[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Currie: We talked about your job at the Crisis magazine. I wanted to ask you how did you go from the Crisis to the Amsterdam News.
Cooke: I think I mentioned that Dr. Du Bois told me he was leaving the Crisis, and that he felt kind of responsible for me, and he wanted me to know it, to make plans for my future. I didn't want to leave New York for many reasons, some of them purely social. I went looking for a job. It seemed to me to be logical to go to a magazine or a newspaper. The only newspaper I knew was the Amsterdam News, and I applied for a job and very easily got one.
Currie: Had you been reading the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: No, and I still don't.
Currie: Why is that?
Cooke: I don't like the political focus and other things about the Amsterdam News. I understand why black papers are the way they are, but I don't enjoy them too much.
Currie: How would you characterize the political focus of the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: They didn't have any political focus. It was whoever looked like was going to win, whatever party, they'd be for that. They didn't have a program, really.
Currie: So what role did they play then?
Cooke: They had very good crime stories. People like to read crime stories, don't they? I know I do. They had a pretty good women's section. It was a large paper, not a tabloid, and the women's section had two pages that faced each other. On the left-hand page, you would read about the doctors' and the lawyers' wives, who had social events. On the other page were the notes on "little people," you know. I challenged it once, and was put in my place that they knew what they were doing.
Currie: You were saying, Marvel, that you had challenged them on the coverage of the society on one side. How did that happen?
Cooke: I said I disapproved of burying certain items that were important, you know. I mean, maybe a group of workers would have a luncheon someplace, where they'd have someone come to speak, but they were not "in society." That would be relegated to the right-hand page.
Currie: So there was a huge emphasis on society?
Cooke: Oh, yes! Which I thought was a little bit ludicrous, in view of the kind of society we have here in Harlem. I was considered a little rebellious. "Tend to your work," I was told. So I did tend to my work. It was during this period that we got organized in the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: Before we talk about the Guild, which I think is very important, I'd like to go back. I know you applied for a job at the Amsterdam News. What kind of job did you apply for?
Cooke: I had applied for anything that I could do in the editorial office, and they asked me could I type. So I could type, and I got a job as a secretary to the society editor.
Currie: You had had a better job at the Crisis.
Cooke: Oh, yes, much better job at the Crisis, but I needed a job, you know. There weren't that many around. For social reasons, I wanted to stay in New York and not go back to Minnesota.
Currie: What year was this?
Cooke: It must have been 1928, because I got married in 1929, and I left the Amsterdam News at that time. I worked there a very short time, about possibly less than a year.
Currie: What were your duties as secretary to the women's editor?
Cooke: She'd dictate her stupid letters to me, and sometimes I would correct them, and was chastised about that, so I got so I was transcribing stupid letters and did the typing for her pages. She'd give me the copy, and I would type it for her.
Currie: So you didn't have an opportunity at this point to do any reporting?
Cooke: None. None whatsoever. I was just a secretary.
Currie: What did the women's editor do? What kinds of work?
Cooke: She attended many of the social functions in this area. I don't know what much else that she did do. Report them and lay out her pages, which I felt I could do. Since I had helped with the layout at the Crisis, I felt that I could do it even better. It was possibly a little presumptuous of me, but I did feel that way.
Currie: How did you get along with your boss?
Cooke: I get along with people, so I managed to submerge many of my instincts and go along with her, that's all.
Currie: the Crisis wasn't really journalism; it was an opinion [magazine].
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: So this was the first journalism job.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: How was it different?
Cooke: Oh, in so many ways. For instance, the social context was certainly different, but here I was an underling. At the Crisis, I was considered a person, you know. It was entirely different. I was just handling words; that was all.
Currie: But did you see any difference in the way in which the editors at the Crisis behaved, and the philosophy of the Amsterdam News? Did anyone tell you what you were expected—
Cooke: No, no, no. I was expected to do whatever the society editor wanted me to do. I expressed no opinions. That wasn't my job.
Currie: Did you have any ambitions to become a reporter?
Cooke: Oh, yes. I think from the time I left college, I wanted to be a writer of some sort, and I got a hint of that at the Crisis when Dr. Du Bois had me do that column that we spoke about. I always wanted to write, of course, the novel. As a matter of fact, I did start one that's still in the starting stage. At least the subject matter was interesting.
Currie: What was the subject matter of the book? [Tape interruption.]
Currie: You were saying that Dr. Du Bois had given you some direction at the Crisis.
Cooke: Oh, yes, and criticism. He gave me a great deal of encouragement. But at the Amsterdam News, I was just an automaton, somebody working for somebody else and following that dictation.
Currie: It doesn't sound like you had a lot of respect for this particular editor.
Cooke: The editor was also a pawn. Oh, the society editor?
Currie: The women's editor. Right.
Cooke: No, I never did.
Currie: Can you tell me why?
Cooke: Well, I grew up feeling that one must do something for our people, you know, join a crusade. I grew up in a crusading family, and here I found that here's a black paper just following the dictates of society, not making any impression at all, not addressing the problems that faced people in this area. I wasn't happy about it. It was just a paycheck for me.
Currie: You had said that you had some ambitions to become a reporter.
Cooke: Not a reporter; a writer. The reporting came with my employment at the Amsterdam News. I felt if I could ever get into the reporting stage of the paper, I would be happy. But I was just a secretary, an automaton.
Currie: Did you have a plan to become a reporter?
