to working with any of these papers.
Currie: Let me switch the tape over.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Currie: So it's your guess that they didn't want to go work for any other newspapers in New York at that time?
Cooke: I have a feeling, certainly, there was no paper where they would have been comfortable working. Now, it could be that Max Sien did go back to a paper; I don't know, because I lost track of him. But I do know about the others.
Currie: Did you apply to any of these other papers?
Cooke: No. I didn't.
Currie: You didn't want to work for them, either?
Cooke: Well, in the first place, since I was the first black woman ever hired as a journeyman on a white daily in the country, I doubt seriously that there would have been any doors open for me. I could have gone to the Amsterdam News, I'm sure, had I wanted to. The Amsterdam News at that time was not—it's better now than it was a long time ago, but it was not a paper I really wanted to work on. I wasn't seeking work, anyway; work sought me.
Currie: This is sort of a general question, but what's the worst abuse you think you've ever seen done by a journalist in pursuit of a story?
Cooke: I don't even think I can answer that. I can't think of anything. I would be making something up. I'm pretty good about that, but—
Currie: I know! I don't want you to make anything up. Now we're getting into Janet Cooke and her nine-year-old or eight-year-old heroin addict.*
Cooke: Yes. But anyway, I can't think. Maybe I'm not very bright. I just can't think.
Currie: No, no. Also, have you ever passed up a story because you thought that it was just a story that should not be told, even though it was a good story? You felt that it might do more harm to tell the story than to—
Cooke: Well, I'm almost certain, being me, that I have done that. I can't think of any specific instance. I'm sure that that I would do. But actually, as a reporter, I was assigned to the stories,
* Janet Cooke was a Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for an article she wrote about a child addicted to heroin. It later turned out that she had fabricated the story.
and I certainly did whatever I was assigned to and tried to approach it properly, as a journalist, not as a progressive, but as a journalist and then as a progressive. But I can't imagine passing up a story. I haven't had that experience, I don't think.
Currie: I think I'm about ready to leave the Compass for now.
Cooke: Well, the Compass didn't live very long, either.
Currie: No, it didn't.
Cooke: Which was a shame. Some things that happened. I don't know whether it ought to be on tape or not.
Currie: We can talk about them, and then you can expunge them later, if you'd like.
Cooke: There was a strange thing that happened at the Compass. Dick and his "we must have more black people on the staff," there was a secretarial job open in one of the departments. It was in the business department; it wasn't in the editorial department. He knew a young black girl who had worked with his wife. I think her name was Marguerite. I had met her. He said, "Don't you think Marguerite would be perfect for that job?"
I said, "Yeah! She's very bright." He knew it would be pulling a good worker away from his wife. She was in the news field, too. He proposed her for the job, and as things developed, instead of thanking Dick—you know, he really was doing it because he thought it was correct that we should have more black workers on that paper—she thought that he'd proposed her for a job that was too hot for a white worker. I've forgotten the circumstances. In the union, she brought him up on charges—she was a member of the Newspaper Guild—that he proposed her for a job that was too hot for—
Currie: "Too hot" meaning?
Cooke: Meaning it was too difficult.
Currie: He was setting her up.
Cooke: Yeah. She said that he didn't do it because he wanted to see more blacks in the newspaper industry. It was really awful. I never liked her after that, you know, because—
Currie: It put you in a very difficult position.
Cooke: It did. I know that the union had a meeting about it afterwards. I was asked a question, and I remember being angry at the question that was asked me, because I felt that Dick was unjustly treated—you know, he was really on a crusade: "Let's see that we get qualified Negroes into the newspaper field." We were not "black" yet. The meeting seemed to be about me. His wife had asked me, when she couldn't stay, they had a small child and lived in this area, she said, "Marvel, please, when this meeting breaks up (it was a union meeting), see that Dick gets home." This young woman said, "Instead of praising me for criticizing Richard, she put her arms around him and kissed him." I didn't kiss him. I said, "In other words, you're trying to call me an Uncle Tom?" And they couldn't handle that one, so the whole thing went away.
But there was a dearth of black workers in the white press—almost none, even in secretarial positions at that time. Of course, since then, Roger [Wilkins] has had a very good job at the New York Times. He was on the editorial board. And I see on the Daily News, there's a black gentleman by the name of Caldwell.
Currie: There are a number of key blacks.
Cooke: Yes. But at that time, there weren't any.
Currie: So in 1952, when you left the Compass, you decided not to find another job?
Cooke: I didn't decide that; I didn't know where to apply. I did not want to go back to the Amsterdam News.
Cooke: All of my work, after I came to New York, had been in the writing field in some way. There was no People's Voice. I don't know that I would have applied at any of the white dailies around. You know, I don't know. So I just sat home for a while, and jobs started coming to me, but not in the journalistic field.
Currie: What was your husband doing at that point?
Cooke: He was the area manager for Ruppert Beer. He had this whole area, the whole of New York and northern New Jersey, Westchester County.
Currie: He was at one point fired from that job. That was while you were on the Compass?
Cooke: Yes. What was he doing? You're right. That was almost at the end of the Compass, too. He was fired from that. Then he went to the Parks Department.
Currie: So he had a government job?
Cooke: It was city government. He was director of—not gymnastics. He was—
Cooke: Recreation, for the Parks Department. He was in charge of the borough of the Bronx.
Currie: So he had a good, stable job.
Cooke: A good job.
Currie: So you stayed home for a while?
Currie: You didn't need to find a job right away.
Cooke: No, I didn't. I wanted a job, but I didn't need one. A professor up at Columbia, whose name escapes me right now, who had known me somehow or other, was interested in the Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions [ASP], which was pretty—it thrived even after FDR.
Currie: What was the Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions?
Cooke: It was an organization of people who worked in the arts of any kind, writing, visual arts, or science, or other professions, which also encompassed doctors and lawyers. As a matter of fact, Arthur Miller was a member. I used to see him coming in the office. That's where I met John Randolph*. He was a member. The groups of artists or groups of writers would meet to talk about their problems, and they were politically active, too, you know. So anyway, this man asked me if I would be the New York director.
* John Randolph is a Tony-Award winning actor who is active in many progressive causes. He was black listed during the McCarthy era.
I had never directed anything like that, never had thought of any such job. But when I went to talk to him about it, there was a young black woman secretary who couldn't spell "cat." I had known her when she worked at the NAACP. She was highly incompetent. And he told me I would have a secretary; the secretary would be this woman. I couldn't see myself saying anything about her. I never talked about, you know, people who were in the work force to a boss. Of course, this man wasn't a boss; he was just interested in getting people in the arts and sciences involved in political issues. So this job was not for me, because I knew that I could not work with her. I knew her as a highly incompetent person. Some blacks can be incompetent.
Currie: Like some whites.
Cooke: So I refused the job. They kept after me. Finally, they moved to a new location on West Sixty-fourth Street, between Central Park West, and I guess the next street is maybe Broadway. Anyway, I went to see him again. I knew I was going to say no. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: You said they moved to West Sixty-fourth Street.
Cooke: Right. He said, "We really want somebody like you. You're known and you've been active in the Newspaper Guild. We would like to have you here as the New York director of the Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions."
So I said, "Well, I'm looking for a newspaper job or a writing job." I think I said, "I'm working on my novel," which was kind of true.
Currie: So you would still pick up that novel and work on it?
Cooke: I'd have to do some more research now, but it has an interesting subject.
Currie: But over the years, you worked on this?
Cooke: Yes, I did. So anyway, to get back to this, I kept looking around. "Where is—" I'm not going to mention her name. "Where is she?" I didn't see her. So I said, "Is Miss So and So still here?"
He said, "Oh, no, we let her go last night." [Laughter.]
The job was interesting. A lot of people whom I'd known belonged to it, not too many black people, but people I had known and people I would want to know, like John Randolph. So I started thinking about the job seriously. "Am I qualified for such a job?" "Oh, yes, you're really qualified." So I finally took it, and it was really an interesting job to have, a position to have. I met a lot of my old friends, some I had known in the Communist party, some of them in jobs I'd had. I met many new friends whose names I had known. It was really quite a nice job.
Currie: What did you do in this job?
Cooke: Just supervise activities.
Currie: So the purpose was to get groups of people in these—
Cooke: In these different professions, to motivate them to get into political action of some kind.
Currie: And this was a paid job?
Cooke: Yes, it was a paid job.
Currie: You would characterize it as progressive?
Cooke: Oh, it was progressive. As a matter of fact, it would have been impossible—it wouldn't have been impossible if I hadn't had someone to pay the rent, help me pay the rent—but it would have been impossible for me to take a job that was not progressive or didn't have the possibility of being progressive. I couldn't have done it.
Currie: Was there anything about your job as a journalist that helped you in this new job?
Cooke: Well, I'm sure that's how I got it. I'd had enough by-lines around, and they knew me. By working in the Guild as I did, helped prepare me for this kind of job.
Currie: How long did you stay at this job?
Cooke: I imagine three years. We've talked about my going to East Germany to a peace meeting?
Currie: This is when you went for Paul Robeson*, right?
Cooke: Yes, and I was still working there then, because I remember a friend, she's still living, said, "We're so proud of you for going," because it was during the difficult McCarthy period. She said, "We're so proud of you for going."
Are we into that yet?
Currie: Yes. This might be a good time to talk about the McCarthy period and the effect it had on you.
Cooke: A prelude to that, my getting into the face-to-face confrontation with Senator McCarthy, was the fact that I did go to a peace meeting in East Germany to represent Paul.
Currie: Paul Robeson couldn't go?
Cooke: He couldn't go because his passport had been lifted. I had a passport, for what reason I don't know, but I had a passport, and he knew I had a passport. He was quite a good friend of my husband's and mine. So I went, really wondering, "What am I doing over here?" What I did, I took his speech over. He wrote the speech that he would have given over there. It was very exciting. Did we talk about this before? It seems to me we did.
Currie: It seems to me we did, too. One of the reasons I was hesitating, I was trying to make sure that we had. If we have, we can expunge it from one side or the other, but go ahead and tell me about it.
Cooke: Up to that point in my life, it was the most exciting thing that I had ever done. The meeting was held in a huge, huge hall, and people from all over the world were there, from Africa, from Asia, from Canada. I was the only American there. But every other country had at least six or seven representatives. The Sudan came in with at least eighteen—in their beautiful, beautiful costumes. It was a very interesting meeting, a peace meeting. The theme was people must work together in peace in order for the world to exist.
