[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Currie: I wonder if I could call you Marvel.
Cooke: Of course you can! As a matter of fact, I don't know anyone who calls me Mrs. Cooke. [Laughter.] I almost won't respond to that name.
Currie: My mother always said, "You must call adults Mr. or Mrs."
Cooke: I was brought up like that, too. I know.
Currie: And it sticks. Anyway, I wondered, Marvel, if we could start with when you were born and where.
Cooke: I was born early in this century, in Mankato, Minnesota. I was the first black baby born in that town. The first Chinese baby had been born the week before, and my mother said to my father, "I'm glad we had just a plain little Negro baby," because everyone in the town turned out to look, to scrutinize that Chinese baby. But the same thing happened to me. Pigmentation is the last thing that comes to a baby, and I was very fair. So the story got around the town that my mother must have been untrue to my father, that that couldn't be a Negro child. They moved to Minneapolis when I was six weeks old. My mother never explained it to me, but she'd be combing my hair when I was about four, and she says, "I should take you back to Mankato and let them look at you now." Because the black features had all turned up.
Currie: Why were your parents in Mankato?
Cooke: Well, that is a very interesting story that Roger [Roger Wilkins, Mrs. Cooke's nephew] might have mentioned. Maybe he didn't. My father was the son of an Ohio farmer, who was not a slave, although he was born in the period when he could have been. He was a very bright man and expected all of his children, when they got their majority, to buy land adjacent to his and go to farming. My father wanted an education. So the day he became twenty-one, he was packing to go to Chillicothe, Ohio, which was the nearest town, and his father came in and said, "Madison, what are you doing?"
He said, "I'm going to Chillicothe."
"To get an education." He had been self-taught up to that point, and he had a great deal of knowledge. He was very tall. He went into Chillicothe. He was prepared to go into high school, but he couldn't spell. He hadn't stopped to learn how to spell. So they returned him to the first grade. I don't know what year that was, but I could figure it out. But within seven years, he had graduated from Ohio State University in law. However, discrimination—he ran on the road from Columbus, I think, to Chicago. He was a Pullman porter.
Currie: So instead of being able to get a job as a lawyer—
Cooke: He couldn't because of the discrimination. He wasn't prepared to support himself as a lawyer. No law firm would hire him, either black or white, so he ran on the road to support himself.
One year about the turn of the century, maybe 1900, my mother [Amy Wood Jackson], who was born in Virginia, her father was a free man, also, had decided she didn't want to be a scullery maid all of her life. She worked in service, and that's how she met Dr. [W(illiam) E(dward) B(urgharat)] Du Bois, as a matter of fact. The people she worked for used to summer in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Dr. Du Bois was from. He met her. She was very beautiful. He used to take her out. He told me much later that he used to take her back home, and there were a lot of young white men in the family, and he used to wonder how on earth she was going to survive that kind of—but she did.
Currie: You mean they were attracted to her?
Cooke: That's right. But she did, and she got back to Washington and took a government test to be a cook at an Indian reservation. But anyway, she was assigned to an Indian reservation in South Dakota. My father [Madison Jackson] saw her on the train and thought she was beautiful, and wanted to know her, but she wasn't accustomed to picking up men like that, so she had nothing to do with him. She was on her way to Pierre, South Dakota, where there was an Indian reservation. He tried to talk with her. She wouldn't talk to him. But she lost a comb, a little comb that you put in your hair, and she was telling the conductor about it. My father said, "I would be the one that would most likely find it." He was on the train that went into Pierre, and he was able to talk with her. When they got to Pierre, he said, "I'll get a horse and buggy and take you to where you're going."
She said, "No, they're going to meet me." But they didn't meet her. So he did take her to the reservation, where she not only cooked, but she taught cooking to the little Indian girls. But after eighteen months of that, she couldn't take it. She just couldn't stand the way Indians were treated, and she related to it a lot because she knew how we were treated, and she resigned and was going back to Washington. My father persuaded her not to, and they got married. The railroad had a dead end at Mankato.
Currie: So that's how they got to Mankato.
Cooke: Yes. But he never intended to stay there, and he never intended to bring his children up, if he had children, in the United States. He thought Canada was a better place. He thought he was going to Canada. He left her in Mankato, and he was going to send for her after I was born. He got to Minneapolis and liked Minneapolis. It had many of the things he thought any Canadian city would have. He had been to Canada. That's how they settled in Minneapolis.
Currie: Interesting. Were you the oldest child?
Cooke: I'm the oldest child.
Currie: How many other children were there?
Cooke: There were three others. One died in infancy. Meredith died in infancy. I can scarcely remember her. I was two when she died. Then Roger's mother.
Currie: What's her name?
Cooke: Helen [Wilkins]. Then the youngest one, Zelma [Zelma Jackson Velasco], who died about five years ago. She lived here in New York.
Currie: What was it about Minneapolis that your father liked?
Cooke: Its beauty, number one. He felt that there were many opportunities there. The university was there. He thought that he would get involved in law, which he never did. That was a great disappointment in his life. He was a Pullman porter all of the days that I can remember, until he retired. He did very well. He bought a piece of property very near the university, I guess so that we could walk to school. [Laughter.] It would have meant a big carfare. But anyway, he bought a piece of property there and built a beautiful house, which we grew up in, very close to the Mississippi River. It was just lovely.
Currie: Why wasn't he able to ever get back into law?
