[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Currie: Yesterday, Angela Davis had just been released from prison, and you had the big gala at Madison Square Garden. That was in—
Cooke: Was that '71?
Currie: I'm not sure.
Cooke: I think that she was arrested in 1969. I'm not sure of that, either. I worked for the "Angela" movement eighteen months or two years.
Currie: So after Angela Davis was free, what did you put your energies to?
Cooke: I thought that I wanted to work with words at a newspaper or a magazine, and there was a very—did I tell this before?—there was a magazine, Freedomways, that I admired a lot. It approached problems of black people all over the world in a manner which I felt was proper. I did know the editor, and I thought I would volunteer. I still was fairly secure financially, and I thought I would volunteer at Freedomways. The office was very near where we had our Angela Davis office, and I walked down there one day and was greeted by the editor, who was on her way out. A young black woman whom I knew was an assistant in the office. I don't know exactly what her job was. And I told the editor that I would like to volunteer to do anything that she thought that I could do to help. She said she was very grateful, but she would talk to me later.
So I stayed around and I addressed some envelopes that day. The assistant knew me. She left me in there alone, so I addressed 300 envelopes. I remember there were 299, because I ruined one. I had 300 envelopes. I left and closed up, locked up the door, and came home.
The next morning, I called and asked the assistant—she was the only one in the office—did she get the envelopes. She said, "Yes, but we can't use them. Your handwriting is illegible." I happen to have good handwriting. I was very surprised, and I never went back.
But we were closing up the Angela office at that time. I thought I would walk over to Fifth Avenue to get a bus coming uptown, and I ran into a friend who worked at the office of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. He said, "What are you doing?"
I said, "Well, I'm kind of looking for something to do."
He said, "Why don't you drop in our office (which was close by), because I'm sure they'd be delighted to have you working there."
I did know the editor of the magazine that the Council wasn't subsidizing, but the magazine office was adjacent to the Council. What was the name of that magazine? And I went in, and everybody greeted me with enthusiasm. There was plenty I could do around there. The name of the magazine was the New World Review. For the first time, I met the executive director of the Council, and I talked with Jessica Smith, the editor of the magazine, and I started dropping in there. I became quite active in the Council and active in the New World Review, too, helping with whatever I could do to help, particularly when they were getting ready to have an event, a money-raising event. I worked on that with Vita Barsky, another volunteer whom I knew. I just got involved in the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, because they did greet me with open arms, and the New World Review, doing whatever I could do to help.
Currie: What was the National Council on American-Soviet Friendship set up to do?
Cooke: It did then what it does now: it hosted groups from the Soviet Union, groups of professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers, who went around to cities where the Council had societies. In turn, the Council sent groups of professionals over to the Soviet Union. It was an exchange program, really to build up friendship between the two countries. And also, the youth program, which I was very interested in. There is a camp on the Red Sea in the Soviet Union called Camp Artek, and children from all over the world go there during the summer in an exchange program of youth from many countries. I thought that that was a great thing. The National Council here has sent from eight to twelve children every year, except for last year, after the earthquake at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union used Camp Artek, I believe, for vacations for some of the victims of Chernobyl. I understand they're going to renew the program this year, so we will be—
Currie: Do it again.
Currie: What did you do for the New World Review? Did you do any writing?
Cooke: No, I didn't do any writing for it. I mainly worked with the fund-raising committee.
Currie: And you've continued to be active?
Cooke: I did until the New World Review folded about two years ago.
Currie: I see. But you're still very much involved with the American-Soviet Friendship?
Cooke: Yes, I am. As a matter of fact, I am the national vice chairman. We were looking for someone to be chairman because we had had some inept leadership. I feel there are some self-seeking people everywhere in America. We had a search committee to try to find someone to be the chairperson, someone who would truly represent our ideas and work for the Council. I was not on the search committee. They were having a lot of trouble. They had talked with a congressman who is on the Advisory Committee of the Council. We knew that he would be sympathetic, but he was really too busy. So one day I just said, off the top of my head, "Why don't you try people like John Randolph or Ossie Davis? They know our work, and they would truly represent us."
So the search committee first went to see Ossie Davis, who was very interested. He had often been chairperson for events that we had had. He was interested. His play had closed. The last play he was in, on Broadway, had closed. He said he would like to do it, but he felt that he didn't have time. However, he thought that John Randolph would be an excellent choice. He said, "John really needs an outside interest at this time." John had just lost his wife. So I felt like I'd overstepped a little bit. Why had I suggested John? John lives in the neighborhood in which I live, so the meeting was set up at my house for the committee to talk with him. This was two and a half years ago. John listened and made a few remarks of protest, like he wasn't going to do it, and then he finally said, "Let me think it over." And the next day, he called the office of the American-Soviet Friendship Society and said, "Yes, I'll be glad to be chairperson. I'm coming in with my fist up." He has been an excellent chairperson.