Currie: Who sponsored it?
Cooke: There was a World Peace Organization. The headquarters were in Austria. It was in Vienna. Because I was invited to go to Vienna—that's the first time I'd been to Europe—and it was an exciting meeting devoted to world peace. That was the theme. I know we talked about this,
* Paul Robeson was a well-known black actor, singer, and political activist who was a McCarthy victim.
because [Dimitri] Shastakovich* was on the podium the whole time. My husband was a music buff, and he loved Shastakovich. I thought, "If I could only just get close enough to him to see him." The last day of the conference, Shastakovich got down off the dias and came down the aisle in which I was sitting. I said, "At least I'll get a good look at him." When he got to me, he came up to me and said, "We are so proud of the American that came to this meeting." I had been pointed out as the only American who got to this conference. "We're so proud. Here's a gift for you. Please give this one to Mrs. Robeson." He handed me two packages. Well, I don't think any moment of my life has been as exciting.
I was invited by—I knew little about the peace movement, as such, you know—I know I believed in peace, but anyway, I was invited to go to the World Peace headquarters. I was in a small group of people, and I'm sure this is what caused me to be invited to Vienna. An American woman had attended a peace meeting in Europe the year before. I happened to have known her. It was the height of the McCarthy period. She had made a statement that there was no fight-back in this country.
Currie: What did she mean?
Cooke: She meant that the McCarthyites could put anything over, and there was no organized fight back. And I took exception to that. I said, "That's not true. It's true that we're a rich country dominated by Wall Street, but there are a lot of people in the country who want the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to dominate our society. There are a lot of people in the United States, including me, who don't feel like that." And I think it was that statement that caused me to be invited to Vienna. I did go to Vienna before I came back.
It was like the other day, I walked into this room and here are all these various people from various countries, various races, and lots of lights and stuff, and I was the celebrity because I'd made this statement that there was fight-back. I wasn't prepared to really back up the statements that I made, but I knew from my heart that there are a lot of us in this country who are dedicated to working for a peaceful world. As a matter of fact, there would be no use for the Communist party here if we could get poverty and all these things straightened out.
Anyway, I was there for a week. And then I was invited to go to the Soviet Union and China! I really wanted to go, but I had promised Paul that I would be back at a certain date to report to him what had happened. So I said I was very flattered by this invitation, but I couldn't take it because I had to get back to the United States.
Currie: Who invited you to the Soviet Union and China?
Cooke: The committee that ran the peace organization asked me would I not like to go to the Soviet Union. I was very curious about the Soviet Union, and I would have liked to have gone, and also to China, but I didn't go.
So when I came back and made my report to Paul, I mentioned this. It wasn't that important, but I mentioned it. He said, "Well, why didn't you go?"
I said, "Because you said you wanted me to be back here by such and such a date."
But he said, "You should have used your head and gone."
Currie: How did you know Paul Robeson?
Cooke: Let me go way back. Eric [Walrond], my boyfriend, had known him, and I was introduced to him. I had no idea that he had the potential of being the great world-renowned artist and activist that he did become. It was on a trip to—he was going to Europe with his small son,
* Dimitri Shastakovich was a Soviet composer.
Paulie, and his wife, and I went with Eric down to the boat to see them off. That's when I first saw him. After that, many of the people I got to know, knew him. He grew as an artist very rapidly. He already had stature, but he grew. I don't know, I just have always known Paul ever since I've been here.
Currie: Were you politically simpatico?
Cooke: Well, you know, Paul was—I must say this, he never was a member of the Communist party. He was a progressive. As a matter of fact, it's my belief, though no one has told me this, it's my belief that he wasn't, not because he didn't believe in the tenets of the party, but because it would have, at that moment, hurt him as an artist. He would not have got to be Othello, he would not have got the world-renowned—he wouldn't have been accepted as an artist. I think that the Communist party, by and large, is very—what's the word I want? They don't make any rash moves. I think they would have discouraged his membership, because they realized that with the country being the way it was at that time, when McCarthy was just running us ragged—I think that they would have thought first about Paul's best interests. They wouldn't have wanted to stop his being able to sing and to speak out freely and to be the political activist he was.
Currie: So you never approached him about it?
Cooke: No, I wouldn't. I'm very hesitant even now about talking to people. I don't know why I'm talking to you.
Currie: Well, I guess I'm asking.
Cooke: No, you asked me, and I—
Currie: Why are you hesitant, even now?
Cooke: Well, because I think that we're in a regressive state in this country, and I think that it would be easy for a McCarthy to poison the air again. I think that a person's politics is their own business. I don't say that I wouldn't love to have people think the way I do, and I think there are a lot of people who do, but they are hesitant to accept the party designation. As a matter of fact, I feel that if my family ever saw this, some members of my family, not Roger, they might say, "I wish she hadn't said that. I wish she hadn't admitted that." I'm sure that there would be some that feel that way.
Currie: So you were always very conscious? What's the right way to put it? It sounds like you were a little ginger about bringing the subject up with people, and you would only do it—
Cooke: No, I'm not ginger. You know, I have a lot of friends who know my political identity. And if I feel a person—well, my young friends—are ready for it, certainly I tell them. I'm very proud of my party identity. But I don't try to push it on anybody.
Currie: Of course, at this time in the early fifties, were you feeling—at one point, the Communist party was a much more accepted part of political life, and then it got less accepted as we moved into the fifties.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Were you feeling that attack in the fifties?
Cooke: I think we were beginning to feel it then. Not only me; everybody. I don't mean people who are activists. I'm not a party functionary, never have been, you know. But I certainly believe in their presentation of what life should be like more than I do the Republicans or the Democrats. I'm a registered Democrat.
Currie: Did you go to meetings? Did you actually have meetings?
Currie: The Communist party. Did they have meetings?
Cooke: I guess they do, but I have never—as a matter of fact, I think I was protected. During this period, in the fifties, I could not have moved around as freely if I had been known as a Communist, you know. I knew most of the heads of the party. I've met Gus Hall*. He calls me "Minnesota" when he sees me. He's from Minnesota. But I never was in top level meetings. I was never a party functionary.
Currie: So you never had things that you were doing to organize the party?
Cooke: No, never anything like that. What can I say?
Currie: What was your role, then, in the party?
Cooke: Well, my role was to be a good trade unionist, you know, just to be a good trade unionist. In my relationship, for instance, with a person like Safiya, I would never try to impose my political views on her or anybody—or anybody! You or anybody else. But if after discussion—a long discussion—we seemed to see eye to eye, I might broach it. "Why haven't you?" You know. But that wasn't my role.
Currie: But that was something you decided you would do for yourself?
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: That was not—
Cooke: I've never been a functionary, and I wouldn't. I don't think I would be good as a functionary.
Currie: I can't see you taking orders from anyone.
Cooke: You can't? Well, anyway. I don't know that that's the way the Communist party is. I have a feeling that they build their common program out of wide discussion, but I don't know that. It's just a feeling that I have.
Currie: So you're not really quite sure how it's organized?
Cooke: Well, if I did know, I don't think it's my—I shouldn't say that. I've never been a part of the inner organization. I've been a member of the party who was active in the Newspaper Guild, for instance. I know that, for instance—and we'll talk about it later—I'm sure that I was asked to work in the Angela [Davis] campaign because the Communist party trusted me. But I have never been a functionary, and I don't think I would do well as a functionary. I mean, that isn't the way I work, anyway.
Currie: But you say your role was to be a good trade unionist. Was that because they said, "Someone says—"?
Cooke: Nobody said anything to me ever. I have never been given any sort of—I know people within the Newspaper Guild who were already Communists, and I knew them before I became a Communist. I knew them as trade unionists in the Guild. When I actually joined and I found out So-and-so and So-and-so and So-and-so, I said, "I should have known," because they work in a
* Gus Hall is head of the Communist party, USA.
very organized, gentle way, not trying to force thoughts. I said, "I should have known." You know? I did know a few, but I didn't know their identity until after I had joined.
Currie: So after you joined, then they told you they were also members?
Cooke: No. There was a meeting, and I was introduced as a newcomer.
Currie: Oh, I see.
Cooke: As a matter of fact, the black people who were in the party when I joined were not people who wore evening clothes or lived on 409 Edgecombe Avenue. I think I was not asked for a long time, because people like me just don't join the party. I mean, that seemed to have been the feeling then; it is not true any longer. I'm talking about in the fifties.
Currie: Of course, you had joined much earlier.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Maybe now is a good time, since we've now sort of set the scene, you went to the meeting in East Germany to represent Paul Robeson, and you think that may have been the spark that got you called up before the McCarthy hearings?
Cooke: I'm not sure. How would anyone know, you know? But I think that that could have been, you know, because soon after I got back, I was living in this apartment—
Currie: This very apartment?
Cooke: This very apartment. The doorbell rang one morning, and two very nice-looking, well-clad white men, young, were at the door. They flashed their identification. They were with the FBI. I wasn't prepared for anything like this. Actually, I hope you realize I'm a pretty gentle person. I was shocked. They said, "We came to pick up your passport." It was soon after I returned from East Germany, so I believe, you know—they'll never tell you, but I believe it was that. I can lie. I said, "I don't have my passport here. It's in my safety deposit box." And they said, "Well, will you get it for us?" I said, "I'll have to talk with my lawyer." [Laughter.] So they left.
Currie: Let me change the tape.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Cooke: I closed the door and then I opened it. The elevator, when it's working, is right next to this door. So I opened the door right away and I said to them—and this is almost quote-unquote—"Didn't your parents have anything better to do with their money than to send you through college to become spies?" I remember saying that to them. They didn't answer me. But I went and called a lawyer that I know and trust very much, and told him what had happened, that the FBI had come here to get my passport.
He said, "You're going to have to give it up." He was a progressive lawyer. "You're going to have to give it up. So whenever they come, you just might as well give it to them."
Currie: Why did he tell you you'd have to give your passport up?
Cooke: Because there was no way, at that time, no legal way I could have kept it. He didn't want me to have to have a hassle with them, so he said, "You're going to have to. Then we'll have to fight to get your passport back." We'll apply for it and go at it.
Currie: Did they say why they were lifting your passport?
Cooke: They didn't say. They came back to get it in a week or so. It was right here all the time. I can put my hand on my passport right this minute. I gave it to them. They said, "Thank you for being cooperative." I said, "You're welcome." That was the end of that passport. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: So they took your passport and that was that.
Cooke: That's the end of that. The lawyer I spoke to, whose name I won't give you, but I knew him as being as progressive as I was.
Currie: Was he also a party member?
Cooke: Yes. I trusted him. I still trust him.
Currie: So what happened next?
Cooke: I was working for ASP [Arts, Sciences, and Politics], and I continued working there until it closed.
Currie: Why did it close?
Cooke: Lack of money. It was the McCarthy period. Lack of money. Couldn't keep a program like that without solid financial back-up. It thrived during the Roosevelt years, because Roosevelt had become known as a progressive president, people were excited and afraid he wouldn't get in again. But without a person like that to work for, a progressive organization like ASP could not thrive. It costs a lot of money to run organizations, as I found out this morning [referring to a committee meeting for another organization which she had attended that morning]. So it closed. Not because it wasn't a good organization with a lot of wonderful people supporting it, but it takes a lot of money to run an organization in this town.
Currie: Yes. So when were you called up before the McCarthy hearings?
Cooke: I think before I finish, I should tell the story—or did I tell the story—about how John Randolph was running around, trying to get—I've told that story so much, trying to get someone to propose to the—what's the actor's organization?
Currie: Actor's Equity?
Cooke: Did I tell that story?
Currie: I think you did.
Cooke: I think so, too. John Randolph didn't know Ossie Davis at that time; neither did I. But Ossie got up and made a motion at an Actor's Equity meeting to support Paul in his fight for the return of his passport. Ralph Belamy, who was the chairman of the Actor's Equity then, was very angry with all of them and would have liked to have thrown them out. But the motion passed by a huge margin. But it was just sad about Paul during those days.
Currie: How was it to be his friend during that time? What was it like?
Cooke: I think he gained more friends. I don't think he lost anybody who was really a friend. He had grown so as an artist, and as a political activist. I think it did something to him, however. He lived in this area, you know.
One day I was on Amsterdam Avenue and accosted by a friend who wanted me to go to a $500 Democratic dinner. I could go for nothing, she said. However, it was a political dinner that I wasn't interested in. I knew somebody was standing in a doorway behind me. It was dusk, about like now. When we broke up, I heard this voice say, "Marvel." It was Paul!
I said, "What on earth are you doing that for?"
He said, "I wouldn't want to hurt you." He was being protective of me. Then people were saying, "He's a communist," which he never was, you know, but he was protecting me.
I said, "I am so proud to be your friend, that you call me a friend, that you can speak to me in the middle Times Square or anyplace. Just speak to me." But I think that that whole period did something to him.
Currie: Altered his personality?
Cooke: No. He was a very sweet person. He was being concerned that his friendship might hurt me. He was just being protective.
Currie: That is sad.
Cooke: It is sad. But it could happen again, with the way things are going.
Currie: Speaking of which, how did you get called before the McCarthy hearings? Do you remember how that happened?
Cooke: I'm trying to figure out who's involved in that. I, of course, had been reading what McCarthy was doing during this period. It never occurred to me that I would ever be involved with him.
One morning, I was getting ready to go to work down at ASP. It's funny, I haven't thought about this for a long time. My husband, Cecil, was on his way to work, and I was taking a bath. I had been at a meeting the night before at ASP. The doorbell rang and Cecil answered the door. A white man was standing at the door. He said, "I have a message for Mrs. Cooke."
Cecil thought it was somebody who had been at this meeting I'd been at the night before, and it must be important. He said, "Come in." He came to the bathroom door, and he said, "There's somebody who wants to see you."
I got my robe on quickly and came out, and the man handed me a subpoena. He said, "Senator McCarthy would like to see you in Foley Square at nine o'clock." This was 7:00. If I had been just obedient and thought I had to, you know, I could have made it. I was then riding the subways. I don't like them any longer. And he left.
So I started calling this lawyer friend, and he said, "You're going to have to answer that. I can't represent you, because I've got a case this morning, but I can find somebody." And he did find me a lawyer. I don't want to mention his name, either, because I don't know anything about his present affiliations. But anyway, this lawyer called me and told me to meet him at his office. His offices were down in the Foley Square area. He said, "Meet me down there and we'll try to figure out what this is about."
So I met him. I was really frightened, frightened to death, you know. I remember how Cecil was feeling. He said, "I just don't know." He put his arms around me. He said, "You'll be all right."
So I met this lawyer, and we went over my life with a fine-tooth comb—from the time I was born. You see, we couldn't understand why they were calling me before the Army-McCarthy Committee. My husband wasn't a citizen at that time. Yes, he was. He wasn't a citizen at the time of World War II. After that he became a citizen. I have no brothers. My father died in 1927. And we couldn't figure out what on earth would they want me for, the Army-McCarthy hearings. So he instructed me about the use of the Fifth Amendment.
He told me, "If you feel that the question they're asking you is going to open up a long discussion of any kind, call on the Fifth Amendment."
Currie: A long discussion of anything particular?
Cooke: No, political, any political questions. But if it was just, you know, an ordinary question, I could answer it. "I'll be there at your side," he said. "But if you think it's leading to anything that might reflect on you politically or anybody else politically, call on the Fifth Amendment." He had some other work to do. He said, "I'll meet you over at the court at one o'clock." He had postponed this meeting until one. "I'll meet you at one o'clock."
So I remember I bought a [New York] Post, and I went through it to see what on earth McCarthy was doing in New York, trying to see if any of the stories would reveal to me, or give me any hint as to what he wanted with me. So I got over to the court at one o'clock, and my lawyer was there. I had the Post and this large pocketbook. I always carry great big things. When I walked in, there was Senator McCarthy, Cohn, and Schein sitting there. Anyway, I folded the paper and I put my pocketbook down on top of the paper. He said, "Mrs. Cooke, what is that paper you've got there?"
I said, "Oh, it's the Post." I knew he thought it was the Daily Worker, because it was a tabloid. The Post was a tabloid. So was the Daily Worker. So I picked up my pocketbook and said, "Oh, Senator McCarthy, this is a New York Post. There are several stories in it about you. Would you like to have it?" My lawyer said afterwards he knew I was going to be all right, you, know, because I was flip.
He asked me a lot of questions. I couldn't possibly tell you what they were, but a lot of questions that didn't seem like anything to me, you know. So I answered them. So finally, he said, "Mrs. Cooke, where were you working in 1947?" Well, that was the end of the People's Voice. The People's Voice was dead. So I said, "Oh, I was working at the People's Voice." What did I say that for? That's what he wanted.
There was a young woman, who was a red-baiter, who worked in the business office of the People's Voice. Anytime we would have a union meeting and a progressive motion came before the floor, you would hear this sibilant whisper, "CP! CP! CP!" I hated that woman! Her name was Doris Walters.
He said, "Well, you worked at the People's Voice. Did you know a person by the name of Doris Walters Powell?" I didn't know that she had married, that she was now Powell. I did know Doris Walters. A day or two before that, I'd seen in the Daily News a headline "Red Aide to Army Fired." That's what it said: "Red Aide to Army." And I read the story. I wondered what red aide this was. It was Doris Walters. Not even a good trade unionist.
Currie: And certainly not a Communist.
Cooke: And certainly not a Communist. She had been fired as red aide because she had worked at the People's Voice, where Doxey Wilkerson, a known Communist was employed. She lost her job because she had worked at the People's Voice! I mean, the army job.
So when they asked me did I know a person by the name of Doris Walters Powell, I knew exactly what they were after, because I'd seen the story that she had been fired as a red aide to the army. So I called on the Fifth Amendment, and Senator McCarthy looked at me and said, "Mrs. Cooke, you opened this subject matter. It's on the table because you did say you worked at the People's Voice. And anything that happened at the People's Voice, anything we ask you about the People's Voice, you must answer."
I said, "I'm may go to jail for this, but I still call on the Fifth Amendment." So they couldn't get anything out of me.
My lawyer, I could just see him smiling. He said, "You were magnificent, but what did you answer that for?"
I said, "Because the People's Voice was closed. It's a dead issue." You know.
But anyway, he said, "You did well. Don't worry about it." This was 1953, I think. So I came home pretty content about this whole thing. I reported it to my husband.
Currie: You were thinking they were really after this other woman.
Cooke: Yes. It had nothing to do with me. So I went along like that for a few days. It was just before Labor Day of 1953, when I got a telegram inviting me to be a witness at the Army-McCarthy hearings in Washington on Labor Day. They didn't even take Labor Day off. On Labor Day. Well, I was scared stiff. So I called my lawyer. And to tell you, I never realized why he did this, but I think I know. He didn't ask me to come down to his office; he said, "I'll meet you in Central Park." You know, there was a lot of bugging and stuff going on then. So I met him. This was on a Friday. I was to be in Washington on Monday morning. He said, "You know, there's no way that I think that you can get out of this. I think that you must go. The government is inviting you, and you've got to go."
I looked at him and said—I'm like you, I don't carry a lot of money. I said, "I don't even have enough money to get to Washington."
Currie: On short notice.
Cooke: No. "It's Friday. The banks are closed. I can't do it."
He said, "That's good. Go home and do it from home. Send a telegram stating this. Act like you're a good person, you would do it, but you don't have the money,"—which I did.
It wasn't ten minutes later that the phone rang and this male voice said, "Mrs. Cooke, there will be a ticket waiting for you," at one of the airlines. I don't remember which one. "At the counter at La Guardia on Monday morning. What time are you coming down?"
So I said, "Well, I'll leave on the seven o'clock plane. They were going to Washington every half-hour then." Then I remembered the Rosenbergs. I always felt they were set up, you know. I was scared. I don't hesitate to tell you, I was very frightened. Cecil wasn't home. He finally came home. I called the lawyer and told him what had happened. He said, "You want me to go?" I said, "Certainly." He said, "I'll meet you."
And in the meantime, I got another call. It was from Doxey. Doxey, as I told you, always called me Lady. "Lady, Yolanda and I just came home from our vacation." They had been in Jersey, vacationing, last part of the summer vacation. He said, "When we got here, I got a subpoena. There was a man waiting for me." He lived in Brooklyn. "A man waiting for me at the door, and he gave me a subpoena." He called the first lawyer I told you about, and he said, "What is this?" The lawyer said to him, "I think Marvel knows what it's all about. I really don't know." And that's why he called me.
Currie: Oh, I see.
Cooke: So I told him what had happened to me, you know. He said, "I guess I'll have to go." I said, "Well, that's what they tell me, I have to go." So we made arrangements to meet on, let's see, the seven o'clock plane. That's when I was going down with my lawyer. It wasn't ten minutes after this call, I got another call saying, "Mrs. Cooke, we're very sorry that there isn't a reservation on the seven o'clock. You'll have to come down on 7:30." Doxey got a call that there wasn't anything on the 7:30 plane. He'd have to come at 7:00. No, I was the first one. I went at 7:00. They sent us down on three different planes a half-hour apart. They knew from—the phones were obviously tapped.
I remember spending that weekend getting as beautiful as I know how to get, getting a very conservative, but beautiful dress out to wear. I felt so sorry for my husband. Here he is, married to this girl who looked like she was going to be a society somebody, and she gets herself in all this mess. I remember looking at him and feeling so sorry for him. He took me to the airport. I said, "Babe, if you—" Everybody called him Babe and called me Baby, because he was known, as an athlete, as Babe Cooke. So I said, "Babe, if you would divorce me tomorrow, I wouldn't blame you." I think that's quote-unquote. And he said, "Baby, you are beautiful." That's all he said. And I went to Washington. I had enough sense to stand there in the airport until the next New York plane came. On the next plane was the lawyer, and we stood there and waited till the next one came, and there was Doxey. So Doxey was filled in by the lawyer and me as to what had gone on.
Currie: About your being called before—
Cooke: Before McCarthy, in executive session. I should tell you I read in the New York Times the day after I saw him in executive session, that McCarthy—I wanted to see what he was doing—McCarthy had interrogated a woman so powerful in the Communist party that she gave directions to the leadership. So I knew somebody in the party had been interrogated by McCarthy. I have never wanted any designation or anything; I just wanted to do my little job at the polls. So I said, "Oh, they caught Claudia. Poor Claudia."
My lawyer called me, the one that had gone with me to the executive session, and said, "Did you see your publicity in the Times this morning?"
I said, "No. They didn't even mention it."
He said, "You didn't see that story? They're talking about you!" [Laughter.] You know, it was so ridiculous! Because I am more mentally an activist. I do my job, but I have never been a party functionary of any kind.
Currie: But you were the one they were referring to?
Cooke: Yes! And I couldn't believe it. He said, "Of course that's you they're talking about."
I said, "Well, that's no description of me."
He said, "They're talking about you."
So anyway, we were in Washington. By this time, I was pretty calm about McCarthy. I thought he was a little sleaze ball, you know, and I felt so superior to him. So he started asking me all the questions he had asked me in executive session. There was quite an audience there. It was the very first day of the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Currie: Can you describe what it looked like?
Cooke: Big courtroom.
Currie: It was on Capitol Hill, wasn't it?
Cooke: Yes, it was on Capitol Hill. I really can't remember much about it. I just remember what it looked like and how I felt about it. I was up on an incline of some kind. Where I was seated was higher than where McCarthy was—I looked down at him. He asked me a lot of inane questions that weren't very important.
Currie: Like what?
Cooke: Oh, where did I work, just questions like that. Well, I invoked the Fifth Amendment from the time he opened his mouth. I said, "I'm not going to let him catch me in anything."
So he turned me over to Senator [Everett] Dirksen. Well, Dirksen was something. His voice was frightening. He had a deep, sonorous voice. He said, "Mrs. Cooke, where are you from?" Well, there had been a lot of black people who had come over here illegally during that period. I didn't really know what he meant.
I said, "Do you mean where do I live now or where was I born?"
He said, "Where were you born?"
I said, "Oh, I was born in Minnesota, across the St. Croix River from where Senator McCarthy comes, but we're not all the same out that way." It just came out like that. And the place just howled, you know. Then I felt very content—it was nothing. When you think how much money is wasted, there was no reason for this at all, trying to get rid of poor little Doris. I would have liked to have got rid of her. She was a pain in the neck, but certainly in a situation like this, I had to be true to myself and protect her.
Currie: So after that, did you hear anything more from them?
Cooke: No. That was the end of that.
Currie: You never heard another thing?
Cooke: Not another thing. Our money is wasted like this, you know. They had to pay for my ticket down to Washington and back. Just wasting money. I had nothing to tell them. As a matter of fact, that little gal was so far away from the Communist party, the Socialist party, the Democratic party, you know, she was a little nothing. She just had worked in a place where a known Communist worked. I didn't stay long enough to hear Doxey's testimony. I just got out of Washington as fast as I could.
Currie: Did you get your passport back?
Cooke: Well, that was some time later. I didn't get it back until 1960. I wasn't going anyplace, and I didn't bother about it. In 1960, I started working for Dr. Samuel Rosen. He called me down to his office. He knew me. He was a very good friend of Paul's, he and his wife both. I knew both of them socially. As a matter of fact, Sam knew my husband, because Sam was a Syracuse graduate, and Cecil was well-known in Syracuse. So Sam called me down to his office. He had offices in East Seventy-third Street. I had seen him at social gatherings where Paul was, you know, and I knew him that way. So he offered me a job, and I said, "Sam, what can I do for you?" I'd never worked in a medical office. Any stenographic skills I had, except typing, had long since passed. I hardly ever used shorthand. So I said, "What could I do for you?"
He said, "There are many things you can do for me. You'd be a great asset in this office." In a way, financially it's the best job I ever had. Sam paid me better than anybody had ever paid me. There were five of us in the office, and we did anything that needed to be done, like if an article had to be written, if you had to act as a receptionist. We just did anything. It was a very pleasant place to work.
There were two other women who worked in that office. One of them was the wife of Max Sien. I think I mentioned his name. Belle Sien. And another Italian woman, whose name escapes me. There were two audiologists. There were five of us in the office. It was very pleasant. The atmosphere was pleasant, and Sam—I don't know his political identity—but he was a progressive, and it was nice. So I did a little medical writing for him and did a little being receptionist.
He called me up one Saturday and I thought, "Oh, God, he's going to want me to go down to that office and work over this weekend. He wants something done." He said, "How would you like to go to London, Brussels, Budapest, Bucharest, and Moscow?"
I said, "I've got my bag packed." I thought he was joking.
He said, "No, I mean it. I want to take you and two others from the office on this trip." So I didn't have a passport, and I didn't tell him, because I wanted to go. I thought, "Let me see about trying to get this passport." So I had difficulty, but Kunstler had found out about it, and he called and said he was in Washington and could he help.
Currie: A counselor?
Cooke: Kunstler. William Kunstler*.
Currie: Oh, William Kunstler. Oh, that's interesting.
Cooke: Anyway, he managed to get my passport. Roger [Wilkins] had tried. He was just a new, young lawyer at that time, and he couldn't. He didn't have the—he really wasn't equipped to do it. Kunstler was already in Washington and he got it for me.
Currie: Do you know how he got it?
Cooke: I don't know. I just know I got my passport and I've had it ever since.
So we made the trip. Sam took his daughter, Judy, on that trip, too. We stopped first in London, where we visited the Robesons. It was just great. It was so wonderful. Paul had had such a lousy experience here in New York, you know, in this country. When we would be on the streets of Soho, or we would be in a restaurant, he was recognized by everybody. I've seen cabbies jump out of their cabs and say, "Oh, there's Robeson!" and run to get his autograph. It always happened. We were there five days, and we stayed in a hotel near the Robeson apartment. Anytime we went out and Paul was with us, somebody would stop and say, "I want an autograph." In the restaurants, he could hardly eat his dinner, you know. He was such a popular person. He was popular here, too, but not with our government.
Currie: So what had you done between 1955 and 1960 for a job?
Cooke: The only jobs I've ever had—I guess I was doing nothing. Because I haven't had a lot of jobs. I know every one I've had. I enjoyed working with Sam. I don't think I worked at all during that time.
Currie: Then you worked for Dr. Rosen.
Cooke: Then I worked for Dr. Rosen.
Currie: How long did you work for him?
Cooke: Well, I worked for him maybe five or six years. It was very pleasant, except Belle Sien did not like me. I don't know. Have you ever worked anyplace where you got the feeling that somebody didn't like you?
Currie: I think everyone has.
Cooke: But she did not like me. For instance, this is the type of thing she'd do. Sam often went on teaching trips to Europe or to Africa. The audiologists could test and do things like that,
* William Kunstler is a well-known liberal attorney.
but there wasn't much to do around the office. Belle, who was the head of the office staff, always took time off to have vacations, you know. I'm very regular. If I tell you I'm going to be a place at a certain time, I'll be there unless something has happened that's not my fault.
So anyway, I always went to the office. I felt I owed it to Sam to see that that office was open and things were attended to. If I would write a note to him, a memo to him about anything, Belle would tear it up and rewrite it. She had very bold handwriting, very much like yours, what you just showed me. I don't know that that's your regular handwriting. Hers was like that. Mine is not like that. She'd tear up my memo and copy it exactly, and leave it for Sam. So I got to the point where I thought I just couldn't work with her any longer. It had nothing to do with Sam, because I really feel even yet I owe him so much. He's now not with us; he's dead. He was a wonderful person.
So I finally told him I just couldn't stand working with Belle any longer. I knew that she was his office—she'd been there long before I. So he said, "Please don't leave."
I said, "Sam, if it ever happens again, I've got to leave. I can't stand working like this." He must have had a talk with her and things went on very well for a couple of years.
Then I think she forgot that she'd promised not to do that. So I went in one day when he was out of the country, and he had left a message. There was an article that we had worked on that was to appear in one of the medical journals. When it appeared, "Please call Dr. So and So and tell him that it's in and what page it's on." I found it, and I called the doctor and told him this article was in this journal, and I wrote Sam a note telling him that I had called Dr. So and So. Belle saw it, and she tore it up and wrote it over in her handwriting—that she had called Dr. So and So.
When Sam came back, I told him I really couldn't work there any longer. It was probably 1968. So I said, "I really can't work here any longer, because the same thing has happened." It was insulting to me, you know.
Currie: So what did you do then?
