[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.