Currie: Just for the record, why don't you tell me a little bit about John Randolph?
Cooke: John Randolph is an actor and a political activist. He found himself unable to work during the period of the Hollywood Ten. He was barred, he and his wife, both.
Currie: Was she an actress?
Cooke: She was an actress—Sarah Cunningham. She had a starring role in "Toys in the Attic" on Broadway, but both John and Sarah were just stopped in their careers. They couldn't get any parts or anything. John was very active in the ASP (the Council on Arts, Sciences and Professions). He knew people in the arts, like Arthur Miller, and he worked very hard for Paul Robeson to get his passport. More recently, just before he became national chairperson of the Council, he won a Tony for "Broadway Bound," and he had a starring role in "Pritzi's Honor."
Currie: Yes, he was in "Pritzi's Honor."
Cooke: He is a backer of the Daily World. He's not afraid to speak out on issues that he believes in.
Currie: So he's what you'd say, very progressive?
Cooke: He's a progressive. You know, the word "very" I don't like. I never have liked it, because I think if you are progressive, you are what we call very progressive. He's progressive and dedicated. He doesn't just say, "I believe in things." He'll get in and work for them. He certainly worked hard for Paul Robeson's passport. That's when I first met him. He's a delightful person.
Currie: We should also go back. Your husband, Cecil, did he work most of his life, then, and finish his career in New York City's Recreation Department?
Cooke: He did. He retired in 1974 from the Parks Department as Director of Recreation in the borough of the Bronx.
Currie: So then after he retired, what did you all do?
Cooke: He was ill when he retired. I didn't know it. He was a macho man, and he didn't want to admit he was ill. He was ill, and I semi-retired from all activity to be with him. He died in 1978, after many visits to hospitals.
Currie: What did he die of?
Currie: Essentially, he had become the main support of the family?
Currie: Did you ever get a pension from any of the places that you worked?
Cooke: No. No. I'm living on Social Security.
Currie: Was there a pension plan in any of the—
Cooke: He had a pension at his work. I am getting a fourth of his small pension, which just pays my rent, and Social Security.
Currie: With all of your newspaper jobs, you never got a pension?
Cooke: No, no, no. There was no pension plan at any of them, including the Compass. So what I have is a very small pension as a result of my husband's work, and Social Security.
Currie: Did you ever regret not working for a newspaper again after the Compass closed?
Cooke: I would like to have. As a matter of fact, the Compass had been so Red-baited that there was really no place for me to go in New York City. There was no place. Possibly I could
have gone to the Amsterdam News. I'm not sure about that, but it has changed management. The last publisher seems to be a fairly progressive man. But by this time, I am so deeply into the work of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, which is entirely volunteer, that I haven't had any time to do anything else. Or energy, I should say, after all.
Currie: That does keep you awfully busy.
Cooke: Yes. I meant to clear this week and not have had anything. That didn't work out that way, although I had said that I would not be available this week.
Currie: When you look back on your life, what do you think was the happiest time for you?
Cooke: I think it was during the time I was at the Council on Arts, Sciences and Professions, and at the Compass. Those two, I think.
Currie: What about those two experiences?
Cooke: What about them? What do you mean?
Currie: What about those two experiences made you happy?
Cooke: Well, at the ASP, (Arts, Sciences and Professions), the contacts were so exciting, to meet people of whom you'd heard, who had made an impact on society within their profession, like John Randolph, like Arthur Miller, like Joe Josephson, who was a well-known businessman. It was not only exciting, but it was stimulating to know I was not alone in these crazy ideas I had about society.
At the Compass, my ability as a writer was challenged, and I felt that I met that challenge and that I did have some ability. I did work in a field that I was comfortable in, and with people with whom I was comfortable. Those friendships have continued.
Currie: What was the worst time in your life?
Cooke: In my work life?
Currie: Well, any time in your life. What do you think was the worst time in your life?
Cooke: I would say at the Amsterdam News, when there was so much turmoil about the union. That was when the Newspaper Guild was first organized and there was so much unrest among the other workers, not the editorial workers, but the other workers in the paper. And whether we were doing the right thing when we were planning to strike, whether that was the correct thing to do for the most important black paper in this area. However, we had decided we were going to strike, and luckily, we were locked out, so we didn't have to make that decision. It was very difficult for me to say, "I'm going to strike against this black paper." But as a union person, I knew I had to do it.
Currie: If you could go back and do that strike over again, would there be anything you would do differently?