Cooke: So I came home. It was near Christmas time. I became a nice little housewife. I experimented with my cooking and stuff. One day, this man—
Currie: Let me turn the tape.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Currie: I think we'll probably finish the chronological, and tomorrow we'll come back and sum up everything.
Currie: I don't want to keep you.
Cooke: I am perfectly all right.
Currie: Okay. But I think it might be good to get at least the outline down. Anyway, you were a nice housewife in 1968.
Currie: And one day—
Cooke: It was Christmas time, I know, because I'm very Christmasy. My door, at Christmas, you know, at home we had a Christmas tree. This apartment is small, but I always decorate my door.
It's always the best door in the house, you know. I have a gorgeous wreath and I always have a peace message on the door, not a political one, but just a peace message of some kind. I had my Christmas door up, and I got this telephone call from William L. Patterson. Bobby spoke about him, asked me did I know him. His daughter has children about the same age as William Patterson's daughter. He was a party functionary, and I was very much in awe of William L. Patterson. But anyway, he called me and said he wanted to see me, and could he come up. I said, "Certainly." I've known him for a number of years. I thought, "Oh, that Christmas door. He'll think I'm frivolous, a door like that." I started to take it down. I said, "No, he's going to see that door." And he came with another party functionary that I didn't know. Angela had got into difficulty during—
Currie: Angela Davis.
Cooke: Davis. They talked about Angela and Angela's case, and they asked me if I would work for Angela. Well, I was delighted, because I was very angry about what had happened to Angela. I didn't know her, you know. She could be my daughter easily. But I thought that but for the difference in age, difference in place of birth and occupation, if I had as much talent as she had, there go I. I could see myself getting into a situation like that.
Currie: Let's go back and explain how you saw the situation she was in.
Cooke: Well, she was arrested for helping some activist. Wasn't the man in jail or something? She was active in their defense. Something like that. I would have to research it. But anyway, I had read about her case and I felt, "Yes, this is somebody I'd like to work with." I'd never met her and knew only what I'd read in the newspapers. But anyway, I thought this would be a good activity for me. I wasn't doing anything. I thought I would be writing letters. They knew that I had some facility with words, and I thought maybe I'd just be writing letters and stuff like that. A New York office was being set up in her behalf. I thought, "Well, yes, I think I would like to do this." They asked me about salary. I said I couldn't take anything for this, but I would need my expenses. So I worked for expenses.
Before they found an office, there was a story in—I don't know what the name of the paper was then—Daily Worker, saying that I was going to be the national legal defense secretary for Angela Davis. They didn't explain what my job would be. I only knew I would be working for Angela, for her case. One day I got a letter from some little women in Austria, enclosing $4,000 in my mailbox here.
Currie: In cash?
Cooke: No, it was a check, $4,000, these little workers in Austria had sent. It was really thrilling.
Currie: Was it your job to raise money?
Cooke: Yes, it was to coordinate the work with what was going on in California. Ossie Davis was the chairman, and I was the legal defense secretary. We had meetings to discuss the case and what could be done about it, and suggested ways to fund-raise. We were at One Union Square. It was a thrilling period.
Currie: How long did you work on that?
Cooke: Until the case was over. There was no need for it any longer. It wasn't a cause case like that. She was freed. The interesting thing about that, we wanted to raise a good amount of money, and I had never thought of having an affair at a place like Madison Square Garden. You know, I'd been involved in small affairs, but never anything like that. Somebody suggested we should have a big rally at Madison Square Garden for Angela, to raise money. This was before
she was freed. I'll never forget feeling so insignificant. I was the only woman in the group that went to the management of Madison Square Garden to ask if we could have an affair there. We'd been turned down in a couple of places, but we got Madison Square Garden for $40,000. That amount scared the life out of me! But the men said, "No, we must do this. We've got to fill that Garden." We didn't fill it, but we had a very good representative crowd there.
Angela was acquitted about a week before our rally, so she was our main speaker. That's when I met Angela for the first time. It was felt in the committee—not I, because I was so naive, I really didn't know about these things—but they felt that it was possible some fanatic out there might try to harm her. She's quite a beautiful woman. We paid $700 for some sort of glass—
Currie: Probably bullet-proof glass.
Cooke: Yes. For her. I remember that. It was quite a good rally, but that was the end, because she was freed and there was no more Angela to fight for.
Currie: Maybe this is a good time to stop, and we can pick up from here tomorrow.
Cooke: I have one more thing I have to talk about, and that's the—
Currie: National Council for Soviet-American Friendship.
Cooke: Yes. I went from Angela to that.
Currie: Well, maybe we could start with that tomorrow and then we can finish that up and then wrap up. That shouldn't take us too terribly long.
Currie: Maybe this is a good place. It's now almost 5:30. We've been at it for about two and a half hours, which is a long time.
Cooke: No kidding?
Cooke: I hope I've been all right.
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Currie: Yesterday, Angela Davis had just been released from prison, and you had the big gala at Madison Square Garden. That was in—
Cooke: Was that '71?
Currie: I'm not sure.
Cooke: I think that she was arrested in 1969. I'm not sure of that, either. I worked for the "Angela" movement eighteen months or two years.
Currie: So after Angela Davis was free, what did you put your energies to?
Cooke: I thought that I wanted to work with words at a newspaper or a magazine, and there was a very—did I tell this before?—there was a magazine, Freedomways, that I admired a lot. It approached problems of black people all over the world in a manner which I felt was proper. I did know the editor, and I thought I would volunteer. I still was fairly secure financially, and I thought I would volunteer at Freedomways. The office was very near where we had our Angela Davis office, and I walked down there one day and was greeted by the editor, who was on her way out. A young black woman whom I knew was an assistant in the office. I don't know exactly what her job was. And I told the editor that I would like to volunteer to do anything that she thought that I could do to help. She said she was very grateful, but she would talk to me later.
So I stayed around and I addressed some envelopes that day. The assistant knew me. She left me in there alone, so I addressed 300 envelopes. I remember there were 299, because I ruined one. I had 300 envelopes. I left and closed up, locked up the door, and came home.
The next morning, I called and asked the assistant—she was the only one in the office—did she get the envelopes. She said, "Yes, but we can't use them. Your handwriting is illegible." I happen to have good handwriting. I was very surprised, and I never went back.
But we were closing up the Angela office at that time. I thought I would walk over to Fifth Avenue to get a bus coming uptown, and I ran into a friend who worked at the office of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. He said, "What are you doing?"
I said, "Well, I'm kind of looking for something to do."
He said, "Why don't you drop in our office (which was close by), because I'm sure they'd be delighted to have you working there."
I did know the editor of the magazine that the Council wasn't subsidizing, but the magazine office was adjacent to the Council. What was the name of that magazine? And I went in, and everybody greeted me with enthusiasm. There was plenty I could do around there. The name of the magazine was the New World Review. For the first time, I met the executive director of the Council, and I talked with Jessica Smith, the editor of the magazine, and I started dropping in there. I became quite active in the Council and active in the New World Review, too, helping with whatever I could do to help, particularly when they were getting ready to have an event, a money-raising event. I worked on that with Vita Barsky, another volunteer whom I knew. I just got involved in the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, because they did greet me with open arms, and the New World Review, doing whatever I could do to help.
Currie: What was the National Council on American-Soviet Friendship set up to do?
Cooke: It did then what it does now: it hosted groups from the Soviet Union, groups of professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers, who went around to cities where the Council had societies. In turn, the Council sent groups of professionals over to the Soviet Union. It was an exchange program, really to build up friendship between the two countries. And also, the youth program, which I was very interested in. There is a camp on the Red Sea in the Soviet Union called Camp Artek, and children from all over the world go there during the summer in an exchange program of youth from many countries. I thought that that was a great thing. The National Council here has sent from eight to twelve children every year, except for last year, after the earthquake at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union used Camp Artek, I believe, for vacations for some of the victims of Chernobyl. I understand they're going to renew the program this year, so we will be—
Currie: Do it again.
Currie: What did you do for the New World Review? Did you do any writing?
Cooke: No, I didn't do any writing for it. I mainly worked with the fund-raising committee.
Currie: And you've continued to be active?
Cooke: I did until the New World Review folded about two years ago.
Currie: I see. But you're still very much involved with the American-Soviet Friendship?
Cooke: Yes, I am. As a matter of fact, I am the national vice chairman. We were looking for someone to be chairman because we had had some inept leadership. I feel there are some self-seeking people everywhere in America. We had a search committee to try to find someone to be the chairperson, someone who would truly represent our ideas and work for the Council. I was not on the search committee. They were having a lot of trouble. They had talked with a congressman who is on the Advisory Committee of the Council. We knew that he would be sympathetic, but he was really too busy. So one day I just said, off the top of my head, "Why don't you try people like John Randolph or Ossie Davis? They know our work, and they would truly represent us."
So the search committee first went to see Ossie Davis, who was very interested. He had often been chairperson for events that we had had. He was interested. His play had closed. The last play he was in, on Broadway, had closed. He said he would like to do it, but he felt that he didn't have time. However, he thought that John Randolph would be an excellent choice. He said, "John really needs an outside interest at this time." John had just lost his wife. So I felt like I'd overstepped a little bit. Why had I suggested John? John lives in the neighborhood in which I live, so the meeting was set up at my house for the committee to talk with him. This was two and a half years ago. John listened and made a few remarks of protest, like he wasn't going to do it, and then he finally said, "Let me think it over." And the next day, he called the office of the American-Soviet Friendship Society and said, "Yes, I'll be glad to be chairperson. I'm coming in with my fist up." He has been an excellent chairperson.
Currie: Just for the record, why don't you tell me a little bit about John Randolph?
Cooke: John Randolph is an actor and a political activist. He found himself unable to work during the period of the Hollywood Ten. He was barred, he and his wife, both.
Currie: Was she an actress?
Cooke: She was an actress—Sarah Cunningham. She had a starring role in "Toys in the Attic" on Broadway, but both John and Sarah were just stopped in their careers. They couldn't get any parts or anything. John was very active in the ASP (the Council on Arts, Sciences and Professions). He knew people in the arts, like Arthur Miller, and he worked very hard for Paul Robeson to get his passport. More recently, just before he became national chairperson of the Council, he won a Tony for "Broadway Bound," and he had a starring role in "Pritzi's Honor."
Currie: Yes, he was in "Pritzi's Honor."
Cooke: He is a backer of the Daily World. He's not afraid to speak out on issues that he believes in.
Currie: So he's what you'd say, very progressive?
Cooke: He's a progressive. You know, the word "very" I don't like. I never have liked it, because I think if you are progressive, you are what we call very progressive. He's progressive and dedicated. He doesn't just say, "I believe in things." He'll get in and work for them. He certainly worked hard for Paul Robeson's passport. That's when I first met him. He's a delightful person.
Currie: We should also go back. Your husband, Cecil, did he work most of his life, then, and finish his career in New York City's Recreation Department?
Cooke: He did. He retired in 1974 from the Parks Department as Director of Recreation in the borough of the Bronx.
Currie: So then after he retired, what did you all do?
Cooke: He was ill when he retired. I didn't know it. He was a macho man, and he didn't want to admit he was ill. He was ill, and I semi-retired from all activity to be with him. He died in 1978, after many visits to hospitals.
Currie: What did he die of?
Currie: Essentially, he had become the main support of the family?
Currie: Did you ever get a pension from any of the places that you worked?
Cooke: No. No. I'm living on Social Security.
Currie: Was there a pension plan in any of the—
Cooke: He had a pension at his work. I am getting a fourth of his small pension, which just pays my rent, and Social Security.
Currie: With all of your newspaper jobs, you never got a pension?
Cooke: No, no, no. There was no pension plan at any of them, including the Compass. So what I have is a very small pension as a result of my husband's work, and Social Security.
Currie: Did you ever regret not working for a newspaper again after the Compass closed?
Cooke: I would like to have. As a matter of fact, the Compass had been so Red-baited that there was really no place for me to go in New York City. There was no place. Possibly I could
have gone to the Amsterdam News. I'm not sure about that, but it has changed management. The last publisher seems to be a fairly progressive man. But by this time, I am so deeply into the work of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, which is entirely volunteer, that I haven't had any time to do anything else. Or energy, I should say, after all.
Currie: That does keep you awfully busy.
Cooke: Yes. I meant to clear this week and not have had anything. That didn't work out that way, although I had said that I would not be available this week.
Currie: When you look back on your life, what do you think was the happiest time for you?
Cooke: I think it was during the time I was at the Council on Arts, Sciences and Professions, and at the Compass. Those two, I think.
Currie: What about those two experiences?
Cooke: What about them? What do you mean?
Currie: What about those two experiences made you happy?
Cooke: Well, at the ASP, (Arts, Sciences and Professions), the contacts were so exciting, to meet people of whom you'd heard, who had made an impact on society within their profession, like John Randolph, like Arthur Miller, like Joe Josephson, who was a well-known businessman. It was not only exciting, but it was stimulating to know I was not alone in these crazy ideas I had about society.
At the Compass, my ability as a writer was challenged, and I felt that I met that challenge and that I did have some ability. I did work in a field that I was comfortable in, and with people with whom I was comfortable. Those friendships have continued.
Currie: What was the worst time in your life?
Cooke: In my work life?
Currie: Well, any time in your life. What do you think was the worst time in your life?
Cooke: I would say at the Amsterdam News, when there was so much turmoil about the union. That was when the Newspaper Guild was first organized and there was so much unrest among the other workers, not the editorial workers, but the other workers in the paper. And whether we were doing the right thing when we were planning to strike, whether that was the correct thing to do for the most important black paper in this area. However, we had decided we were going to strike, and luckily, we were locked out, so we didn't have to make that decision. It was very difficult for me to say, "I'm going to strike against this black paper." But as a union person, I knew I had to do it.
Currie: If you could go back and do that strike over again, would there be anything you would do differently?
Cooke: No, absolutely not. It was part of my political growth, as I look back on it. It's where I met Ben Davis, and met not only Ben Davis, but leaders in the church community in Harlem, leaders in society, all of whom supported us. I remember one of the most interesting contacts that I made during that period, we used to take leaflets around, and I decided that I would not just leave a leaflet at St. Phillip's Episcopalian Church, which is the leading black Episcopalian church in this area. I had met Father Bishop, who occupied the pulpit there. So I took it to him, and I said, "We are trying to organize a picket line of clerics in this area, and we wondered if you would join them."
He looked at me a moment and he said, "You know, just this past Sunday I talked about the people on the picket line at the Amsterdam News and what an important thing it was for this community." But he said, "I wonder if I have enough nerve to put my body where my mouth is. Yes, I will join the picket line." And we had a most impressive picket line of clerics in this area. Everybody supported us. I think it was the beginning of my consciousness that unions were a very good thing, and that unions were not just for manual workers; they were for all kinds of workers. He did join that picket line.
Currie: I know we've talked about the strike before, but is there anything that we haven't hit on in the strike that you think was very important? Who were some of the other leaders in the strike?
Cooke: Well, leaders—you mean supporters?
Currie: Who organized it?
Cooke: It was organized at the American Newspaper Guild headquarters. I mean, we were a part. We discussed our plight with them, what was happening. Heywood Broun was a part of those deliberations. When I said "we," I was not one of the persons who went. The leaders were a couple of men who had the foresight to involve this black paper in the building of a union for newspaper editorial workers.
Currie: Why do you think it was important that a black newspaper was involved?
Cooke: Because workers on that level, not only newspaper people, but unions were sort of new to them. They had thought of working as a group, struggling against management. It was new to that type of worker.
Currie: To newspaper workers?
Cooke: Newspaper workers. Well, the teachers were organized, but so few people in the professions were organized in labor struggle.
Currie: Was it unusual for a black-owned business to be organized by black workers?
Currie: In other words, was it unusual to have a labor unit created from black workers who were working for black owners?
Cooke: I understand—this would have to be researched—but this was the first time in this country that black workers had struck against black ownership and won. Now, they always say "and won," so it is possible that black workers in other industries had been organized. Possibly they had not struck. But I understand that this is a statistic in labor unions in this country, that this is the first time this ever happened.
Currie: That's pretty momentous.
Cooke: It was considered very important.
Currie: Did you ever get any negative feedback for being on the picket line?
Cooke: Oh, of course. People in this house in which I live would say, "What is a nice girl like you doing out there on a picket line?" You know. "A nice girl like you doing out there on a picket line?"
Currie: So what did you tell them?
Cooke: [Laughter.] Things that I had learned as a child. In unity, there is strength. The bosses are not necessarily in your corner, even if they are your own color. They're not in your corner. They're for building a business.
Currie: Do you remember any particularly nasty incident?
Cooke: During the strike?
Currie: During the strike.
Cooke: I did speak about having been arrested.
Cooke: Even though I grew up in a progressive family, it never occurred to me that I'd ever be arrested and thrown in jail and confined to a cell with bars. That never occurred to me that that could possibly happen to me. But it was an adventure, and it was an important adventure.
Currie: When you were organizing the Guild at the Amsterdam News, did someone come and talk to—how did—
Cooke: Yes. Whoever was—I don't remember, it was so long ago, but whoever was chairperson of the union would come and speak to us. The night before we were locked out and were forced to strike, somebody from the headquarters came and talked with us. Most of us were, if we had to, for striking. One or two were a little tentative. They wanted to be in the union, but they weren't sure they wanted to be out on a picket line.
Currie: Where did you hold those union meetings?
Cooke: In my house.
Currie: In your apartment?
Cooke: My apartment.
Currie: Your other apartment?
Cooke: Yes, the larger apartment.
Currie: Then who negotiated the settlement with the owners of the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: We had a lawyer, a union lawyer, and the two professionals had bought the paper from the owner against whom we were striking, had a lawyer. A few of us, I was not in the—a couple of the men and our lawyer and [a] representative from the union negotiated the contract. It was not a good contract; it had flaws.
Currie: What were the flaws?
Cooke: There was a clause that if within a certain short time, maybe three months, any worker hadn't met the standards of the paper, they could be fired. It was not a good contract. It was one of the first contracts the Guild had ever, in this country, negotiated with an owner. There were flaws in it. I really don't remember all of the flaws, but afterwards, we realized it was flawed. I think there were eleven of us. The new management started after us one by one, really two by two. Because of a faulty contract, they were able to get rid of at least seven of the workers who had been on strike, and replaced them with the kind of worker they wanted. The person had to join the Guild, but it was not the original group.
Currie: So during the strike, that paper was sold to another owner?
Currie: I see. So did that help end the strike, when the new owner was willing to negotiate?
Cooke: Yes. Yes. That did help end the strike.
Currie: You had talked about the former owner.
Cooke: Mrs. Davis.
Currie: Mrs. Davis. Who was the new owner?
Cooke: The new owners were two physicians, well-known physicians, in this area: Dr. C.B. Powell and Dr. P.M.H. Savory.
Currie: What an interesting name.
Cooke: I can't forget it, because there was a joke between Cecil and me. I knew him as Cecil G. Cooke. One morning he just started laughing about nothing at all, and I said, "What are you laughing at?" He said, "P.M.H. Savory." I said, "What's so funny about that?" He said, "I've got three initials, too. I am C.G.C. Cooke." I've forgotten what the other "C" was. But he said, "I didn't want all those initials, so I dropped one, and I wondered why Dr. Savory would keep those." Anyway, he's known in this area as Dr. P.M.H. Savory.
Currie: So what kinds of people did they hire?
Cooke: For instance, Obie McCollum—O-B-I-E, it's a strange name—who had been one of the strikers and the editor, and a very talented newsperson, was fired as the managing editor and replaced by Earl Brown, a Harvard graduate and a friend of Dr. Powell's, who had never been in a newspaper office before in his life and actually didn't know how to edit a paper, what it took to get a paper out. He'd go back, close his door, and go to sleep, and, I guess, hope against hope that the paper would get out. I'm trying to say the two doctors hired friends whom they thought would be in their corner.
Currie: So they hired people who they knew were loyal to them, rather than people who knew how to put out a newspaper.
Cooke: That's right. It happens that my physician at that time, an internist that I went to, was a very well-known physician in this community. He was doing a whole lot of things—first black who joined the AMA [American Medical Association] and things of that sort, and he was a big wheel at Harlem Hospital and a friend of the Savorys. Dr. Savory and Dr. Powell put him on their board. He told me long afterwards, "When I was in their office, I told them, 'Okay, you can fire whom you want, but if you touch Marvel Cooke, I'm going to have to stand with her.'" I mean, they weren't taking a stand against unions; they were friendly people who believed we should have a paper in Harlem and they didn't know what they were doing, really.
Currie: And they had the wherewithal to buy it.
Cooke: That's right. That's right. They bought it for $5,000 and sold it within the last five years—no, it's longer than that; within the last ten years—for nearly a million dollars. So they did all right.
Currie: Yes, they sure did all right.
Cooke: They did all right.
Currie: Is there anything else about the Guild organizing that we've left out?
Cooke: I think there must be a lot of things, but—
Currie: That's the trouble with this kind of interview, when you always think, "Oh, my God, I've—" You know.
Cooke: The Amsterdam News editorial workers were the first to join the Guild, but I feel it was important because so many other papers afterwards did, like the Afro-American had a very good unit. I don't know how the Guild is working now, but I know that in the early days, they did join the union.
Currie: So it was important, too, in that it set a precedent to other black papers.
Cooke: Yes, that's right. That's right.
Currie: That's interesting. Would there be anything about your life that you would change if you had the opportunity?
Cooke: I can't think of any important thing that's gone on in my life that I would change, you know. I think I've been inordinately lucky. I came here—for instance, I went to a family reunion in Buffalo three years ago, I guess. I had never gone to family reunions before. A cousin who is a psychiatrist and had recently realized I was here and living in New York encouraged me to go to this reunion, and he introduced me to the family. Then I told a little bit about my life and what I had been doing, and then there was like a little question and answer period. I was asked, "Don't you hate growing old?" And I said, "Who is it that would like growing old, knowing that you are approaching probably the end of your life? But I wouldn't have wanted to be born in any other period. If I were any younger than I am, if I were considerably younger, I would not have known—" and I named them, Dr. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright. You know, I would not have known these people. The ones that I've just now mentioned played a very important role in my life. So I don't know that I really would have wanted to be active during any other period. I would have wanted to have produced more, have done more myself, but I got so involved in unions and things of that sort, that I didn't do the creative writing that I had thought I was going to do when I was young.
Currie: But you still have your novel, don't you?
Cooke: I still have a novel in my head. Anyway, I don't know that there is much that I would want to change. I certainly feel that I had a very good husband.
Currie: Why was it important that you had a very good husband to support all your activities?
Cooke: Because he was so supportive of all the crazy things that I got myself into. I talked about his attitude about me when I went before McCarthy. There might have been some men in his age group that would not have liked this at all, but I think I would have had to leave them. I couldn't have lived with them. He was very supportive of me. I don't mean we had a perfect marriage. I think that anyone who says that is not really telling the truth. You're two different people and you certainly have different—we had entirely different backgrounds. He was from the Caribbean, and I'm a midwesterner who grew up with a bunch of Swedes and Norwegians. But he was sound, he was a sound person, very intelligent, very interested in the arts, despite the fact that he meant to make a lot of money, which he never really did.
Currie: He did mean to?
Cooke: Oh, yes. He wanted to make money, and he never really made a lot. He did much better than a lot of other people, but he never made the kind of money he would have liked to make.
Currie: Did that disappoint you?
Cooke: No, and didn't really disappoint him. So it was a good marriage.
Currie: How did you organize your day-to-day life together? Did you have responsibilities and did he have responsibilities?
Cooke: About the home, you mean?
Currie: The home.
Cooke: Yes. As a matter of fact, he was the kind of man who would pitch in and do anything around the house. In my age group, people would say that's a woman's work. He never felt that way. He wouldn't go to the laundry in this house. We have a laundry here. Because he didn't want the other people to know that he would do these things, but he would cook, he would clean. He would do whatever he could to help me. It was a very good sharing sort of experience.
Currie: I need to turn the tape over.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Currie: What if you had been married to a more traditional man?
Cooke: Like Roy Wilkins?
Currie: Like anybody. Okay, like Roy Wilkins.
Cooke: Well, I don't mind saying that, because that has been discussed, not by me, but my mother and her best friend talked about it. Her best friend never thought I should have been engaged to Roy, or that I should marry him. I don't know what her prejudice against him was. Anyway, she said, "Because Marvel would not have been able to do the things that she wanted to do. She would have just become Roy Wilkins' wife." And my mother said, "I doubt that. I think what would happen, either they would have been divorced or he would have done some of the things she likes to do." And I think that that's true. I feel he may have been a different type of leader, you know, had he had a wife that understood what was going on in the world and the part that you have to play in guiding the younger generation. Roy was not a bad person. He was very bright.
Currie: Certainly a significant figure.
Cooke: This is just figurative. In order to see the president, he wouldn't mind going in the back door.
Currie: And you would never have gone in the back door?
Cooke: No. I would have to go in the front door. That's the way I feel. I may be not doing him proper service, but I think that that was the difference between Cecil and Roy.
Currie: Cecil's been dead now five years?
Cooke: Eleven. 1978, October. It's been eleven years. It's been a kind of tough eleven years for me. Had this happened when I was younger, I may have—I like living together. I may have had another husband or another mate. It doesn't have to be a husband. Another mate. But he left when we were both old, you know.
Currie: Have you thought about remarrying?
Cooke: I haven't seen anybody I would want to. I've had one proposal, and the person said, "I would not leave California." And I think I would not leave New York.
Currie: Why wouldn't you want to leave New York?
Cooke: Because I am still able to be active here. The physical situation in California is so different from here. Here you can get on a bus or a subway and get places. If I lived in California, I would have to be going distances by car. Well, on the other coast, we [NCASF] do have several societies, one in San Diego, one in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco, and in Portland, Oregon. I would have friends, but they're at such distances. At this point in my life, I am not up to traveling like that. In New York, I can travel easily on my own.
Currie: Looking back, how do you think journalism has changed since you were so active?
Cooke: Well, for instance, there is an organization of black journalists, which we never had in my time. I have a young cousin who's a journalist, a woman. It's amazing what she tells me about their meetings, their annual meetings. There are thousands and thousands of them. We did not have that. There were just a few of us.
Currie: A few black journalists?
Cooke: Yes, and very few on the white press. As I have said earlier, I am supposed to be the first black woman journeyman on a white paper in this country. There are any number now, and I'm proud of that, you know. For instance, my young cousin was assistant city editor of one of the Gannett papers, you know.
Currie: What is her name?
Cooke: Paula Parker, who is responsible for me meeting Kay Mills.*
Currie: Oh, that's right. Do you think you had any effect on her choosing journalism?
Cooke: No. It's strange. She grew up here in New York, but for family reasons, I was not very close to her, either, to her family at the time she was growing up. I was very proud of her, because she was a product of a broken home. I ran into her one evening in the subway going to school up at CCNY. She's very bright. I don't think I had any influence on her going into journalism, but she did, and she seems to have done very well.
Currie: Do you notice anything about the way journalists practice their craft today that is different than the way you practiced your craft then?
Cooke: I haven't been around them enough to make that evaluation. I don't know. I know that more things are available to them. We had to break through a lot of things. For instance, here in New York, I was assigned to interview a lady who lived on Park Avenue, and I took a photographer with me.
Currie: Was that on the Compass?
Cooke: No, on the Amsterdam News, way before the Compass. When we entered the lobby of this apartment, the doorman stopped us and asked where we were going. We told him, and he said, "You go around to the side door. Negroes are not allowed in the front door." Well, I refused to. Thank God the photographer backed me up, and we went to the nearest telephone and called the lady we were to interview and told her what had happened. We told her we were going back to the paper; we couldn't come. I don't know what she did, but she said, "You come back." When we came back, we went in through the front door. She must have told him that this could not be.
* Kay Mills is author of A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1988.
That doesn't happen in New York any longer. You don't have to fight that type of discrimination anyplace in this city.
Currie: Certainly not to get a story.
Currie: Was this a white woman or a black woman?
Cooke: White woman. I've forgotten what the story was about, but there was a reason that we were assigned to go there. That would not happen now. Society itself has not changed fast enough, but things have eased. Some things that we would have to meet, the younger reporter would not have to.
Currie: So things that you, as a black reporter, had to put up with, black reporters now don't have to?
Cooke: Don't have to. Yes. I think it's a more respected craft, anyway, than it was. Now the media is known to be important to the community, and newspeople of today don't have to fight the way we did.
Currie: What was the social status of reporters, do you think, when you were reporting?
Cooke: It was fairly high. You were ranked along with teachers and social workers and people like that, but a little bit crazy.
Currie: Crazy? In what way?
Cooke: You know, it was more dangerous. What woman was out on the street covering a murder? You know. But anyway, I think things have eased a great deal.
Currie: So you think now people think of the media as having more status than they did?
Cooke: I think so, here in this community. I don't know if it's true across the board, but it certainly is true in this community. Now just the other day, someone asked me did I know a certain person who worked for the Amsterdam News after I did. She did not work as a reporter, but in the business office. She said, "Well, she's wonderful. She has a job at the Amsterdam News." I was very surprised, because it didn't seem to me to be that important a job. But there's more respect now, I think.
Currie: Why do you think there is more respect now?
Cooke: Well, I think that the media, generally, television and all, has made people who work in the news more—they seem more knowledgeable, they have more to give, they are proponents of society now, you know. They represent something. I think that the media itself has caused this to happen—radio, television. And I hear more talk on the street about the papers they like or they don't like. They don't like the Daily News, and why they don't like it—because it's sensational. I think there's more respect for people in the media now in this community.
Currie: Do you think that that respect for people in the media is more warranted now than it was then?
Cooke: I don't think so. For instance, if a worker at the Amsterdam News went out on strike now, I don't think it would be looked at as, "What on earth are they doing out in the street like that?" I think that there is more sympathy about what they're doing now. I would have to think about these things.
Currie: But it's an interesting point that you've brought up. I know if you watch any movies from the thirties, the reporters were always sort of—well, just watch "The Front Page." Reporters were sort of jostling one another. They were a little bit shady, a little bit willing to do anything to get a story. Reporters were regarded as "tough guys."
Cooke: And crazy people.
Cooke: No, I think that there's more respect now for journalism and people in journalism.
Currie: In fact, I think journalism has only been thought of as a profession in recent times.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: It was thought of as a trade.
Cooke: That's right. I think so.
Currie: I don't want to put words in your mouth.
Cooke: No. I think you're right about that, that we have earned the respect of the community. I say "we," I mean journalists have earned the respect. And you know, when I came along, you could get a job as a journalist because you could write a grammatical sentence. Now these young—I have a lot of respect for them—they are trained. They know what they're doing. It's reflected in their work.
Currie: Who of the journalists working today do you respect?
Cooke: For instance, Dorothy Gilliam. I think she's great. I've read some of her things. I've participated on a panel with her, and I've wondered, "Why on earth am I on this panel with her?" I think she's great.
Currie: What do you admire most about her work?
Cooke: She's very fluent. She uses words well, but she thinks well, and she is not only a journalist, she's a black journalist. She understands the problems that black people have, and can present it in a way that would be difficult to do in my time. I know an awful lot of sympathetic white journalists, but it would be difficult for them to get an in-depth story the way she does. In reading her life, she had a few knocks, too, and it helped develop her.
Currie: Who else's work do you admire?
Cooke: I don't know. Don't ask me that.
Currie: Well, we're almost finished. I will release you soon, and you'll be glad.
Cooke: No, I will not. It's been very nice. Earl Caldwell, who works on the Daily News here, a paper that I really don't like, has done a number of very good—I don't read the Daily News too often, but somebody will call me and say, "Did you see such and such a thing that Earl Caldwell—" I'll do my best to get hold of that. I've seen him on television, too, and he is very stalwart, very straightforward. He writes well. I shouldn't say it, but I also admire my nephew's work.
Currie: Now, why shouldn't you say that?
Cooke: Well, it's kind of in-family.
Currie: That's okay. What do you admire about Roger Wilkins' work?
Cooke: If it's a subject affecting black people, his straightforward way of presenting that story. He understands so well the problems black people face. It is reflected in any story that he writes concerning the black struggle or a black person who is trying to move forward in his profession. He's really fluent with words, anyway. I think he's a very clever writer, a very good writer. That has nothing to do with the fact that we're related.
Currie: I'm sure. It's okay to like your relatives.
Cooke: To like their work?
Cooke: Well, I do like his work. I read a number of his pieces in Mother Jones. Do you know that?
Currie: Yes, I do.
Cooke: And he's had a piece, an Op Ed piece in the New York Times about a month ago that was very good. I don't know whether you saw it or not.
Currie: I don't believe I saw it.
Cooke: I'll give you a copy.
Currie: What was it on?
Cooke: It's about the black youth. I'll give you—
Currie: Okay. That would be good to include. You said you don't like the New York Daily News.
Cooke: Because it's a sensational paper. They wouldn't mind doing that kind of headline that caused me to leave the Amsterdam News, you know. Is there any paper I do like?
Cooke: The Guardian, which is a weekly, and not a newspaper, you know. I have learned that these weeklies are not really newspapers; they're news magazines, really. Let's see. I read the Times all the time, but I read it just for what's going on in daily life. I don't necessarily agree with the interpretations of the editorials or the stories, but it is a good newspaper to learn what's going on. I'm not too crazy about any of them.
Currie: What do you think about the status of women in journalism today?
Cooke: Well, they certainly have marched forward since I was in it. You know, all the columnists, women who run the Op Ed pages. I can't name them, but I know that they've done that. They've really made great strides, I guess not only in journalism, but in all professions, and certainly in journalism. You can't say that this is the "first" or the "only" or anything; there are many women. I think it's part of the women's movement that we've broken some of the shackles we had.
Currie: Were you a supporter of the women's movement?
Cooke: Of course. Of course. How could I not be? How could any intelligent women not be, really?
Currie: Well, there are a lot who weren't.
Cooke: I know, but you know, I don't see how anyone, knowing what we've had to go through as women, would not be proud of the women's movement and the breakthrough, want to be a part of it.
Currie: I think we're getting to the end. Unless you can think of anything that we haven't covered, that you would like to say, I have one final question.
Cooke: I can't think of anything. It seems to me that—
Currie: I've worn you out.
Cooke: No, I don't mean that, but you've made me think about things in my life that I had completely forgotten, you know.
Currie: Good! That means I've done my job.
Cooke: For instance, that incident in my childhood, I had completely forgotten. Now, why it came about, I don't know why it came to the surface.
Currie: Sometimes when you plumb one memory, another memory comes, and when you start thinking about these things, they all fall into place. There's a theory that you forget everything you're going to forget almost immediately, but that you retain memories. I think it's like twenty-four or forty-eight hours, you forget most of what you've experienced, but you retain a nugget of it. You retain that with as much clarity two days later as you do forty years later.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: And that's the whole theory about memory. I think that's somewhat true. There are things I've completely forgotten, people tell me I did, but other things that are just clear as a bell.
Cooke: I remember that incident like it happened yesterday, and the fears I had, you know. It could have ruined my life. I mean, even though it wasn't a completed thing, it could have ruined my life, could have made me so afraid of men, you know, that I would steer clear of them.
Currie: It's interesting, because you say it could have ruined your life. Why do you think it didn't, this incident with your uncle?
Cooke: I think it didn't, because when I did have enough courage to tell my parents about it, they approached it in a very intelligent way, by giving me material so I would understand myself and my body and my mind, and making our life at home so pleasant, you know, the surroundings so pleasant. It did change—I was different from the other young women for a long time. I was very suspicious of any man—any man—until I was in my twenties, when I began to believe that some men were decent, you know.
Currie: That's very understandable. But I think that's the kind of thing that you don't ever forget.
Cooke: Well, I know that I didn't, but when I started reading it, I said, "Why did I say that?"
Currie: Because I think it probably shaped a lot of—I mean, it's got to stay in your mind and stay with you your whole life.
Cooke: Well, anyway, my sisters didn't have to go through it. I don't think I said this, about that incident, but Zelma was very, very—when that happened, she wasn't in school yet, because I was eleven and she's seven years younger. The next year, my father and my uncle went to Ohio to their mother's birthday celebration, and Zelma was the only one that went with them,
because Helen was in school by then, and Zelma was free. My mother said, "Sure, take her." When my father came home, he came home without Zelma. This is before I had revealed this incident to them. I remember saying, "Papa, where's Zelma?"
"Charlie stayed a few days. He found some woman he liked very much, and he wanted to visit with her a little longer. He offered to keep Zelma with him." I remember how I felt. I almost died. The two or three days before she came home, the two or three days that passed before she came home, I couldn't sleep. "What's happened to my little sister? My little sister's dead. She's with a crazy man." This is what was going on in my mind. And I don't think in my whole life, even with the joys I have had—I've had many joyous moments—I don't think I was ever happier in my life than when I saw her coming through our back yard—there was a short cut home through our back yard—when I saw Zelma coming. I don't think I was ever happier in my life, or as relieved.
Currie: I'm sure it must have been a tremendous relief. And Charlie never approached Zelma?
Cooke: No, no. Obviously, he hadn't. He was busy with this new girlfriend, so he left her alone. But I remember how frightened I was.
Currie: Whatever happened to Charlie?
Cooke: Well, he married this lady he met, and she didn't live with him very long. He moved out of our house. That's how I was able to even have enough nerve to tell my father. He moved out with her, but they didn't stay married very long. He did find another woman, much younger than he, because she was in my age bracket, and she's still living. But I never once went into their house—never once. I think both my sisters have been to their home, but they didn't know the story.
Currie: They never knew?
Cooke: They know it now. Of course, Zelma's dead, but Helen knows it.
Currie: Do you know why your parents decided not to bring charges against him?
Cooke: I think it was because he was a member of the family, and they didn't want a scandal of that sort. My mother told me that my father wanted to go over and kill him that night, and she kept him from doing it. "You don't want to do a thing like that." So they concentrated on me. There weren't psychiatrists then to take a child to, but I got all these books, What Every Little Girl Should Know, and I had a very nice life at home, and went to the movies, the silents that they had then. I had a very nice time. They tried to surround me with very positive things. But I was afraid of men, and that lasted until I was twenty years old or so.
Currie: Not surprising at all that you would be.
Cooke: It could have changed the whole course of my whole life. It could have. I guess that's why I spoke about it, but when I was reading it, I said, "Why on earth did I tell that?"
Currie: I think it was significant. I certainly would find it significant.
Cooke: You would?
Currie: Absolutely. I'd like to ask you what you think your mother and father would think about your life.
Cooke: Frankly, I think, by and large, they would approve of it. I don't think of anything that I have done—I don't mean I've been perfect—but I can't think of anything I have done of a major nature that they would not have approved of or participated in with me in that endeavor.
My mother was very progressive, not as intellectually as progressive as my father; but she was a progressive woman. I don't think I said that she was very young when she was working at that Indian reservation in South Dakota, and she couldn't stand the way the Indian children were treated. If a girl was being punished, she told me that that child would be put down in a damp basement and would contract a cold and go into TB, and the boys, when they were chastised, a wooden log was put over their backs and they would have to march up and down in front of the reservation building all afternoon. She just thought it was dreadful. She resigned. She couldn't take it, and there was no way then to—no organized protests of any kind. That's when my father induced her to stay out west and marry him, but she was going to leave. She couldn't stand injustice.
Currie: What about your father?
Cooke: My father, as I said, was a progressive, intellectually a progressive.
Currie: But he would have approved of everything?
Cooke: I'm sure he would have. I'm sure he would have. He would have had no difficulty with certain decisions I've made, like joining the union, you know, and working for the American-Soviet Friendship Society, because even when there was no Soviet Union, as such, he did not believe in war; he believed in peace, that people should be able to live out their lives without any great turmoils of any kind. I'm certain he would have approved and would have been working with me in the American-Soviet Friendship Society, which is a peace organization, one which elements of our government would like to see closed up. How we feel about it, how I feel about it, and those of us in the leadership of the American-Soviet Friendship Society feel about it, we will continue at all costs. The peace movement in this country has grown a lot. There are a lot of good peace organizations. We were once the only one. There are several, maybe a half dozen. They are being closed up one by one, so we've got to stay alive, though it's very difficult to raise enough money to keep the offices and the programs going.
Currie: What do you expect to be doing in the future?
Cooke: As long as I'm able, I'll be doing exactly what I'm doing now. Really, I thought last year that I would sort of step down from working in the American-Soviet Friendship Society, and then an incident occurred which made me know that I can't step down at this time. It would look like I'm ducking and don't want the responsibility. I can't imagine not working for a peace organization, particularly this one, as long as I'm able to produce something.
Currie: I think that's maybe a good place to stop.
Currie: It's been a pleasure.