Marvel Cooke, a pioneering Harlem journalist, writer and civil rights activist 1903

Marvel Jackson Cooke, April 4, 1903 – November 29, 2000, was a Harlem journalist, writer, civil rights activist, and pioneer.

Become a Harlem Insider – Register for our Newsletter!

She was the first African-American woman to work at a mainstream white-owned newspaper.

Early life and education

Marvel Jackson was the first black child born in Mankato, Minnesota. His parents were Madison Jackson and Amy Wood Jackson.

His father was a graduate of Ohio State University Law School and the first black member of the bar in South Dakota, but he could not find employment as a black lawyer; his mother once lived on a Native American reservation as a cook and cooking instructor.

Amy Wood Jackson left her position on the reservation in South Dakota due to unfair treatment of Native Americans there.

After quitting her kitchen job, she became a full-time housewife and mother to Marvel and her three sisters.

Marvel suffered the effects of racial discrimination from an early age. She grew up in an upper-class white neighborhood of Minneapolis, where her family moved in 1907.

After buying their home for the first time, residents staged demonstrations on Jackson’s lawn to protest the arrival of a black family in the area.

Schools in the area were not yet desegregated, but Marvel’s enrollment in its elementary and secondary school desegregated both institutions.

She heard her favorite teacher use racial slurs when she was in elementary school, and her childhood best friend rejected her when she was seventeen because she was black.

In 1921, Marvel enrolled at the University of Minnesota. Only four other black women were listed with her; the entire student body at the time numbered 20,000.

She helped establish an Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter at the university while in college.

While enrolled in college, Marvel took a government exam to qualify for a position as a Spanish translator for the War Department.

Her score qualified her for the hire, but her boss gave her a job as a file clerk after she lied and told her that the translation service was not yet established.

Cooke later discovered that the department had been established with only white women on staff; she contacted Senator Henrik Shipstead, who responded and helped her reassign her to the translation department.

In 1925, Marvel graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in English, at the age of 22.


Cooke was offered a job as an assistant to W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, and in 1926 he moved to New York, settling in Harlem, during the Harlem Renaissance.

Before working at The Crisis, she had neither taken a journalism course nor worked for a newspaper.

Her ability as a writer was recognized by Du Bois, who tasked her with a column in the magazine, where her brief tenure included writing reviews of works by the literary giants of the time, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy. Parker.

In addition to writing the column, titled “In Magazines”, Cooke presented the newspaper.

Mentored by Du Bois, she befriended leading writers and artists, including Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, Elizabeth Catlett, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps and James Weldon Johnson.

She broke off her engagement to Roy Wilkins (later head of the NAACP) because she found him too conservative.

In 1927 she went to work at the New York Amsterdam News, where she was the first female reporter in its 40-year history.

In 1929 she married Jamaican-born Cecil Cooke – a graduate of Columbia University in Harlem, who was the world’s fastest quarter mile when she met him; their marriage would last until his death in 1978.

After their marriage, they moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where Marvel taught history, English, and Latin in the high school department of the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College.

Returning to New York and the Amsterdam News in 1931, she helped found the first New York chapter of the Newspaper Guild and was involved in strike action at the News, joining the picket line for 11 weeks when the editors’ union has been locked out; the strike finally ended on Christmas Eve 1934.

Cooke disliked the crime stories entrusted to him by the News, finding the paper’s handling of such stories distasteful and preferring to extend the paper’s coverage of the arts – for example, traveling at his own expense to cover the concert historic outdoor scene of Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

She also reported on stories she said would be informative for the black community, posting a front-page article that exposed the problematic working conditions of Apollo Theater dancers and a series that analyzed rising crime rates in Harlem. Cooke finally left the newspaper for good in 1940.

Related: Dine with Miss Lil: Fine Greek Cuisine at Elysian Fields Cafe in Harlem Village

She disliked a sensational headline (“Killed Sweetheart, Slept With Body”) and the sensational nature of the diary as a whole.

While working for Amsterdam News, Cooke interviewed a wealthy woman in an apartment on Park Avenue. She was not allowed to enter the front door of the building due to her race, so she called the interviewee and canceled the meeting. The interviewee then forced apartment management to allow Cooke to enter through the front.

From 1942 to 1947 Cooke worked at People’s Voice (a weekly newspaper owned by Adam Clayton Powell), as associate editor.

Crime news for People’s Voice was limited to a single, brief column, much more suited to Cooke’s journalistic preferences than Amsterdam News.

The paper ceased operations in 1947. In 1950, she was hired by New York newspaper The Daily Compass, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as a reporter for a mainstream white-owned newspaper; at the time, she was one of only two black journalists employed there, along with Richard Carter.

Her first series for the newspaper, beginning April 16, was “Occupation: Streetwalker” which chronicled the process of prostitution in the area; she also published an article that detailed black children’s drug use titled “Heroin Candy.” New York City officials launched a program to reduce drug addiction among teens after “From Candy to Heroin” was released.

The following year, to highlight the exploitation of black servants in white homes, she got hired along with others seeking day labor, then described her experiences in a compelling five-part series. for the Daily Compass entitled “The Bronx Slave Market”. , which was promoted with signs reading: Read: I Was A Slave, by Marvel Cooke.

Cooke revealed many upsetting working conditions for domestic workers, including the fact that white women who hired black women would pay significantly less than the rate set by the New York State Employment Service.

Employers also manipulated their convenient clocks to entice workers to work an hour for free. In addition to publishing the article, the newspaper published an editorial directly addressed to Mayor William O’Dwyer in an effort to curb the exploitation.

The combined series and editorial led the Union of Domestic Workers and the National Employment Agency to create courses for domestic workers and the US Labor Party sought standardized wages.

She stayed with the Daily compass until it closed in November 1952.


While working at the Amsterdam News in the 1930s, Cooke not only helped set up a local branch of the Newspaper Guild, the union for newspaper journalists, but also held union meetings at her home and later participated in a eleven-week strike, during which she joined the Communist Party.

Cooke joined the Communist Party in 1936 after convincing journalist Benjamin J. Davis.

She joined even though she may have been fired if her employers knew of her political affiliation.

She also formed a writing group to support creative writers; one of the participants was the first black writer to publish a selection from the Book-of-the-Month-Club, Richard Wright.

In 1953, she became New York director of the National Council for the Arts, Sciences and Professions. The National Council brought together artists, scientists and professionals for political unity; Arthur Miller and John Randolph were members.

In 1953, when she was called to testify twice about her involvement with the Communist Party before Senator Joseph McCarthy, in New York and Washington DC, she pleaded for the Fifth Amendment.

Cooke began working with the Angela Davis Defense Committee in 1969, and she volunteered as National Defense Legal Secretary of the Angela Davis Defense Fund in 1971.

She coordinated the activities of the committee in New York, raised funds for the defense of Angela Davis and organized a rally in Madison Square Gardens. The rally brought together 16,000 participants and raised $40,000.

In her later years, Cooke became national vice-chairman of the American-Soviet Friendship Committee.

Cooke died of leukemia in New York in 2000 at the age of 97, having lived most of her life at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, the legendary apartment building on Sugar Hill in Harlem, which was home to many other black luminaries.

Photo credit: 1-2) Wikipedia (HWM Studio). 3) YouTube.