Cooke: No, absolutely not. It was part of my political growth, as I look back on it. It's where I met Ben Davis, and met not only Ben Davis, but leaders in the church community in Harlem, leaders in society, all of whom supported us. I remember one of the most interesting contacts that I made during that period, we used to take leaflets around, and I decided that I would not just leave a leaflet at St. Phillip's Episcopalian Church, which is the leading black Episcopalian church in this area. I had met Father Bishop, who occupied the pulpit there. So I took it to him, and I said, "We are trying to organize a picket line of clerics in this area, and we wondered if you would join them."
He looked at me a moment and he said, "You know, just this past Sunday I talked about the people on the picket line at the Amsterdam News and what an important thing it was for this community." But he said, "I wonder if I have enough nerve to put my body where my mouth is. Yes, I will join the picket line." And we had a most impressive picket line of clerics in this area. Everybody supported us. I think it was the beginning of my consciousness that unions were a very good thing, and that unions were not just for manual workers; they were for all kinds of workers. He did join that picket line.
Currie: I know we've talked about the strike before, but is there anything that we haven't hit on in the strike that you think was very important? Who were some of the other leaders in the strike?
Cooke: Well, leaders—you mean supporters?
Currie: Who organized it?
Cooke: It was organized at the American Newspaper Guild headquarters. I mean, we were a part. We discussed our plight with them, what was happening. Heywood Broun was a part of those deliberations. When I said "we," I was not one of the persons who went. The leaders were a couple of men who had the foresight to involve this black paper in the building of a union for newspaper editorial workers.
Currie: Why do you think it was important that a black newspaper was involved?
Cooke: Because workers on that level, not only newspaper people, but unions were sort of new to them. They had thought of working as a group, struggling against management. It was new to that type of worker.
Currie: To newspaper workers?
Cooke: Newspaper workers. Well, the teachers were organized, but so few people in the professions were organized in labor struggle.
Currie: Was it unusual for a black-owned business to be organized by black workers?
Currie: In other words, was it unusual to have a labor unit created from black workers who were working for black owners?
Cooke: I understand—this would have to be researched—but this was the first time in this country that black workers had struck against black ownership and won. Now, they always say "and won," so it is possible that black workers in other industries had been organized. Possibly they had not struck. But I understand that this is a statistic in labor unions in this country, that this is the first time this ever happened.
Currie: That's pretty momentous.
Cooke: It was considered very important.
Currie: Did you ever get any negative feedback for being on the picket line?
Cooke: Oh, of course. People in this house in which I live would say, "What is a nice girl like you doing out there on a picket line?" You know. "A nice girl like you doing out there on a picket line?"
Currie: So what did you tell them?
Cooke: [Laughter.] Things that I had learned as a child. In unity, there is strength. The bosses are not necessarily in your corner, even if they are your own color. They're not in your corner. They're for building a business.
Currie: Do you remember any particularly nasty incident?
Cooke: During the strike?
Currie: During the strike.
Cooke: I did speak about having been arrested.
Cooke: Even though I grew up in a progressive family, it never occurred to me that I'd ever be arrested and thrown in jail and confined to a cell with bars. That never occurred to me that that could possibly happen to me. But it was an adventure, and it was an important adventure.
Currie: When you were organizing the Guild at the Amsterdam News, did someone come and talk to—how did—
Cooke: Yes. Whoever was—I don't remember, it was so long ago, but whoever was chairperson of the union would come and speak to us. The night before we were locked out and were forced to strike, somebody from the headquarters came and talked with us. Most of us were, if we had to, for striking. One or two were a little tentative. They wanted to be in the union, but they weren't sure they wanted to be out on a picket line.
Currie: Where did you hold those union meetings?
Cooke: In my house.
Currie: In your apartment?
Cooke: My apartment.
Currie: Your other apartment?
Cooke: Yes, the larger apartment.
Currie: Then who negotiated the settlement with the owners of the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: We had a lawyer, a union lawyer, and the two professionals had bought the paper from the owner against whom we were striking, had a lawyer. A few of us, I was not in the—a couple of the men and our lawyer and [a] representative from the union negotiated the contract. It was not a good contract; it had flaws.
Currie: What were the flaws?
Cooke: There was a clause that if within a certain short time, maybe three months, any worker hadn't met the standards of the paper, they could be fired. It was not a good contract. It was one of the first contracts the Guild had ever, in this country, negotiated with an owner. There were flaws in it. I really don't remember all of the flaws, but afterwards, we realized it was flawed. I think there were eleven of us. The new management started after us one by one, really two by two. Because of a faulty contract, they were able to get rid of at least seven of the workers who had been on strike, and replaced them with the kind of worker they wanted. The person had to join the Guild, but it was not the original group.
Currie: So during the strike, that paper was sold to another owner?
Currie: I see. So did that help end the strike, when the new owner was willing to negotiate?
Cooke: Yes. Yes. That did help end the strike.
Currie: You had talked about the former owner.
Cooke: Mrs. Davis.
Currie: Mrs. Davis. Who was the new owner?
Cooke: The new owners were two physicians, well-known physicians, in this area: Dr. C.B. Powell and Dr. P.M.H. Savory.
Currie: What an interesting name.
Cooke: I can't forget it, because there was a joke between Cecil and me. I knew him as Cecil G. Cooke. One morning he just started laughing about nothing at all, and I said, "What are you laughing at?" He said, "P.M.H. Savory." I said, "What's so funny about that?" He said, "I've got three initials, too. I am C.G.C. Cooke." I've forgotten what the other "C" was. But he said, "I didn't want all those initials, so I dropped one, and I wondered why Dr. Savory would keep those." Anyway, he's known in this area as Dr. P.M.H. Savory.
Currie: So what kinds of people did they hire?
Cooke: For instance, Obie McCollum—O-B-I-E, it's a strange name—who had been one of the strikers and the editor, and a very talented newsperson, was fired as the managing editor and replaced by Earl Brown, a Harvard graduate and a friend of Dr. Powell's, who had never been in a newspaper office before in his life and actually didn't know how to edit a paper, what it took to get a paper out. He'd go back, close his door, and go to sleep, and, I guess, hope against hope that the paper would get out. I'm trying to say the two doctors hired friends whom they thought would be in their corner.
Currie: So they hired people who they knew were loyal to them, rather than people who knew how to put out a newspaper.
Cooke: That's right. It happens that my physician at that time, an internist that I went to, was a very well-known physician in this community. He was doing a whole lot of things—first black who joined the AMA [American Medical Association] and things of that sort, and he was a big wheel at Harlem Hospital and a friend of the Savorys. Dr. Savory and Dr. Powell put him on their board. He told me long afterwards, "When I was in their office, I told them, 'Okay, you can fire whom you want, but if you touch Marvel Cooke, I'm going to have to stand with her.'" I mean, they weren't taking a stand against unions; they were friendly people who believed we should have a paper in Harlem and they didn't know what they were doing, really.
Currie: And they had the wherewithal to buy it.
Cooke: That's right. That's right. They bought it for $5,000 and sold it within the last five years—no, it's longer than that; within the last ten years—for nearly a million dollars. So they did all right.
Currie: Yes, they sure did all right.
Cooke: They did all right.
Currie: Is there anything else about the Guild organizing that we've left out?
Cooke: I think there must be a lot of things, but—
Currie: That's the trouble with this kind of interview, when you always think, "Oh, my God, I've—" You know.
Cooke: The Amsterdam News editorial workers were the first to join the Guild, but I feel it was important because so many other papers afterwards did, like the Afro-American had a very good unit. I don't know how the Guild is working now, but I know that in the early days, they did join the union.
Currie: So it was important, too, in that it set a precedent to other black papers.
Cooke: Yes, that's right. That's right.
Currie: That's interesting. Would there be anything about your life that you would change if you had the opportunity?
Cooke: I can't think of any important thing that's gone on in my life that I would change, you know. I think I've been inordinately lucky. I came here—for instance, I went to a family reunion in Buffalo three years ago, I guess. I had never gone to family reunions before. A cousin who is a psychiatrist and had recently realized I was here and living in New York encouraged me to go to this reunion, and he introduced me to the family. Then I told a little bit about my life and what I had been doing, and then there was like a little question and answer period. I was asked, "Don't you hate growing old?" And I said, "Who is it that would like growing old, knowing that you are approaching probably the end of your life? But I wouldn't have wanted to be born in any other period. If I were any younger than I am, if I were considerably younger, I would not have known—" and I named them, Dr. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright. You know, I would not have known these people. The ones that I've just now mentioned played a very important role in my life. So I don't know that I really would have wanted to be active during any other period. I would have wanted to have produced more, have done more myself, but I got so involved in unions and things of that sort, that I didn't do the creative writing that I had thought I was going to do when I was young.
Currie: But you still have your novel, don't you?
Cooke: I still have a novel in my head. Anyway, I don't know that there is much that I would want to change. I certainly feel that I had a very good husband.
Currie: Why was it important that you had a very good husband to support all your activities?
Cooke: Because he was so supportive of all the crazy things that I got myself into. I talked about his attitude about me when I went before McCarthy. There might have been some men in his age group that would not have liked this at all, but I think I would have had to leave them. I couldn't have lived with them. He was very supportive of me. I don't mean we had a perfect marriage. I think that anyone who says that is not really telling the truth. You're two different people and you certainly have different—we had entirely different backgrounds. He was from the Caribbean, and I'm a midwesterner who grew up with a bunch of Swedes and Norwegians. But he was sound, he was a sound person, very intelligent, very interested in the arts, despite the fact that he meant to make a lot of money, which he never really did.
Currie: He did mean to?
Cooke: Oh, yes. He wanted to make money, and he never really made a lot. He did much better than a lot of other people, but he never made the kind of money he would have liked to make.
Currie: Did that disappoint you?
Cooke: No, and didn't really disappoint him. So it was a good marriage.
Currie: How did you organize your day-to-day life together? Did you have responsibilities and did he have responsibilities?
Cooke: About the home, you mean?
Currie: The home.
Cooke: Yes. As a matter of fact, he was the kind of man who would pitch in and do anything around the house. In my age group, people would say that's a woman's work. He never felt that way. He wouldn't go to the laundry in this house. We have a laundry here. Because he didn't want the other people to know that he would do these things, but he would cook, he would clean. He would do whatever he could to help me. It was a very good sharing sort of experience.
Currie: I need to turn the tape over.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Currie: What if you had been married to a more traditional man?
Cooke: Like Roy Wilkins?
Currie: Like anybody. Okay, like Roy Wilkins.
Cooke: Well, I don't mind saying that, because that has been discussed, not by me, but my mother and her best friend talked about it. Her best friend never thought I should have been engaged to Roy, or that I should marry him. I don't know what her prejudice against him was. Anyway, she said, "Because Marvel would not have been able to do the things that she wanted to do. She would have just become Roy Wilkins' wife." And my mother said, "I doubt that. I think what would happen, either they would have been divorced or he would have done some of the things she likes to do." And I think that that's true. I feel he may have been a different type of leader, you know, had he had a wife that understood what was going on in the world and the part that you have to play in guiding the younger generation. Roy was not a bad person. He was very bright.
Currie: Certainly a significant figure.
Cooke: This is just figurative. In order to see the president, he wouldn't mind going in the back door.
Currie: And you would never have gone in the back door?
Cooke: No. I would have to go in the front door. That's the way I feel. I may be not doing him proper service, but I think that that was the difference between Cecil and Roy.
Currie: Cecil's been dead now five years?
Cooke: Eleven. 1978, October. It's been eleven years. It's been a kind of tough eleven years for me. Had this happened when I was younger, I may have—I like living together. I may have had another husband or another mate. It doesn't have to be a husband. Another mate. But he left when we were both old, you know.
Currie: Have you thought about remarrying?
Cooke: I haven't seen anybody I would want to. I've had one proposal, and the person said, "I would not leave California." And I think I would not leave New York.
Currie: Why wouldn't you want to leave New York?
Cooke: Because I am still able to be active here. The physical situation in California is so different from here. Here you can get on a bus or a subway and get places. If I lived in California, I would have to be going distances by car. Well, on the other coast, we [NCASF] do have several societies, one in San Diego, one in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco, and in Portland, Oregon. I would have friends, but they're at such distances. At this point in my life, I am not up to traveling like that. In New York, I can travel easily on my own.
Currie: Looking back, how do you think journalism has changed since you were so active?
Cooke: Well, for instance, there is an organization of black journalists, which we never had in my time. I have a young cousin who's a journalist, a woman. It's amazing what she tells me about their meetings, their annual meetings. There are thousands and thousands of them. We did not have that. There were just a few of us.
Currie: A few black journalists?
Cooke: Yes, and very few on the white press. As I have said earlier, I am supposed to be the first black woman journeyman on a white paper in this country. There are any number now, and I'm proud of that, you know. For instance, my young cousin was assistant city editor of one of the Gannett papers, you know.
Currie: What is her name?
Cooke: Paula Parker, who is responsible for me meeting Kay Mills.*
Currie: Oh, that's right. Do you think you had any effect on her choosing journalism?
Cooke: No. It's strange. She grew up here in New York, but for family reasons, I was not very close to her, either, to her family at the time she was growing up. I was very proud of her, because she was a product of a broken home. I ran into her one evening in the subway going to school up at CCNY. She's very bright. I don't think I had any influence on her going into journalism, but she did, and she seems to have done very well.
Currie: Do you notice anything about the way journalists practice their craft today that is different than the way you practiced your craft then?
Cooke: I haven't been around them enough to make that evaluation. I don't know. I know that more things are available to them. We had to break through a lot of things. For instance, here in New York, I was assigned to interview a lady who lived on Park Avenue, and I took a photographer with me.
Currie: Was that on the Compass?
Cooke: No, on the Amsterdam News, way before the Compass. When we entered the lobby of this apartment, the doorman stopped us and asked where we were going. We told him, and he said, "You go around to the side door. Negroes are not allowed in the front door." Well, I refused to. Thank God the photographer backed me up, and we went to the nearest telephone and called the lady we were to interview and told her what had happened. We told her we were going back to the paper; we couldn't come. I don't know what she did, but she said, "You come back." When we came back, we went in through the front door. She must have told him that this could not be.
* Kay Mills is author of A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1988.
That doesn't happen in New York any longer. You don't have to fight that type of discrimination anyplace in this city.
Currie: Certainly not to get a story.
Currie: Was this a white woman or a black woman?
Cooke: White woman. I've forgotten what the story was about, but there was a reason that we were assigned to go there. That would not happen now. Society itself has not changed fast enough, but things have eased. Some things that we would have to meet, the younger reporter would not have to.
Currie: So things that you, as a black reporter, had to put up with, black reporters now don't have to?
Cooke: Don't have to. Yes. I think it's a more respected craft, anyway, than it was. Now the media is known to be important to the community, and newspeople of today don't have to fight the way we did.
Currie: What was the social status of reporters, do you think, when you were reporting?
Cooke: It was fairly high. You were ranked along with teachers and social workers and people like that, but a little bit crazy.
Currie: Crazy? In what way?
Cooke: You know, it was more dangerous. What woman was out on the street covering a murder? You know. But anyway, I think things have eased a great deal.
Currie: So you think now people think of the media as having more status than they did?
Cooke: I think so, here in this community. I don't know if it's true across the board, but it certainly is true in this community. Now just the other day, someone asked me did I know a certain person who worked for the Amsterdam News after I did. She did not work as a reporter, but in the business office. She said, "Well, she's wonderful. She has a job at the Amsterdam News." I was very surprised, because it didn't seem to me to be that important a job. But there's more respect now, I think.
Currie: Why do you think there is more respect now?
Cooke: Well, I think that the media, generally, television and all, has made people who work in the news more—they seem more knowledgeable, they have more to give, they are proponents of society now, you know. They represent something. I think that the media itself has caused this to happen—radio, television. And I hear more talk on the street about the papers they like or they don't like. They don't like the Daily News, and why they don't like it—because it's sensational. I think there's more respect for people in the media now in this community.
Currie: Do you think that that respect for people in the media is more warranted now than it was then?
Cooke: I don't think so. For instance, if a worker at the Amsterdam News went out on strike now, I don't think it would be looked at as, "What on earth are they doing out in the street like that?" I think that there is more sympathy about what they're doing now. I would have to think about these things.
Currie: But it's an interesting point that you've brought up. I know if you watch any movies from the thirties, the reporters were always sort of—well, just watch "The Front Page." Reporters were sort of jostling one another. They were a little bit shady, a little bit willing to do anything to get a story. Reporters were regarded as "tough guys."
Cooke: And crazy people.
Cooke: No, I think that there's more respect now for journalism and people in journalism.
Currie: In fact, I think journalism has only been thought of as a profession in recent times.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: It was thought of as a trade.
Cooke: That's right. I think so.
Currie: I don't want to put words in your mouth.
Cooke: No. I think you're right about that, that we have earned the respect of the community. I say "we," I mean journalists have earned the respect. And you know, when I came along, you could get a job as a journalist because you could write a grammatical sentence. Now these young—I have a lot of respect for them—they are trained. They know what they're doing. It's reflected in their work.
Currie: Who of the journalists working today do you respect?
Cooke: For instance, Dorothy Gilliam. I think she's great. I've read some of her things. I've participated on a panel with her, and I've wondered, "Why on earth am I on this panel with her?" I think she's great.
Currie: What do you admire most about her work?
Cooke: She's very fluent. She uses words well, but she thinks well, and she is not only a journalist, she's a black journalist. She understands the problems that black people have, and can present it in a way that would be difficult to do in my time. I know an awful lot of sympathetic white journalists, but it would be difficult for them to get an in-depth story the way she does. In reading her life, she had a few knocks, too, and it helped develop her.
Currie: Who else's work do you admire?
Cooke: I don't know. Don't ask me that.
Currie: Well, we're almost finished. I will release you soon, and you'll be glad.
Cooke: No, I will not. It's been very nice. Earl Caldwell, who works on the Daily News here, a paper that I really don't like, has done a number of very good—I don't read the Daily News too often, but somebody will call me and say, "Did you see such and such a thing that Earl Caldwell—" I'll do my best to get hold of that. I've seen him on television, too, and he is very stalwart, very straightforward. He writes well. I shouldn't say it, but I also admire my nephew's work.
Currie: Now, why shouldn't you say that?
Cooke: Well, it's kind of in-family.
Currie: That's okay. What do you admire about Roger Wilkins' work?
Cooke: If it's a subject affecting black people, his straightforward way of presenting that story. He understands so well the problems black people face. It is reflected in any story that he writes concerning the black struggle or a black person who is trying to move forward in his profession. He's really fluent with words, anyway. I think he's a very clever writer, a very good writer. That has nothing to do with the fact that we're related.
Currie: I'm sure. It's okay to like your relatives.
Cooke: To like their work?
Cooke: Well, I do like his work. I read a number of his pieces in Mother Jones. Do you know that?
Currie: Yes, I do.
Cooke: And he's had a piece, an Op Ed piece in the New York Times about a month ago that was very good. I don't know whether you saw it or not.
Currie: I don't believe I saw it.
Cooke: I'll give you a copy.
Currie: What was it on?
Cooke: It's about the black youth. I'll give you—
Currie: Okay. That would be good to include. You said you don't like the New York Daily News.
Cooke: Because it's a sensational paper. They wouldn't mind doing that kind of headline that caused me to leave the Amsterdam News, you know. Is there any paper I do like?
Cooke: The Guardian, which is a weekly, and not a newspaper, you know. I have learned that these weeklies are not really newspapers; they're news magazines, really. Let's see. I read the Times all the time, but I read it just for what's going on in daily life. I don't necessarily agree with the interpretations of the editorials or the stories, but it is a good newspaper to learn what's going on. I'm not too crazy about any of them.
Currie: What do you think about the status of women in journalism today?
Cooke: Well, they certainly have marched forward since I was in it. You know, all the columnists, women who run the Op Ed pages. I can't name them, but I know that they've done that. They've really made great strides, I guess not only in journalism, but in all professions, and certainly in journalism. You can't say that this is the "first" or the "only" or anything; there are many women. I think it's part of the women's movement that we've broken some of the shackles we had.
Currie: Were you a supporter of the women's movement?
Cooke: Of course. Of course. How could I not be? How could any intelligent women not be, really?
Currie: Well, there are a lot who weren't.
Cooke: I know, but you know, I don't see how anyone, knowing what we've had to go through as women, would not be proud of the women's movement and the breakthrough, want to be a part of it.
Currie: I think we're getting to the end. Unless you can think of anything that we haven't covered, that you would like to say, I have one final question.
Cooke: I can't think of anything. It seems to me that—
Currie: I've worn you out.
Cooke: No, I don't mean that, but you've made me think about things in my life that I had completely forgotten, you know.
Currie: Good! That means I've done my job.
Cooke: For instance, that incident in my childhood, I had completely forgotten. Now, why it came about, I don't know why it came to the surface.
Currie: Sometimes when you plumb one memory, another memory comes, and when you start thinking about these things, they all fall into place. There's a theory that you forget everything you're going to forget almost immediately, but that you retain memories. I think it's like twenty-four or forty-eight hours, you forget most of what you've experienced, but you retain a nugget of it. You retain that with as much clarity two days later as you do forty years later.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: And that's the whole theory about memory. I think that's somewhat true. There are things I've completely forgotten, people tell me I did, but other things that are just clear as a bell.
Cooke: I remember that incident like it happened yesterday, and the fears I had, you know. It could have ruined my life. I mean, even though it wasn't a completed thing, it could have ruined my life, could have made me so afraid of men, you know, that I would steer clear of them.
Currie: It's interesting, because you say it could have ruined your life. Why do you think it didn't, this incident with your uncle?
Cooke: I think it didn't, because when I did have enough courage to tell my parents about it, they approached it in a very intelligent way, by giving me material so I would understand myself and my body and my mind, and making our life at home so pleasant, you know, the surroundings so pleasant. It did change—I was different from the other young women for a long time. I was very suspicious of any man—any man—until I was in my twenties, when I began to believe that some men were decent, you know.
Currie: That's very understandable. But I think that's the kind of thing that you don't ever forget.
Cooke: Well, I know that I didn't, but when I started reading it, I said, "Why did I say that?"
Currie: Because I think it probably shaped a lot of—I mean, it's got to stay in your mind and stay with you your whole life.
Cooke: Well, anyway, my sisters didn't have to go through it. I don't think I said this, about that incident, but Zelma was very, very—when that happened, she wasn't in school yet, because I was eleven and she's seven years younger. The next year, my father and my uncle went to Ohio to their mother's birthday celebration, and Zelma was the only one that went with them,
because Helen was in school by then, and Zelma was free. My mother said, "Sure, take her." When my father came home, he came home without Zelma. This is before I had revealed this incident to them. I remember saying, "Papa, where's Zelma?"
"Charlie stayed a few days. He found some woman he liked very much, and he wanted to visit with her a little longer. He offered to keep Zelma with him." I remember how I felt. I almost died. The two or three days before she came home, the two or three days that passed before she came home, I couldn't sleep. "What's happened to my little sister? My little sister's dead. She's with a crazy man." This is what was going on in my mind. And I don't think in my whole life, even with the joys I have had—I've had many joyous moments—I don't think I was ever happier in my life than when I saw her coming through our back yard—there was a short cut home through our back yard—when I saw Zelma coming. I don't think I was ever happier in my life, or as relieved.
Currie: I'm sure it must have been a tremendous relief. And Charlie never approached Zelma?
Cooke: No, no. Obviously, he hadn't. He was busy with this new girlfriend, so he left her alone. But I remember how frightened I was.
Currie: Whatever happened to Charlie?
Cooke: Well, he married this lady he met, and she didn't live with him very long. He moved out of our house. That's how I was able to even have enough nerve to tell my father. He moved out with her, but they didn't stay married very long. He did find another woman, much younger than he, because she was in my age bracket, and she's still living. But I never once went into their house—never once. I think both my sisters have been to their home, but they didn't know the story.
Currie: They never knew?
Cooke: They know it now. Of course, Zelma's dead, but Helen knows it.
Currie: Do you know why your parents decided not to bring charges against him?
Cooke: I think it was because he was a member of the family, and they didn't want a scandal of that sort. My mother told me that my father wanted to go over and kill him that night, and she kept him from doing it. "You don't want to do a thing like that." So they concentrated on me. There weren't psychiatrists then to take a child to, but I got all these books, What Every Little Girl Should Know, and I had a very nice life at home, and went to the movies, the silents that they had then. I had a very nice time. They tried to surround me with very positive things. But I was afraid of men, and that lasted until I was twenty years old or so.
Currie: Not surprising at all that you would be.
Cooke: It could have changed the whole course of my whole life. It could have. I guess that's why I spoke about it, but when I was reading it, I said, "Why on earth did I tell that?"
Currie: I think it was significant. I certainly would find it significant.
Cooke: You would?
Currie: Absolutely. I'd like to ask you what you think your mother and father would think about your life.
Cooke: Frankly, I think, by and large, they would approve of it. I don't think of anything that I have done—I don't mean I've been perfect—but I can't think of anything I have done of a major nature that they would not have approved of or participated in with me in that endeavor.
My mother was very progressive, not as intellectually as progressive as my father; but she was a progressive woman. I don't think I said that she was very young when she was working at that Indian reservation in South Dakota, and she couldn't stand the way the Indian children were treated. If a girl was being punished, she told me that that child would be put down in a damp basement and would contract a cold and go into TB, and the boys, when they were chastised, a wooden log was put over their backs and they would have to march up and down in front of the reservation building all afternoon. She just thought it was dreadful. She resigned. She couldn't take it, and there was no way then to—no organized protests of any kind. That's when my father induced her to stay out west and marry him, but she was going to leave. She couldn't stand injustice.
Currie: What about your father?
Cooke: My father, as I said, was a progressive, intellectually a progressive.
Currie: But he would have approved of everything?
Cooke: I'm sure he would have. I'm sure he would have. He would have had no difficulty with certain decisions I've made, like joining the union, you know, and working for the American-Soviet Friendship Society, because even when there was no Soviet Union, as such, he did not believe in war; he believed in peace, that people should be able to live out their lives without any great turmoils of any kind. I'm certain he would have approved and would have been working with me in the American-Soviet Friendship Society, which is a peace organization, one which elements of our government would like to see closed up. How we feel about it, how I feel about it, and those of us in the leadership of the American-Soviet Friendship Society feel about it, we will continue at all costs. The peace movement in this country has grown a lot. There are a lot of good peace organizations. We were once the only one. There are several, maybe a half dozen. They are being closed up one by one, so we've got to stay alive, though it's very difficult to raise enough money to keep the offices and the programs going.
Currie: What do you expect to be doing in the future?
Cooke: As long as I'm able, I'll be doing exactly what I'm doing now. Really, I thought last year that I would sort of step down from working in the American-Soviet Friendship Society, and then an incident occurred which made me know that I can't step down at this time. It would look like I'm ducking and don't want the responsibility. I can't imagine not working for a peace organization, particularly this one, as long as I'm able to produce something.
Currie: I think that's maybe a good place to stop.
Currie: It's been a pleasure.