Cooke: Vaguely. This was in my formative years. I vaguely thought it might be exciting, and I afterwards found out it was. I had had no notion of what being a reporter was when I went with the Amsterdam News.
Currie: During this time, was that when you got involved with the Newspaper Guild?
Currie: How did you become involved with the Guild?
Cooke: There was a reporter on the paper by the name of Ted Poston, and he found out that Heywood Broun had started a union. It was not a horizontal union—just a union of editorial workers. It didn't encompass the other departments of a paper at the time. Ted [Poston] got involved and came back and talked to us about this new union of which Heywood Broun was the national chairman. We were interested, and formed the first black unit of the Newspaper Guild at the Amsterdam News. All of us, I think everybody on the staff, was pretty excited about the possibilities you might have in being a trade unionist. We had never thought of it before. Most of us thought of trade unions in a different kind of work force than an editorial work force.
I had a large apartment in this house at that time, and we used to hold our union meetings at my apartment. We finally decided that we wanted to ask the owner of the paper, Mrs. Sadie Davis, for recognition. We had somebody in the group who was reporting to her what we were doing, and one morning I walked in and asked for the editorial mail, and she said, "Do you work here?" I said, "I thought I did." And as each one came into the office, they were challenged that way.
Finally, the bookkeeper was sent up to us. His name was Unthank, which seems to be a pretty good name for him. He came and said that Mrs. Davis no longer needed the services of the editorial department. We were ready for that, I think, because the night before, we had talked about the possibility of having to strike. But instead of striking, we were locked out.
We quickly set up strike headquarters on 135th Street, across from the police station. I became quite familiar with that police station in the weeks that followed. Heywood Broun used to come quite often to our picket line. At that time, there was a police directive that only two people could picket at a time. When we wanted to be arrested and get some notice, we would send out a mass picket line. We had a lot of support from the community, from the doctors, the lawyers, the preachers. We were quite popular. I think that the Amsterdam News was unpopular and most of the people in this area wanted a better paper, and they supported us. We had a lot of support from other papers in the city—from the New York Times—from the Brooklyn Eagle.
So whenever we wanted to get a little publicity, we would throw out a big picket line, and almost immediately the police would appear to arrest us. We were only a block from the police station. Heywood Broun tried his best to get arrested on that line. He would go around the corner and hide in the shade of a drugstore, and when he saw the police coming, he would try to sneak into the line, but he never made it. He was very disappointed. This is the very first strike that the union had in New York City after the Newspaper Guild was organized. It was important for him to be involved.
Currie: This strike was in what year?
Currie: So that's after you had been at the Amsterdam News for quite a while?
Cooke: No. My stay there was interrupted. I got married in 1929, and my husband and I went to North Carolina to teach. When I came back for one Christmas holiday, I ran into the editor, who said that he had been wanting to locate me—that the Amsterdam News was starting a feature syndicate, and he had tried to get a male to head this department, but every male needed a secretary because he couldn't type. He knew that I could do the work, and I also wouldn't need the secretary, because I could type. So I went back to the Amsterdam News after I was let go at A&T College, where I had been teaching.
Currie: So by hiring you, he saved money.
Cooke: Yeah! Yeah. That's the way women are treated, isn't it?
Currie: What were your duties as head of this feature syndicate?
Cooke: Well, to seek out features, both in drawings and in articles, that might be of interest, and putting them together. It was a double sheet that went into the Amsterdam News. It didn't last very long.
Currie: Who did you syndicate the features to?
Cooke: To other black papers, like Chicago Defender, Kansas City Call, Afro-American. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: How long did your job as the head of this feature syndicate for the Amsterdam News last?
Cooke: It lasted a matter of months. It's very difficult for me to say. It didn't take off the way the editor thought it would. I don't think it's a reflection on anybody's part, maybe, on mine or on his, but maybe black newspapers weren't ready for anything like that. It didn't do well.
Currie: So where did you go from there?
Cooke: We had the strike, and when we went back in, I was given the job as a reporter.
Currie: So you were an editor at the feature service until the strike?
Cooke: That's right. We were out for eleven weeks. It was the fall of 1935. The strike was settled on Christmas Eve 1935. When I went back in, the decision was that I was to be one of the reporters on the staff, which I was very happy about it, because it took me out of the secretarial field, but I soon ran into some difficulties with the male editor, whose name was Earl Brown. I think that I was the first woman reporter at the Amsterdam News.
Currie: They had only had male reporters?
Cooke: They only had male reporters up to that time.
Currie: Did they have women reporting on society?
Cooke: Society. But they were not considered a part of the reportorial staff. I was the first leg man at the Amsterdam News, and I feel—this is purely speculation—I feel that the male staff did not want to see a woman reporter.
Currie: Now, what made you think that?
Cooke: The very first story I was sent on was a murder in 137th Street, and I feel that the editor, whose name was Dan Burley, knew what I was going to meet there. I often pass that house even now. It's a beautiful brownstone. But a woman had been murdered, the ugliest thing I had ever seen.
Currie: What had happened to her?
Cooke: Her throat had been slashed, and blood was all over the place. I was kind of a gentle person, you know, to meet this kind of horror was awful. It was just ugly. I know it turned my stomach, and I thought, "Well, this is either going to make or break me." And I went back. I did a little investigation around the neighborhood and found out what the woman's name was and what the neighbors thought about her. Walking back the two blocks to the office, I said, "I was sent on this deliberately," because there were a couple of men there that weren't doing anything at that time particularly. I was picked out to go on this murder. So I did a good story, and I realized that I was possibly going to face a little bit of male chauvinism, because they had never had a woman reporter before. I started doing a pretty good job as a reporter.