Cooke: Because, I think it was racism. There were not enough black people in Minneapolis to support him as a lawyer, and white people weren't at that point going to hire a black person as a lawyer. He got involved in a side business that made a lot of money, and he just brought us up that way.
Currie: What was his side business?
Cooke: I cannot tell you. I wouldn't want it for publication.
Cooke: I wouldn't mind telling you, but I don't want it—
Currie: Do you want me to turn off the recorder?
Cooke: Turn it off and I'll tell you. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: So you were saying that your father had very strong feelings about his children.
Cooke: Oh, yes, yes, and their education and what they were going to do for a livelihood. He intended to give us all the support that he did not get from his father and mother. I did know his mother; I never met his father. I don't believe his mother was a black woman. We never did believe that. She was very, very fair, blue-eyed, and blonde hair. What we believe about it we've only speculated. I'm a pretty good investigator, but I don't know whether I could follow this through. But she was born in Virginia, and we believe that she was the daughter of the master's wife. When he was off to war, she was conceived, and she was given to a slave family on the plantation and grew up with them. She could never have been related to that family, because I did meet her sister, Vilini. Vilini was very black, very curly hair, and her features were soft and round. My grandmother had very sharp features. There was no way she could have been a sister.
Currie: Was that ever spoken of in your family?
Cooke: I know the story. I may have gotten it from my father. I think I know a lot of things that my sister, Helen, Roger's mother, doesn't know, the reason for that being my father believed that children should be nurtured. I was the oldest one. One had died. Helen was five or six years younger than I, and Zelma was younger than she. My mother was busy nurturing them, and he'd take me out and we'd take long walks together. He would tell me things. This is a story that I know. I'm not sure that Helen knows it.
Currie: What other things did he talk to you about on these walks?
Cooke: About the stars. I learned all about the constellations and about love. Very early on, his youngest brother lived at our house after his wife died, and my mother and father had a built-in babysitter when they'd go off to their—they belonged to a whist club. So Uncle Charlie would take care of us. I seem to be diverging, but I'm not. He would take care of us and they wouldn't have to pay a babysitter. So one night, Uncle Charlie tried to rape me. I didn't know what rape was. I didn't know anything about sex.
Currie: How old were you then?
Cooke: Eleven. I was very inquisitive. As soon as my mother and father would go away, I would go down and get the encyclopedia. At that very night, I was reading about insanity. When he tried to push me down on the bed, I thought he was insane. I thought, "Only an insane person could act like this." For some reason, he was not able to hold me. Even though I'm a fairly large woman, I was a very slender child. He couldn't hold me, but I thought, "My Uncle Charlie is crazy. Let me protect my little sisters." I went and got them and got them into my room somehow or other and waited for my mother and father. I heard them coming. I heard them laughing on the sidewalk, so I got them back in their room.
That fall, after Uncle Charlie moved out of the house, my father was talking to me about love. And I said, "I don't love everybody." I can remember this conversation very well.
He said, "You don't love everybody? Who don't you love?"
I said, "I like some of the people outside the family better than I like people in the family."
And he said, "Someone in the family you don't love?"
I said, "Yes, I don't love Uncle Charlie." I was brave enough to talk about it because he was no longer a member of the household.
He said, "Why don't you love Uncle Charlie?"
I said, "Because he's crazy." He wanted to know why I thought he was crazy, and I described that evening. And I will never forget my father's face. He took me upstairs and said, "Mama, send the children to bed. You, too, Marvel." I didn't consider myself a child; I was five years older than them. So he was angry enough to have done mortal harm to Uncle Charlie, but my mother was the influence that kept him from doing it.
Currie: I can certainly understand his feelings.
Cooke: But I learned about sex soon after that, because they bought everything that was available for children to know. I don't think they knew, really, how to explain it, so they bought books. Like I remember one, What Every Little Girl Should Know.
Currie: So they wanted you to be prepared and know what it was all about. That must have been terrifying.
Cooke: It was. It was. I really thought he was crazy.
Currie: Yes. I think an adult trying to molest a child is crazy.
Cooke: I do, too.
Currie: It goes on far too much.
Cooke: I was just lucky, really, to have escaped that. But it's one of the things I think I shall never forget, you know.
Currie: That's the kind of experience you don't forget.
Cooke: I remember growing up, into my teen years, I really was afraid of boys, you know.
Currie: Because of that experience.
Cooke: Yes. But I had to learn not to be afraid of boys, you know. I was helped a lot by coming to this community.
Currie: To Minnesota?
Cooke: No, from Minnesota here. In Minnesota, I think that the reason I was attracted to Roy Wilkins was because he was one of the most articulate black students at the university. We weren't mixing then as we do now. There were only five black girls there in a student body of over 20,000, even then. But there were a lot of black boys, because Minneapolis-St. Paul is a railroad center, and they used to come from Howard University and all. We had a lot of very attractive young men coming into Minnesota to work during the summer, and many of them liked it. It's a very beautiful city. And they stayed. The university was there. Many of them stayed to go to the university. But I felt that Roy was the most articulate and most attractive of the black boys, and we really liked each other.
Currie: Before we get into the university, I'd like to go back a little and talk to you a little more about your childhood and your father.
Cooke: And my mother, too. My mother was a terrific woman.
Currie: Tell me more about her.
Cooke: Well, you can get what she was like more by telling this story. We moved into a completely white community. One thing that's nice in race relations in Minneapolis is that there is no ghetto. There is no place where there are all black people, as in Harlem. We were the first black family to move to Prospect Park, which is adjacent to the University of Minnesota. My father used to go to watch the house being built in the evening when he could. He was fairly light. We're all—I guess Roger's about the brownest one in the family. So we were a fait accompli when we moved.
No one knew that this was a black family. My father didn't realize there was going to be any difficulty. So my sister, Zelma, was kind of like a little roughneck. She was always running around the street, and my mother was forever getting her to come off the street. The people who lived right across the street saw Zelma, and they realized this was a little black child. This lady that saw her started screaming, and the Prospect Park Association got together and they decided they did not want a black family in that community. So they started calling. I'm now talking about my mother, but they started calling on my father and they tried to do everything to tell them, "You're not wanted here. Why would you want to live in a place where you're not wanted? You will be isolated from the community." There were many meetings. I remember them because I was seven when we moved there. My father would stand very calmly and listen. He knew what he was going to say to them. At one point, my mother was so angry that she got the hose and hosed them out. That story is in the Minneapolis press right now. Anyone who goes to Minneapolis, they can find that story. She hosed them out.
Currie: She took the garden hose?
Cooke: Yes, and she just turned it on them. She was much more bombastic than my father. My father was standing his ground very well, and the only time that he felt shaken was when a committee came to visit him, to tell him that, "You're not wanted here. You cannot participate in the community. You will be isolated. Your children will not have anybody to play with." And that's what moved my father. He hadn't thought about the effect it might have on the children. So what he did, the house was on quite a large plot. I think it was like 75 feet by 180 back. We had a huge back yard. My father bought every kind of toy—not toys, but swings. We had swings, we had a doll house that you could go into. We had everything—a teeter-totter, see-saw. So the children in the neighborhood were attracted to our back yard. We didn't have parks like we have now. We were the most popular children in the area, and the parents couldn't keep their children away from our back yard. The women would then start talking with my mother and my father, and they became very popular. There was no way to get us out of that community, and it was really because of the challenge to the children that my father decided he was going to make it as attractive for us to live in that place as possible. And he did.
Currie: What kind of neighborhood would you say this was?
Cooke: It's an upper middle-class white community. As a matter of fact, I believe—I haven't been in that house. My father died in 1927, and his funeral was in the house. It was crowded with all the neighbors.
Currie: So you moved in, in about 1917, then?
Cooke: He died in '27. We moved in 1907 or '08.
Currie: I'm sorry. I can't add. That's one of my problems. What was your father's name for the record?
Cooke: Madison Jackson.
Currie: And your mother's name?
Cooke: Amy Wood Jackson.
Currie: Maybe you could describe your house a little bit. What would a typical day be like in your home?
Cooke: I think like the typical day in any home now would be. We always ate together, not at breakfast time, but at dinner time. Always put an extra place on the table because somebody might drop in who would like to eat with us. We went off to school and came home. We had our chores to do. They were very slight, like washing dishes and making beds. We were a very, very close family. I learned a lot. We learned a lot about my mother's childhood and my father's childhood in these little family sessions we would have. It was a very lovely childhood.
Currie: What kind of sense did you get from your parents, say, about politics?
Cooke: Well, my father was a Eugene V. Debs socialist. He taught me an awful lot about the protest vote. You know. One time I asked him, "Why are you voting for a man in prison?"— Debs. He said, "I know he is not going to win. I agree with the program that he's outlined for the country, but he can't win because he is a socialist. Mine is a protest vote. I'm voting for him as a protest against the way things are going in this country. The bigger protest vote we can get in this country, whoever goes in will listen to this great group of people out here that don't agree." He said, "I want you to remember that." So I've been a protest voter, I think all my life, except when I think that the candidate is going to do a good job.
Currie: Did your father talk about how he became a socialist?
Cooke: I'll have to think about that. I think it was a gradual—it must have been. He didn't like the status quo. He didn't like discrimination. He didn't like a lot of social ills.
Maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself, but I remember being on a picket line here in New York City. I was a member of the Newspaper Guild, one of the early members. Heywood Broun was living in New York at the time. The Newspaper Guild was then a horizontal union, just a union of editorial workers. All we were asking for was union recognition—not even more money. Anything, just union recognition. A lady came up to me and she said, "Aren't you Marvel Jackson?" I was Marvel Cooke at that point, but she said, "Aren't you Marvel Jackson?"
I said, "Yes."
She said, "Wait 'til I go home and tell your mother and father what you're doing."
"My father's dead."
"Your mother. What you're doing."
I said, "If my mother were in New York at this time, she would be on this picket line with me." So I learned that from them, you know, to protest in an organized way against bad conditions. It was just ingrained in me, and I think the reason my sister doesn't have that is that I got this from my father while my mother was busy singing lullabies and stuff to them.
Currie: Was your mother not as politically active as your father?
Cooke: She wasn't, but she felt exactly the way he did. She wasn't active; she was too active with the children. She felt she was just like him. As a matter of fact, it wasn't long after I made that remark about her that she came here to visit, and she was visiting my sister Zelma. The tenants were protesting something where my sister was living. I was the best cook in the family, and after I got through work, I was going to cook dinner for all of us at my sister's house. Here's my mother on the picket line!
Currie: As a child, did your mother work outside the home?
Cooke: No, no, never. Never. Really, physically we had upper middle-class bringing-up, but from my father and mother, we had a sense of pride and a sense of who we were, that we must work to make things better. That was just inbred in us.
Currie: Can you remember, in your childhood, any political activities that your father became involved with?
Cooke: Not really. I think it was mainly a mental thing because he was so busy working. I don't remember that he was politically active. He didn't seek any office or anything like that ever, but he surely did instill in me and all of us. My sister Zelma was like me.
Currie: Where did you all go to school?
Cooke: I was the first black child that ever went to Sidney Pratt School in Minneapolis. Helen was the second one, and Zelma was the third one. We went to East High, which is renamed. It was East High then. I was the first black child there, Helen [Helen Jackson Wilkins Claytor] was the second, and Zelma was the third. It was only when I got to the university that I met other black youth who were trying to get higher education.
Currie: Was this a public school in Minneapolis?
Cooke: Yes. And the university is still a state university.
Currie: So the reason that you were the first black child is?
Cooke: Is because we were the only black people in the neighborhood.
Currie: How was that for you?
Cooke: Well, I tell you. That's interesting that you ask me that. It didn't bother me at all. I'm, by nature, an outgoing person, and I had a lot of friends. My best friend was a little girl named Helen Ludwig—I haven't thought about her for years—whose father was German and her mother was Norwegian. She was very near my age, and we slept together, we played together, we did everything together.
My mother and father thought we should be at least eighteen before we dated. It isn't like now. So I was ready to go to the university when I had just had my seventeenth birthday, and I didn't attend my graduation exercises for high school because I got pneumonia.
I was very ill, and they even prayed for me at the graduation exercise. I didn't see Helen Ludwig all of that time. My mother had given me her credit card. She had a credit card with one store, Powers Department Store, and I had gone downtown to buy my clothes to enter the university, fall clothes. I was told I could spend so much money. I ran into Helen Ludwig downtown, and I was so glad to see her, and she snubbed me. I was shocked and hurt. I saw that she was with a young man. I had never seen her with a boy before. I believe, in all fairness to Helen, that she didn't know how to explain me to this possibly her first boyfriend.
Currie: You mean the fact that you were black?
Cooke: Yes. I went home and discussed it with my mother and father, and I remember having a long discussion with them about this incident. They came to the conclusion, "Don't dislike her. It's the society in which we grow up. She didn't know how to explain this little black girl to her friend, her new friend." And I remember that's when I said, "I'm not going to live in Minneapolis. I won't stay there." I stood it all the way through college, and as soon as I could, I got out of Minneapolis. I had seen Harlem. It wasn't south, but it was black, and I decided I wanted to come to Harlem.
I had an incentive, because a trip my father had given me, he used to get passes on the railroad, and we were well traveled young people. I had taken a trip to New York. The friend I stayed with was a little older than I—had worked for the Urban League, I believe, but she did know Dr. Du Bois. I had grown up just idolizing Du Bois, what he stood for at the Pan African Congress and things he had said.
Currie: What was your understanding about his importance?
Cooke: He was a black person who had not only got a very good education, but who was very well respected by the whole community, not only here, but abroad, and that he was a true leader. Anyway, I was taken to meet him. You know, a seventeen or eighteen-year-old, here I am sitting in the office of Du Bois. He was then at 69 Fifth Avenue, which is at Fourteenth Street, the NAACP office at the Crisis. He was then editor of the Crisis, at Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue. I didn't open my mouth; I was just stunned. Imagine me sitting in front of this man that I had been taught to worship because of the things that he had accomplished and what he stood for. I thought he should be the president of the United States. This is the way we were brought up. So I finally got up enough nerve to say, "My mother knew you when she was young."
He said, "Who is your mother, young lady?"
I said, "Amy Brown Wood."
He said, "You're not that child's daughter!"
I said, "Yes, I am." My mother was like eleven or twelve years younger than Dr. Du Bois.
"You're not that child's daughter!"
I said, "Yes, I am."
Then he said, "What are you doing?" I told him I was going to the university, and he said, "When you get through, apply to me for a job. Let me know. If I have a position for you, you will have it." That's how I got to New York.
Currie: That's interesting. Can we go back to Minneapolis? I don't want to get you out of Minneapolis too soon.
Cooke: No, I wasn't out of Minneapolis in telling that story.
Currie: It's good to digress. I think sometimes when we talk about early things, it brings up linkages later. I think that's great. I was wondering if religion played any role in your family life.
Cooke: Let me think about that a minute. My father was never too active in church, although he had once thought he was going to be a minister before he took law. Because of the irregularities of his days at home—I think it was that—he never went to church. Very seldom went to church, I should say it that way.
My mother was an Episcopalian, and we were brought up in the Episcopalian Church. Prospect Park is midway between St. Paul and Minneapolis. It is as easy to go to St. Paul as it is to Minneapolis. The Episcopalian church in St. Paul had the same priest as the one in Minneapolis had. I participated in the programs there and had become a Sunday school teacher there. I know I'd come home from church, and my father would be sitting on the porch, rocking. He said, "How was church today?"
I said, "Fine." But I said, "Papa, there's some things in the Bible I can't understand." And he wanted to know what they were, and I told him—Noah, and the parting of the sea, the Red Sea, and different stories.
He said, "Why don't you believe those stories?"
I said, "Because they couldn't happen. It's impossible for them to happen. They're against all scientific—well, whatever."
He said, "Well, now, this is the point I wanted you to get to. You don't have to go to church if you don't want to, but if you don't go to church, don't tell your little sisters why you're not going. Let them come to their understanding by themselves." So I continued to go to church every Sunday, because there I met my little black friends. This was after the Helen Ludwig incident. There I met my friends, and I had a social life.
Currie: That involved other blacks.
Cooke: Yes, that involved black people.
Currie: So the church was predominantly black?
Cooke: It was all black. The church, even yet, is quite segregated. Here and there you find blacks going to white churches, but that's because they like the program or something of that sort.
But my father did say, "When you get to the point where you question certain things, if you don't feel like going to church, don't. But don't tell your little sisters why you're not going. Let them come to their conclusions on their own."
So I continued to go to church because I had a social life. I had gotten to the age where I couldn't have one in the community in which I lived. So one day I didn't feel well, so I didn't go to church. Helen said, "I'm going to tell Papa and Mama on you. They want us to go to church."
I said, "Go tell them. It's all right. Go tell them."
Well, Helen continued to go to church. Zelma kind of followed me, followed me even into New York. Helen, she'd have to answer why, but she's quite involved in her church even yet.
Currie: How did your mother feel about this? Did she go along with your father?
Cooke: She went completely with my dad. She may have been even stronger about it than my father. My relationship with my father, as I told you, was a very close one. Most of the things I believe, I got from him.
Currie: Let me change the tape.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Currie: How do you think the fact that you were the oldest affected your life?
Cooke: I was an experiment, I think. I think there was trial and error, as far as I was concerned. I came very much under the influence of my father, as I told you, because I was the oldest. I don't think that I loved him any more than I loved my mother, but I was accustomed to being with him and expressing myself, and I was under his influence, I think, even politically. So I have to give Roger's mother, Helen, credit. I don't think she knew my father as well as I did. She couldn't have; there's no way. My mother was a nurturing person who was most interested in the physical surroundings, the food and things like that. I think that Helen, even yet, does not know what my father really thought about politics.
Currie: That's interesting.
Cooke: Because I never talked with her about it. As a matter of fact, I never talked to Roger about it when he became assistant attorney general of the United States under Ramsey Clark. He would have to interpret it. I didn't have any contact with him, although in his early marriage, his first marriage, we were very close. He worked for some legal foundation here in New York. Then he went to Washington. He was lured to Washington to work on a newspaper. No, I don't remember why, but he afterwards went to the news field. As I say, when he became assistant attorney general, there was a void. I didn't hear from him. Then about six years ago, when my sister Zelma was very ill, he came up to see her. They were, I felt, closer than I was with him. When he entered her room at Presbyterian Hospital, I thought it would be nice of me to get out so they could talk, so I said, "Roger, I'm going down to the solarium."
He said, "Wait a minute, Aunt Marvel. There's something I want to say to you." He said, "I have a forty-year apology to make to you," which was impossible, because he would not have been ten years old. He was then approaching fifty, maybe forty-nine. He said, "I have a forty-year apology to make to you."
I said, "You do? What is it?"
He said, "I didn't used to understand you, but I'm coming more and more to your way of thinking." It was a tremendous thing, as far as I was concerned, because I loved him very much and I admire him, not as a family member; I just think he's got a lot of potential and making great contributions that my father would appreciate.
Currie: So maybe you learned more of your father's point of view because he spent more time with you?
Cooke: I think so, than my other sisters.
Currie: I know Helen is a very accomplished woman.
Cooke: I'm very proud of her.
Currie: More mainstream than you are.
Cooke: Yes. I am very proud of her, the contribution she has made to the women's movement, the contribution she's made to her community, and she's very highly respected, she's very bright.
She was the first black woman who was ever national president of the YWCA. I'm very proud of that accomplishment. We love each other very much, but I avoid speaking about certain things.
Currie: What things do you avoid speaking about?
Cooke: This started it. I think I started to tell you this. She was in this room [indicating the living room of the apartment at 409 Edgecomb Avenue], and it was after my husband died, and I was going back to Grand Rapids with her to kind of recuperate. We got to talking about something that brought up the name of Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King. I praised the contributions that had been made by Martin Luther King, and that he had done very much more that followed black thinking than Roy had. It was just a general statement—and she got very angry with me. She said, "For many reasons I may appreciate Roy much more than you do and the contributions he made."
I said, "Let's not talk about anything political." I didn't even try to—
Currie: What do you think she meant by that?
Cooke: Well, I think she felt that Roy had certainly made as many contributions to the lives of black people in this country as Martin Luther King, which I disagreed with. She may have felt it was because I didn't marry Roy that I felt like this. It was not personal. I was always, afterwards, I was always very glad that Roy and I never married.
Currie: When we get to Roy, we'll have to talk about that.
Cooke: Anyway, she is mainstream, she's very highly thought of in her community, and I'm proud of her. I'm really very proud of her because whether she knows it or not, she's made a great contribution to the liberation of black women. We have to work as we do in these different fields.
Currie: It's interesting. I think all families work out some little—I certainly am very different from my sister. Very different.
Cooke: Where do you come in the family?
Currie: I'm the oldest.
Cooke: That's funny. In some ways, it's the hardest role, I feel. In contemplation, in looking back on it, I feel that I was kind of experimental, you know.
Currie: I think that was true of me, too.
Cooke: Because I was not allowed to have boys coming to see me until I was eighteen.
Currie: Did you want boys to come see you?
Cooke: Of course I did! That one incident I told you about hadn't colored my attitude. I wanted boys to see me. After I left home and came to New York to work, and went back home, my sisters were still teenagers and there were boys all over the house. I think that my parents had seen nothing ill came to me, so therefore they could allow them to have boyfriends. I think their attitude was colored a lot by that incident I told you about Uncle Charlie, and they just didn't want boys around. But my sisters had boyfriends much earlier than I did.
Currie: I certainly didn't get away with things my sister got away with later. It made me angry.
Cooke: Me, too.
Currie: I thought, "Well, I had to toe the line; she should, too."
Cooke: That's how I felt.
Currie: As a child, say, in grammar school, even high school, what did you think you wanted to do with your life?
Cooke: I thought I was going to be a teacher. I think so. I know I wanted to write. I felt that I had some talent as a writer, but I didn't think it would be journalism. I thought I would teach. It's interesting. I think it's even true yet that a black female child is encouraged to go into very few professions—teaching, social work, nursing. Not even the science of medicine as a doctor, but these very safe sort of middle-class professions.
Currie: Was that something you got from your parents?
Cooke: I don't know. I don't think so, because I at one point thought I was going to be a doctor. I had one black girlfriend, after I went to the university—no, I'd known her all my life, but we got to be quite friendly—she decided she wanted to be a lawyer, and I said, "I think I'll be a doctor." My parents weren't anxious for me to be a doctor, not because they didn't think that girls should go into that, but they didn't think I was strong enough. I'd just had this bout with pneumonia and I know now that I did have tuberculosis for a while. As well as I've been all my life and as healthy, you know, I just stick around when most people my age are dying, but I had had this bout with pneumonia, and there was some talk of sending me to Arizona. That's how I found that there was some tuberculosis. When I started to college, they kept calling me over to the Health Department because I ran a temperature every afternoon. Finally, that went away and they didn't challenge my staying in school.
What was the question?
Currie: I asked you what your daydreams were about, what you might want to be when you grew up.
Cooke: A teacher, I guess.
Currie: You also said you wanted to write. Did you do any writing?
Cooke: I used to write little poems and stuff, you know, in my spare time.
Currie: Did you ever work on the school newspaper?
Cooke: No, there wasn't any. At college there was, but not in high school. I never did.
Currie: Did you get encouragement about your writing?
Cooke: Oh, my father thought I was a great writer. As a matter of fact, I had written something for the Crisis just before he died, and I read it to him. He made me read that over and over and over.
Currie: This was, of course, later.
Currie: What kind of reading did you do?
Cooke: I just think the general reading a child would do. There were some political books. My father had a library in that house, and there were some political books. I would read them, but mainly Alice in Wonderland, you know, just the things that every other child would read.
Currie: Do you remember what the political books were?
Cooke: No, I don't remember, really, but I know they were books about Debs and kind of left political books. I can't remember what they were, but they were in my father's library.
Currie: How did you decide to go to the University of Minnesota?
Cooke: There was no doubt about it when I was born and they moved to Minneapolis, I was going to go to the University of Minnesota. That's all there was to it.
Currie: So they assumed from the very beginning that you would get a college education.
Cooke: That's right. That's right. As a matter of fact, this young lady I told you about who was going to be a lawyer, and I was going to be a doctor, we had a friend that used to visit my family from Washington, D.C., every summer. Her father was on the board at Howard University. She tried to encourage us, when we went to college, Frances and me, she tried to encourage us to go back to Howard with her. My father said, "Of course not. There's a much better university right here. Why should she? Of course not." I was very upset about it, because that was a black school and I had begun to want to be with my black friends, you know. I was very jealous when Kathleen and Frances got ready and went on off to Howard University.
Currie: How many blacks were there at the University of Minnesota?
Cooke: I can tell you the number of black girls; there were five of us in a big student population. There were, as I said, more boys because they weren't necessarily local boys. The girls were all local girls. I can remember every one of them even yet. But the boys would come to work in the summer and just like it and stay. So there were about, I should imagine, from about sixty-five to seventy-five black boys. We had a wonderful time, the black girls.
Currie: I bet you did!
Cooke: You could pick almost anybody you wanted, you know.
Currie: What did you decide to major in?
Cooke: In English. I was going to be a teacher, prepare to be a teacher, not a very exciting scholastic program. I just meant to be a teacher, that's all.
Currie: Did you like studying English?
Cooke: I just liked school. I just liked going to school. There was never any doubt about what I was going to do, or my sisters.
Currie: Did you read the newspapers?
Cooke: Oh, yes, the Minneapolis Journal. I think it may have been the only paper in Minneapolis then, but anyway, the Minneapolis Journal, I read it. We got the Crisis magazine. I never ever thought I would ever work on the Crisis, but we got the Crisis. It seems to me the Urban League had a magazine—we got plenty of black literature in, and we were very proud to be who we were by our reading and discussions in the family.
Currie: When you were in college, did you think about what you would be doing once you got out?
Cooke: I thought that I would be teaching; that's all I thought. I never thought I'd be anything else than a teacher. As I told you, it's just an accident I met Dr. Du Bois and I saw Harlem and I decided. I got an offer of a job in the south someplace—not really the south, in Arizona, in a segregated school, and I had the offer from Dr. Du Bois. There was never any doubt, even though I got less money from Dr. Du Bois than I would have, there was no doubt that I was going to come to a place where I could participate in the life of the community and it was a black community. No doubt that I was coming here.
Currie: Did you ever think about marriage and a family?
Cooke: No. These are things that just came gradually. I was going with, in college, Roy Wilkins.
Currie: How did you meet Roy Wilkins?
Cooke: He was a boy on the campus. I have something he wrote. He used to write little poems to me and stick them in my post office box. The five girls who were there used to hang around my box to see what he wrote to me. I ran across a couple of them here the other day.
Currie: Do you remember what he wrote to you?
Cooke: Oh, just little ditties about how important I was to him. I may find them.
Currie: If you do, it would be great if we could include them.
Cooke: I will. They're around here. I didn't destroy them. I remember we thought, all of us, thought he was a little stiff and thought he was pretty all right. We knew that he was going to give a presentation in his class in English. He had to make a speech. I told my friends that he was making a speech, and we all went to listen to him make this speech. He didn't see us there. When he got down in front of the class, here we were, five of us in there to listen to Roy make his speech, and he stumbled. The professor said, "Mr. Wilkins, go back. That was no presentation. Go back to your seat and come back again." He was just discombobulated because we were there, and I was ashamed that I had done this to him. I started being a little protective of him, and that's how we started going together.
Currie: That's interesting. What were his ambitions at that point?
Cooke: He was interested in journalism and he intended to work on a newspaper, which he did. He worked on the Kansas City Call. He came from the Kansas City Call to the NAACP, where he was editor of the Crisis after Du Bois left there. But he intended to work as a journalist, as did his brother [Earl Wilkins], the one that married my sister.
Currie: I understand you actually introduced his brother to your sister.
Cooke: I did. This is just an aside. My sister wasn't allowed to go out in company at this particular time.
Currie: What does "in company" mean?
Cooke: Go out with a boy.
Currie: By herself.
Cooke: By herself. I had gone around with Roy for two or three years before he went to Kansas City. When he went to Kansas City, he said to Earl [Wilkins], "You take care of Marvel." So Earl started taking me out. My sister was not going out with boys at the time. My parents didn't think she was old enough. Earl was a little younger than I. Earl and I started going around together because he was taking care of me for Roy. Then one night he said, "You know, I know
Roy loves you, but I love you, too." My sister doesn't know this. Soon after that, I left for New York. That's how he met my sister—through me. She never went with any other young man after that. Never. Earl was the only young man she ever went with. I was a little bit flightier; I had a number of friends.
Currie: Before and after Roy Wilkins?
Cooke: No, he was really the first young man I ever went with, but I came to New York right at the tail end of the Negro Renaissance and I met such wonderful, much more exciting young men, I thought, than Roy. There was one that liked me very much; his name was Eric Walrond. He wrote Tropic Death. He was a friend of Langston's [Hughes] and all of that crowd. That's how I met Paul Robeson.
I want you to read something.
Currie: Why don't you read it to me.
Cooke: "To dear, dear Marvel, with deepest admiration and thanks, for your constant friendship has brought strength and joy to us all. Bless you, Paul."
Currie: It's his autobiography.
Cooke: Here I Stand.
Currie: By Paul Robeson.
Cooke: You can see it's been—
Currie: Well thumbed.
Cooke: I have stopped lending this to anybody. I used to lend it around. I want to get it together. I have several things, notes from Paul like that.
Currie: You do?
Currie: Oh, my. Those are very valuable.
Cooke: I know. Where did I put one? Just this morning.
Currie: Maybe if we can find the poems, we can put those on the record, too. That would be great.
Cooke: When he appeared in "Othello" after the McCarthy period, he appeared in "Othello" in London and he sent me the playbill. One of my white friends had gone to the opening and brought me back a playbill which he'd put a beautiful thing on.
Currie: How wonderful! How fascinating.
Why don't we finish up with before you came to New York. Then we'll stop for today, and then we'll start Friday with you coming to New York. That's such a fruitful period, I don't want to get started on it, because I want us both to be rested.
Cooke: I don't know how much more we can talk about before I came to New York.
Currie: Were you serious about Roy Wilkins?
Cooke: I thought so, you know. This was the first young man I'd ever gone with. I was getting into New York. Then after I got to New York and I started thinking about it, I felt he was arrogant. There are a lot of things that I was questioning, but he was the first young man I ever went with seriously.
Currie: Did your parents like him?
Currie: They didn't?
Cooke: My father died in 1927. When Earl went to ask my mother if he could marry Helen, my mother almost had hysterics, and she made the statement, "I'm glad there isn't a third Wilkins to mess up my family," because there was Zelma yet. [Laughter.]
Currie: What were her objections?
Cooke: I know now what they were. I think that she made me more pro-Roy than I would have been. I didn't know why she objected, because we were brought up not to feel that because of the advantages that we had had, that we were better than anybody else. The Wilkinses did not have the advantages that we had. As a matter of fact, they were not brought up by their parents, but by an aunt and uncle. It turned out later that the reason my parents—I don't know about my father, because he died so soon after I started going out with Roy—but my mother knew that the mother had died with tuberculosis in Mississippi, I think. That's where they're from originally. And she felt that they weren't healthy enough, but she never said that, you know. We just thought she was prejudiced against the Wilkinses because they did not grow up in the kind of neighborhood we grew up in or something like that. But it was that she didn't think they were healthy enough for her healthy girls, despite the fact that I'd had that bout with tuberculosis. But I must have been healthy or I wouldn't have overcome it, you know.
Currie: Interesting. You mentioned that your father was a Pullman porter. I understand that in the black community at that time, that was a very high status [job].
Cooke: It was in that particular—I don't know that, but in that community, which was a railroad center, Minneapolis-St. Paul was a railroad center, kind of a hub to Canada and to the rest of the country, as Chicago is, but the Pullman porters made much more money than [other workers]. You know, the other workers did menial jobs. Educationally they seemed to be of a higher caliber. Most of my father's friends worked on the railroad.
As a matter of fact—I'm diverting—but one very interesting story. My father always taught us to—well, I think my father and mother always taught us to be proud of who we were, not to be ashamed of anything we did, that they did, that my father was not a lawyer because of his inability, but because of the racism in this country. He wanted to bring us up in this kind of free, clean environment, and there weren't enough black people for him to [practice law]—so we were brought up to be proud of his occupation. I always said that my father was a Pullman porter.
When I was about seven or eight years old, my grandfather, my mother's father, died in Virginia. My mother went down. Zelma was a baby and I must have been seven or eight years old. My mother took the baby with her to Virginia. Helen was left with a family, and when my father went down to get her [my mother], decided to take me. Where she lived in Virginia was quite inaccessible to the railroad. You had to go to Washington and get a boat on the Potomac. It took overnight to get down to this place in Virginia, although it was just a few miles. The boat zigzagged across the river. So my father got into a dialogue with some white man that was on the boat going down into Virginia, and the man was very impressed with him. He couldn't understand a black person being this intelligent. [Laughter.] He tried to get out of my father what he did for a living. Now, my father wasn't ashamed of it, but he just decided not to tell this man.
So the next morning, the man made overtures to me. He said, "Come, little girl," and gave me some candy or a nickel or something. He pulled me up in his lap, and my father said, "She's been taught to tell the truth. That man's going to ask her what I do for a living and I don't want him to know." Not because he was ashamed of it. The man put me up on his lap, and I can remember as well as it happened yesterday, I saw my father coming down at us, and just as the man said, "And what does your father do for a living, little girl?" I was going to say, "My father is a Pullman porter." My father grabbed me out of his lap before I could say that. [Laughter.] He remembered it. He didn't tell me why he did it then, but much later he remembered that and he said to know that he was not ashamed of what he did, but he just didn't want this white man, who was possibly a racist and thought every black person did certain things for a living, he didn't want to tell him.
Currie: Understandable. What did your father die of?
Cooke: Cancer. I'm sure it was cancer. I know he went to the Mayo Clinic and they went over him and said it was too late. I'm sure it was cancer.
Currie: You were how old when he died?
Cooke: I was in New York, so I was in my twenties. I got married when I was twenty-six, and it was way before I married.
Currie: Did that leave your mother strapped to support herself?
Cooke: She had the house, which she sold. She never worked outside. Then Helen had married. I married soon after my father died, and Helen married Earl the same year I married Cecil Cooke. My mother was working in Chicago. She sold our house and she got a position as a matron for a girls' residence in Chicago. Then Roger was born, and Earl had developed tuberculosis, just as my mother had predicted. [Laughter.]
Currie: Your mother maybe was right.
Cooke: I think now, in looking back on it, she was right. But what she was wrong about, she should have explained it to us. I think Helen would have married Earl, anyway; she was very much in love with him. But she should have told us. I went with Roy out of just dogged determination because I thought they were prejudiced against the Wilkinses because they didn't grow up in the same kind of neighborhood we did, you know. But it was really that.
Anyway, Earl found out that he had tuberculosis the week Roger was born. He moved out of the house. He was a very lovely person. He moved out of the house, and my mother came down from Chicago to Kansas City, where Earl was working at the Kansas City Call, too, and took care of Roger. She stayed in Helen's household until she died.
Currie: When you were in grammar school and college, what were the kinds of extracurricular activities that you liked and engaged in?
Cooke: Skating, going to the movies with my girlfriends, and cookouts. No one could ever understand that we always had to have chaperones.
Currie: That was very unusual for your friends?
Cooke: No. We and our friends had to have chaperones. They'd say, "Who shall we have chaperone?" And they'd say, "Jackie," who was my mother. They couldn't understand why I never objected, but I had a lot of fun with my mother. One of my little friends said, "I can't understand. I wouldn't want my mother." But we had a very good relationship with our parents.
Currie: Was there any other academic interest that you had that was extracurricular?
Cooke: I don't think so.
Currie: Did your family read some of the black newspapers?
Cooke: As I tell you, of course, I guess so. I did know about the Chicago Defender, so we must have read that. As a matter of fact, I must have got it from them. I get Ebony and Jet and all these. I subscribe to them because I do want to know what is going on in black communities in the United States. I think we must have got it from our parents, who we were and what our contemporaries were trying to do. We got that through the black press. There was a black newspaper in Minneapolis; I can't remember the name of it.
Currie: How did the black press at that time compare to the white press?
Cooke: Frankly, I don't think, with few exceptions, the black press has ever compared favorably. I mean, to get subscriptions, they went into the murders, the off-beat social conditions. You know, the black press, to me, has never lived up to its potential, except for very few exceptions—maybe the Afro-American, maybe Pittsburgh Courier.
I was very disappointed in the Amsterdam News after I came to work there. I left there because of a headline, which, to me, is very typical of what the black press will do, and I understand it, you know, for circulation. It was after the strike. I was always on the grievance committees, and very upper middle-class doctors bought the Amsterdam News. