[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—