Currie: How did you know what to do as a reporter, since you never worked, really, as a hard news reporter before?
Cooke: I think I had a good imagination. I had decided what a good story would be, what the lead ought to be like, what the elements should be in the story, and anyway, it was accepted.
Currie: Was there anyone at the Amsterdam News who actually showed you the ropes?
Cooke: No. I just had to feel my way along. About that time, Adam Powell* started another paper in Harlem, the People's Voice. I was offered a job there almost immediately. I had had several by-lines. And besides that, my husband knew Adam pretty well and he knew me. I had been offered a job, but every time I tried to leave the Amsterdam News, even though my union activities were not especially liked, I was told, "Oh, go on back. We're not going to release you." So I felt pretty frustrated, because the job at the People's Voice offered more advancement. I was sort of stuck at the Amsterdam News.
So finally, the Amsterdam News played right into my hands by coming out with a headline that stated "Killed Sweetheart, Slept With Body," which I thought was pretty gruesome. So I went in to Dr. Powell—not Adam, not to be confused with Adam. He owned the Amsterdam News. I said, "Dr. Powell, I can't work for a paper that comes out with a headline like this." And he had no answer for it, so I resigned and went to the People's Voice.
Currie: You said they wouldn't release you.
Cooke: I kept trying to resign, and I may not have known how to resign. Dr. Powell would say, "We're not going to let you go. You're too good a writer. We're not going to let you go."
Currie: Did they try to keep you by giving you more money?
Cooke: No. I didn't get more money. Of course, after the strike, I did make considerably more than I had before the strike. The whole office, our salaries went up. But mine was $35 a week.
Currie: Was that before or after the strike?
Cooke: After. It was $18 before, which was about—even though it was in the late twenties, it was not a livable wage.
Currie: So $18 a week in the twenties was not a good salary?
Cooke: No, no.
Currie: But from $18 to $35 is quite a jump.
Cooke: Of course it was. Of course, there was a double salary in the family by then, because I was married. But even as a single person, I could have managed on $35 a week.
Currie: I'd like to go back and talk a little bit more about the Guild organizing. How did you first learn about the Newspaper Guild from this—
Cooke: From Ted Poston, who had heard about it. He had gone down to some meeting and came back with material, and discussed it with us. The whole editorial office was ready for a union.
Currie: Why do you think you were ready for a union?
Cooke: Because of the working conditions, the salaries, and the general bypassing of the editorial department. Mrs. Davis was more interested in the business offices, not realizing that the business office was really supported by a good editorial office.
Currie: So she wasn't interested in the content?
Cooke: No. She had inherited the paper. You know, I liked her, but I think she had no idea what a black paper should be to this community, what problems they should be addressing.
* Adam Clayton Powell was at that time assistant pastor of the prestigious Abyssinian Baptist Church. He later became U.S. congressman.
She was just disinterested. When we went on strike, she offered me more money to stay in. She offered two or three others, whom she liked for various reasons, to stay. "I'll give you more money." She tried to bribe us, but we didn't fall for that.
Currie: How many people on the staff of the Amsterdam News joined the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: It was, as I said, a union of editorial workers only. Of course, there was a business office, a large business office, a large advertising office. What was the question?
Currie: How many joined the union?
Cooke: Oh, everybody in the editorial office joined, with the exception of the editor-in-chief, whose position was outside the Guild. He couldn't have joined. But the whole staff joined.
Currie: How did you make the decision to strike?
Cooke: We did not make the decision to strike. We were going to strike when she locked us out. It was a lock-out, rather than a strike.
Currie: How did you make the decision that you were going to strike before she locked you out?
Cooke: We felt that if she did not recognize us as a union, we were going to ask for union recognition. If she did not, then we would strike. We had made preparations and we were ready for it. We were going to strike, but actually, it was a lock-out.
Currie: Who came to help you from the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: The whole Newspaper Guild office from Heywood Broun down, members of the Guild on the different papers, and there was a Guild unit at the Brooklyn Eagle, at the Times, at the Daily News, at the [New York Daily] Mirror. Anyway, all of the newspapers in the city that had Guild units supported us, and it became quite a popular thing to appear on the Amsterdam News picket line. We attracted a lot of the local socialites.
First time I was thrown in jail, I remember, there was no place for women, no cells for women at 135th Street. There still aren't. But they had cells for women down at 123rd Street, so the men who were arrested went to 135th Street, and another woman was arrested on the line with me, another member of the Amsterdam News unit. When we were thrown in jail, the matron, I remember, took away my belt. I said, "What are you doing that for?" She said, "We can't have suicides here." She thought I would use my belt to hang myself or something. But we were very happy to have been arrested, because we were tired. This was a place where we could rest. I remember going down into the cell block for women, and there were several women there. They said, "What are you in for?" I said, "Striking." They said, "Oh, that." They evidently didn't regard striking a crime. We were not really criminals, they thought.
I remember the matron came down to Margaret and me and said, "You have some visitors upstairs." We went upstairs. We were greeted by some local society ladies who thought it was a shame that that nice Marvel Cooke and that nice Margaret—what was her last name?—had been arrested. And they brought us some food. When we went back, the matron said, "You are well known. You're nice ladies, aren't you?" They hadn't had any prisoners like us.
Currie: While you were out on strike, did you get any help from the Newspaper Guild? Any money?
Cooke: I don't remember that. We must have, because—oh, yes, because we got the same salary on strike that we had inside. That had to have come from the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: This was the first strike against a black newspaper?
Cooke: I believe this was the very first strike in U.S. labor history that newspaper workers had struck. It's certainly the first time black workers had struck against a black ownership and won.
Currie: Did that give you pause, the idea of black workers striking against black owners? Did you think that perhaps you shouldn't do that?
Cooke: No! No! We felt we were completely right. You know, we were quite celebrities in this area. It is amazing, the number of people who supported us, who may not have liked the policies of the Amsterdam News. That could have been part of it. And part of it was that we were very nice people. What were we doing that we had to go out on a picket line and be thrown in jail? And all that.
Currie: The reason you were thrown in jail is because there were too many of you on the picket line?
Cooke: That's right. That's right. There was a law against mass picketing. Mass picketing meant more than two on the line.
Currie: What kinds of support did you get from Heywood Broun?
Cooke: Just his presence there as the national head of the Newspaper Guild and as a writer of note gave us—it really caused us to have much more attention in the press than we would have had without him.
Currie: What kind of a person was he?
Cooke: He was a very human person. He was a very large man, way over six feet and very heavy, and quite sloppy looking. But he was very recognizable because of things that he had written, and we got a lot of support because of his presence. He was there every day. He was quite an inspiration to us.
Currie: During the strike on the Amsterdam News is when a friend of yours approached you and said, "Why aren't you a member of the Communist party?"
Cooke: No, it wasn't a—he was a friend, in a way. His name was Ben Davis. Afterwards he became city councilman. He was very friendly with Adam Powell, and he had followed Adam as a city councilman. He would appear at our headquarters every day. Some part of the day, Ben Davis would come. It was not difficult for me to talk about my family. I thought my family was a pretty great one. And he "picked" me. He would ask me about my family, and I told him about my father being a Eugene V. Debs Socialist.
Finally, one day he said to me—we were picketing—he said to me, "Why aren't you a member of the Communist party? You have a much better background for it than I had."
I said, "Because no one ever asked me." And he thought that was a very funny and naive answer. Certain groups in Harlem have heard that story. "She's not a member of the Communist party because no one ever asked her."
Currie: So did someone ask you?
Cooke: He asked me, and I joined.
Currie: Why did you join?
Cooke: Well, I had the background for it, as he said. Here I had a father who was a socialist. That isn't very odd now, but growing up in the early twenties, I had heard many stories about injustices: "The Constitution's fine, the Declaration of Independence is fine. But this country is not living up to the things that it proposes." And when I asked my father why he would support a man in jail—Debs had been in jail—he told me that it was a protest vote, that he protested
certain things, the lynchings. Lynchings were prevalent during that period. He protested lynchings, and he felt that with the change from the Democratic or the Republican party to the Socialist party, we might return to the concepts that were proposed in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution.
Currie: Why don't we stop here. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: What I wanted to ask you, Marvel, is how active was the Communist party in the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: I don't think it was active in the Newspaper Guild. I never thought that. I know there were a number of people citywide in the Newspaper Guild who were members of the Communist party. But the Communist party was not active as a party in the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: How did you join?
Cooke: How did I join? Well, after I made that naive remark to Ben, he asked me to join, and I think because of the Depression and some of the problems that I had met in reporting conditions of people, that I was ready, emotionally, for it, anyway. I remember—it's so long ago, but I do remember going to a meeting when I was going to be formally admitted to the party, and I was surprised to see a number of the people, mainly white, who had supported the strike and who were there and very happy that I had joined the Communist party. It seems that it was a landmark, because there were other black women in the party, but they didn't come from 409 Edgecombe Avenue or from a profession that was considered an upper-class profession. They were members of the Domestic Workers Union and people like that. So it was considered a break-through. I didn't consider it that way, but it was considered a break-through.
Currie: What did joining the party mean to you?
Cooke: It didn't mean—well, it did mean a lot to me later. I think I progressed in the profession because of it. People in other sections of the city started recognizing me and including me in little meetings where we were talking about making the union, the Newspaper Guild, a paper-wide union, encompassing the business offices. It meant a great deal to me in political growth, I think.
Currie: So it helped you with contacts for your journalistic job?
Cooke: No, it didn't help me. It just helped me broaden my vision as to what society should be like, what we would hope for America to be like, to live up to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It addressed itself to organizing workers. So it was very important to me.
Currie: Did your colleagues at the Amsterdam News know that you were a member?
Cooke: Not across the board, but a number of them did join the party. As a matter of fact, I was helpful in recruiting some of them.
Currie: How were you helpful?
Cooke: Well, I talked with them. I'd go to dinner with them and we'd talk about problems that we had. And finally, I would ask them if they were interested in learning more about the Communist party.
It so happened when I went from the Amsterdam News—I think we've talked about this—to the People's Voice, the general manager of the People's Voice was a highly respected professor from Howard University. His name was Doxey Wilkerson. Doxey was a member of the Communist party. I didn't know that when I joined the staff that he was a member. He didn't know about me either. But I didn't want to be a recruiter or anything like that. But I did want my co-workers to understand some of the problems they faced as workers, as black workers.
I remember recruiting—I guess the only person I ever recruited after I left the Amsterdam News, was the theatrical editor of the People's Voice, who was Adam Powell's sister-in-law. [Laughter.] We went out to dinner a lot, and we'd talk about things. Finally, after about a year, I said to her, "You know, I'm a member of the Communist party." She said, "I felt you were." And Doxey and I recruited her.
Currie: Were you expected to do anything as a member?
Cooke: No, no, no. Nothing has ever been forced on me. I think there are a lot of incorrect attitudes about the party. The party has made some mistakes; they admit that.
Currie: What do you think the incorrect attitudes about the party are?
Cooke: Well, that we're a bunch of reds who want to overthrow the government, which is the furthest from the truth. We just want—I would like, and I'm not speaking for everybody, to see the Constitution work properly for people. I think I'm a good American.
Currie: How did your political beliefs affect your reporting on the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Not on the Amsterdam News. I wasn't a reporter there long enough to assess that. But I think it made me a better reporter, because I was interested in the conditions under which people had to work and live. That would come through in the things I would write.
Currie: What were some of the stories that you did as a reporter at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: At the Amsterdam News. I really can't remember. I was just sent out on anything that came up. If it was a police story, I was sent out on it. I didn't do any feature work at all. Just whatever would come my way. Like that murder I spoke about, which had no political content whatsoever.
Currie: There's a kind of vaunted rule of journalism that journalists are objective.
Cooke: That's right. That's right.
Currie: Did you ever have problems being objective on any of these stories?
Cooke: No. I think some editors had problems with me reporting things as I saw them. That was not at the Amsterdam News, and I did not do any reporting at the People's Voice, because I was given a position I don't think I was worthy of. I was assistant managing editor to an editor who was a drunk, and he was never there when it was time to put the paper to bed, so I had to learn how to put a paper together, how to write headlines. I did no reporting whatsoever at the People's Voice. I learned how to get a paper together, which was good for me.
Currie: At the Amsterdam News, was there anyone whose reporting you admired?
Cooke: Yes, St. Clair Bourne.
Currie: Why did you admire him?
Cooke: Because he felt—he was moved by inequities of the black worker, you know, and he did a really very good interpretive job, as far as a reporter can be interpretive, of stories he was sent out on. As a matter of fact, he and I were kind of lumped together at one point. We were sent out. I think everybody who had been on strike at the Amsterdam News was targeted for dismissal. They were dismissed two by two. I survived that process, I think, because I was a woman. I think the owners thought that the community would not stomach that.
I remember one time St. Clair—St. Clair was targeted for dismissal—and I were sent on a story that was impossible to have done within a week. It was to find out how many black
businesses there were in Harlem, how long they'd been in business, what kind of business they were, etc. To do this in three or four days was impossible. So the task was given to "Sinky" and me. We left the paper—the paper was then located at 134th Street and Seventh Avenue—and went over to Lenox Avenue, where we thought, "We'll look around and see what businesses we can find here, to see if we can make an in-road in this."
We ran into a man by the name of Abner Berry. Abner Berry was a brother of the Berry brothers, who were then in show business. But he was a well-known Communist. He said to me, "What's wrong with you?" I told him about this assignment. He said, "Oh, don't worry about it." He said, "I've done that. I did a pamphlet on that. Come on up to my apartment. I'll give you the pamphlet." So we got the pamphlet, and "Sinky" and I went to the Capital Theater and spent the afternoon in the movies and came back, and said that we had been working on the assignment.
We went to the movies for the three following days and came back, dog tired, and wrote a story that had been assigned to us. The basis, of course, was the pamphlet that had been given to us by Abner Berry. We turned out a real good story.
Currie: So they couldn't get rid of either one of you.
Cooke: No, they couldn't get rid of me that way.
Currie: Who was the editor of the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: The editor was a man by the name of Earl Brown, who was a friend of the owner of the paper. He was a graduate of Harvard University, had never been inside of a newspaper office, obviously, before in his life, and knew nothing about it. Anyway, he didn't know what he was doing. He let us get away with a lot of stuff.
Currie: Was there anyone at the paper who seemed to know what they were doing?
Cooke: Some of the reporters did.
Currie: How did they get their training?
Cooke: As most black newspaper people got at that time, just on-the-job training. There were very few courses in colleges in journalism, and it was mainly on-the-job training.
Currie: Was there anyone there who sort of gave pointers for how to go about things?
Cooke: Oh, yes, there were some, people who had been on the job longer than I had been, like Julius Adams, who died just last week. All the people I knew then seem to be dead. But anyway, they would criticize and help us. I remember Obie McCollum was very helpful and wanted me to succeed as a reporter.
Currie: Were you ever sent out on a story that presented an ethical dilemma for you?
Cooke: I can't remember that I was. I think I was a good objective reporter, and some of my philosophy, naturally, would come into it, if it was at work. I do remember doing a story on a member of the Domestic Workers Union and becoming very involved in the kind of life she had to lead—poor salary, and her struggle to bring up a family.
Currie: Did that affect the way you wrote the story?
Cooke: I think it did, but it was a human attitude and was accepted.
Currie: What do you think was the worst thing about working at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Well, I think it was the management. They never really accepted the union. As I said, they got rid of us one by one, and I was certainly docketed to go, too. I would have been fired from there, but I got saved by the bell, by being able to resign.
Currie: If they got rid of you one by one, could they then replace you with non-union?
Cooke: No. No, they couldn't. They could have replaced us, but the person would have to become a member of the union soon after they joined the staff.
And then during that period, the Newspaper Guild became a horizontal union, and we gained a lot of strength by being able to get into our ranks members of the business staff, the whole paper. So we did gain strength. We grew from a little tiny unit into a large one.
Currie: So part of the settlement after the strike was that the union would be allowed.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: And that editorial workers would have to belong to the union.
Cooke: Yes, yes, that's true.
Currie: So they couldn't get rid of the union, but they could get rid of—
Cooke: Workers, one by one, saying their work wasn't up to standard or they'd find some flaw. Which one of us doesn't have a flaw? They'd find some flaw. For instance, Ted Poston and Henry Lee Moon got better jobs and avoided being fired by going to better jobs.
Currie: Where did they go?
Cooke: Ted went to the New York Post and Henry got a job at the NAACP.
Currie: At that time, was this unusual to have a black reporter on the New York Post?
Cooke: Yes, it was. It was. He may have been the first one. I know I was not an admirer of Ted's for other reasons, but I was very proud to see by-lines by Ted Poston in the New York Post.
Currie: You say you weren't an admirer of his?
Cooke: He got word—he found out, or he thought he found out, that I had joined the Communist party, and he spread it around like wildfire, which might have meant that I would have been dismissed.
Currie: So joining the Communist party would have been enough to get you fired?
Cooke: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Not that alone, but I would have been set up in some way, you know, by being late, which I never was, or too much union activity, or something. They'd have found some reason to have fired me.
Currie: Is that something that concerned you?
Cooke: No, not really. I was at this time married, and married to a man who could support me. It didn't really—I would have been upset because I wouldn't want to be fired under unfavorable circumstances, but it didn't make me feel insecure about my living.
Currie: Who was your direct boss at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: The direct boss was a man by the name of Dan Burley, first. He left for another job. I don't know. Then Earl Brown, of whom I just spoke, became the editor.
Currie: So you reported directly to the editor-in-chief?
Cooke: Right. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: So you said you reported directly to the editor-in-chief of the Amsterdam News.
Cooke: Of the Amsterdam News. That's right.
Currie: Did he give you your assignments?
Cooke: Yes, he gave us that assignment I just told you about. He had never worked on a newspaper, and he had no idea what an assignment entailed if you were going to do it properly. So he gave us this all-encompassing assignment to do a survey on black businesses in Harlem for a three or four-day thing. It was impossible. He really didn't know. In my opinion, he didn't have the proper perspective on Harlem and the life of the people in Harlem. He came from, as really I did, too, the upper middle-class, but I had political orientation which he didn't have. He was disinterested in workers and things of that sort.
Currie: Why do you think he got the job as editor-in-chief, then?
Cooke: We're talking about two editors-in-chief.
Cooke: I'm talking about the one that became editor-in-chief after this strike.
Currie: And that was?
Cooke: Earl Brown.
Currie: And why do you think he got the job, then?
Cooke: Because he was a social friend of the owner of the Amsterdam News, Dr. C.B. Powell, not Adam, and because he was from Harvard. So he had to be good.
Currie: Were there many reporters on the staff who didn't have journalistic training?
Cooke: I really don't want to answer that, because I don't know. I feel that all of us were on-the-job trainees. This is what I think, but I really don't know that as a fact.
Currie: What do you think you learned from this job?
Cooke: How to present a story, what would be of interest to the community. I learned to be a good trade unionist, which was not a part of the writing part of the job, but it was exciting, something different every day.
Currie: Do you remember any story in particular that you wrote on this job that you liked doing?
Cooke: I did the very first story on the Bronx slave market. It was not an in-depth story at all, but it gave me a desire to want to go more deeply into the reasons for the Bronx slave market, the lives of the women, what caused them to go up there and be treated as slaves, be hired according to your brawn, and you know, I did that. That was the first time I knew anything about the Bronx slave market.
Currie: What was the Bronx slave market?
Cooke: The Bronx slave market was a street in the Bronx, near Westchester Avenue, where black women who were on relief or their husbands were making too little to support a family, would take a paper bag in the morning, with work clothes in it, and stand on this corner and wait for the women to come along and hire them. I had to be very careful in writing this, because it was a Jewish community, and I didn't want it to reflect on Jewish people, but women in the community would come along this street and view you as to your brawn, whether you looked like you were capable of doing housework, and hire you for 75 cents an hour, which was a dreadful salary at that time.
Currie: You did this story first for the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Yes, I went up there. It was not an in-depth story. I just talked to some of the women and asked them what they did, how they viewed their work, and it was just a superficial story, but I was interested. I got interested in it.
Currie: Was that an idea that you had?
Currie: And you proposed it to your editor?
Cooke: Yes, and it was accepted.
Currie: Then you later did a very in-depth story for the Compass.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Was that a typical story that the Amsterdam News would have done?
Cooke: No, it wasn't. Really, the police stories, you know, the murders and the sensational stories that they felt would cause their readership to go up. Sensational stories were what they did mainly.
Currie: I had done some research at Howard University, and I guess that's a big debate, even today, about what the role of the black press should be.
Cooke: Well, I think that the People's Voice addressed that. The People's Voice did more social stories for the betterment of the community, and it really was on a good road. Adam Powell, who was the editor-in-chief, was very interested in this community in a basic way, and I think that paper was on the road to being a good paper, but it was fraught with economic problems and was not able to exist.
Currie: You went from the Amsterdam News to—
Cooke: The People's Voice.
Currie: How would you contrast those two?
Cooke: Well, the Amsterdam News, very simply, was a sensational paper, and the People's Voice was a social-minded paper, interested in the betterment of the community. Certainly they would not hesitate to present a story that was newsworthy because it was sensational, but the editorial policy was more to building the community, to building the unions, and to building churches. It was just a very humane paper, very dedicated to the betterment of the Harlem community.
Currie: What was the worst thing about working at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Worst thing was if you were like me, the sensational stories that came out week after week after week, and not paying attention to some of the real problems of the community and presenting them, as I feel every black newspaper should be addressing itself to.
Currie: Was there anything you learned on the Amsterdam News that you were able to take with you to the People's Voice that was helpful to you?
Cooke: Oh, yes. The make-up of the paper. I was allowed to see how a paper was made up, and when the staff got bogged down by something else, I was able to put it together.
Currie: When you went to the People's Voice, your main responsibility was putting it together?
Cooke: Yes. It had to be, because as I said, we had this very charming man who was the editor, and I was his assistant, but he was seldom there because he was out on the street, drinking. Much of the "Jimmy Higgins" work had to be mine. I had to learn how to write headlines, how to go down to the make-up and learn how to put the paper together, and proofread. I didn't have any of the chores there that would lead to writing better or anything like that, but I did learn a lot.
Currie: As we're getting toward the end now, I'd like to ask you about the strike. What do you think you learned from the strike, from participating in the newspaper strike?
Cooke: What everybody learns from—should learn, not does learn—from a strike, that in numbers, there is power. In working together, there's power. It was a very, very good experience for me.
Currie: Did you ever have an opportunity to maybe go out on strike again in your life?
Cooke: No, no. That was the one and only time, and it was a very good time, because it became historically important that this black group did this.
Currie: Why do you think it's historically significant?
Cooke: Because it's the first time that it had ever happened, and it would make black workers coming behind us unafraid to join a union. I think it was an exceptionally good thing.
Currie: You also said, while we were changing tape, that it wasn't too popular to be a Communist in those days. Do you want to talk a little more about what you meant by that?
Cooke: Well, I think there has always been a misconception of what a Communist is, as somebody going out to break up things, you know, wherein I learned that the party was interested in unity and in bettering the condition of workers and communities.
Currie: But was there ever a time when you felt that that worked to your detriment, being a member of the party?
Cooke: No, I have never felt that way. I have come up against some problems, but what organization doesn't have problems? Some things that I questioned, but here we were able to put on the table what we disagreed about. This is a way of humanity. It will always happen that you will disagree about some things.
Currie: If you could go back and work for the Amsterdam News again, would you?
Currie: That's pretty definite.
Cooke: Not unless—if I felt that I could bring a change in policy, yes. But not as a worker. There's no way. Not the way it's set up now. I don't know. The new owner, I've seen him on
television, saw him recently. He seems to have a better grasp on what the community needs than the owners did when I was there, and probably, you know, he could effect a change. But it's still a sensational paper.
Currie: If you could go back and you were faced with the same opportunity to organize a Guild and strike, would you do it the same way?
Cooke: I don't know whether I'd do it the same way. I haven't thought about that. But I would do it.
Currie: Were there ways in which you might have been more effective?
Cooke: I don't think so. You know, I'm sitting here very forthrightly and saying that I joined the Communist party, but most of the people who know me don't know that.
Currie: Why don't they know that.
Cooke: They haven't asked me. I certainly don't hide what I think about the social inequities. If they ask me, I would say yes. But I don't go around the sixth floor of 409 Edgecombe and say, "I am a Communist." My friends here know it. My two friends in "409" know that I have been, or am now, a member of the Communist party.
Currie: You're such a straightforward person.
Cooke: Well, if anyone asked me, and if I felt that they were not trying to set me up for a fall or something like that, I certainly would not deny it. For instance, I said I recruited somebody, the theatrical editor. I mentioned her name. I said, "You know, I am a Communist."
She said, "I knew that."
I said, "How?"
She said, "By the things that you said. If you're not, you should be."
And I said, "Why are you not?"
She said, "If I'm asked, I will be."
I said, "I'm asking you." So that's how I recruited her. But only talking about ideas for a whole year, you know, things that we both believed in. Not knocking her over the head. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: You were talking about your conversation with the woman at the People's Voice and how—
Cooke: You see, my husband was working nights. He was a district manager of a brewery, and he wasn't home at nights, so I ate out. She was alone, and she ate out. We talked for a year before this came up. I didn't avoid talking about things that I felt were interesting to the community at large and things that I believed in, but I never tagged it.
Currie: In the thirties, I understand the Communist party was doing a lot of organizing, particularly in the black community.
Cooke: I don't really know that, because I never was at that level.
Currie: I see. That was done at a different level?
Cooke: I guess so, if it was done. I know that one time—I've forgotten who said it—this, "Why don't you get Marvel Cooke to do so and so and so and so?" "We prefer her doing what she's doing and moving around in the circles she moves around in," and not being tagged. And I think it was proper.
Currie: What do you think they meant by that?
Cooke: Well, the Communist party has not always been popular, it is not popular now, you know, with the general public. They felt that I was more effective just talking to my friends the way I do. There would come a time I did recruit. Maybe I recruited half a dozen people in my life, not more than that. But it was proper that I just move around the way I do. Nobody ever said this to me, but I'm sure that's what was true. This is considered a very special address, and I lived here and knew lawyers and judges and they respected me. I know the support I got in the McCarthy period, I know how they supported me. Maybe they would not have supported me had they felt I was going to—what are Communists supposed to do?
Currie: I don't know.
Cooke: They're supposed to start revolutions and stuff.
Currie: So they thought you were a real subversive.
Cooke: No, they thought I was a very good advocate of decent living.
Currie: Have you ever regretted joining the Communist party?
Cooke: No! Why? Why should I? I have never regretted it. It was a gradual growth to me, you know. I've said my father was a Eugene V. Debs Socialist, and I grew up believing in equalities of all kinds, not only racial, but all kinds of equalities, equality of women. It was a natural progression for me to have joined the Communist party. It's funny. I say that because my sister, whom I admire greatly, she avoids addressing this problem with me. She doesn't want her friends to know that I have been this person who went along advocating the things that I might advocate. I don't think she even knows what the Communist party advocates, but she thinks she knows.
Currie: So it makes her uncomfortable? [Tape interruption.]
Currie: You said a member of your family—
Cooke: Yes, my sister. Not the sister who recently died, because she followed me every place I went, and she also became a member of the Communist party. I remember when I was on strike, a very interesting incident. I was very tired and dirty and disheveled, not a way that anyone would have seen me in Minnesota, and a woman came up to me and said to me, "Aren't you Marvel Jackson?"
And I said, "Yeah."
She said, "Wait 'til I go home and tell your mother what you're in New York doing."
And I said, "If my mother were in New York, she'd be on this line with me." And that came to pass. My mother came here to visit one of us a year or so later. It was my sister she was staying with, Zelma. The tenants were on strike there, and I went by the apartment house after work, and there my mother was with the tenants' group, picketing that house. So I'm sure my mother would have approved of what I had been doing. She would have wanted me to be more comfortable, but she would have approved of the things that I think and do.
Currie: Did you ever talk to her about your activity in the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: Oh, sure.
Currie: What did she say?
Cooke: She was very appreciative of it, and she said, "Your father would have liked this."
Currie: Is it possible for you to be a Communist and a good journalist at the same time?
Cooke: Why not? What is the conflict there?
Currie: Well, you're such a political person. So what I want to know is, journalism is supposed to be a profession where you're completely objective and you don't have views. Politics is so central to your life.
Cooke: I think that I approached every story that way, as a journalist would approach it. I may have put a little more content into it, but I certainly didn't—I never consciously colored a story. When I did the series that we'll talk about later, the slave market series, I certainly did have attitudes about how black women were treated like slaves in that domestic market. But I think if I had not been a Communist, as a humanitarian, I would have felt the same way.
Currie: Did you ever get assigned a story that you didn't want to do?
Cooke: I don't think so. The reason I don't think so is that whole period where I was at the People's Voice, I wasn't out doing any reporting, and the Compass, where I ended my journalistic days, the Compass was a paper that addressed itself to people's problems, and I was never sent out on a story that I didn't want to do. Never.
Currie: At the Amsterdam News, most of the stories you did then were the kind you could objectively report on?
Cooke: Oh, yes. The reason I was possibly successful is because they said I wrote well, you know, and you should never project your opinions in a news story, and I never did that. But I might have emphasized some part of a story that somebody else might not have emphasized, the work conditions or something like that.
Currie: I probably asked this before. What do you think you brought away with you from the whole experience at the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Well, the best thing about it was the fact that I became a member of the union at the Amsterdam News. As far as the work experience was concerned, that was the first time I ever did any leg work and got out into the community to report objectively on things going on in the community. But the biggest thing was the fact that I became a member of the union, and I was active in the union.
Currie: Did you continue your union membership?
Cooke: All the way through my work as a journalist, which ended in the early fifties.
Currie: The leg work in the community, did you learn something about the community you hadn't known before?
Cooke: No, I don't think so, but it became a practical knowledge. Before, it was just intellectual. But you know, I actually got out there and rubbed shoulders with domestic workers and people who were having dreadful problems living in this community.
Currie: As a last question, because we should wrap this up, and we'll have many hours together still, but do you think that you would enjoy working on a newspaper today?
Cooke: I can't think of one that I would really enjoy working on. I don't think I would especially enjoy working on the communist press, because there isn't enough latitude. I wouldn't have enough room to do any creative work.
Currie: What about a newspaper like the New York Times?
Cooke: No. See, I'm a little too old to think of myself as a journalist now, but even if I were younger, I don't think I would want to work on the New York Times.
Currie: Why not?
Cooke: Because you know, I think I know too much about it. For instance, I had a relative who worked on the New York Times. He was on the editorial board of the New York Times. I learned that before any editorial—I heard; I didn't learn—I heard that before any editorial appears in the New York Times, it is sent to a contact in Wall Street to be approved of. If that is true, that frightens me.
Currie: That kind of—
Cooke: Yeah. I believe it may be the truth. Take the elections, the coming election, how the whole thing seems so slanted, you know. You're told one thing, and after the primaries, we learned another. We were told that the gap has been closing between Dinkins and Koch. Wasn't true at all.
Currie: So you don't—
Cooke: I don't trust what the papers are—necessarily trust. I read them all the time, but I don't necessarily trust them.
Currie: That's an interesting place to stop, then, for a former journalist to say she doesn't really trust the newspapers.
Cooke: Well, I don't. I'd be dishonest if I said otherwise.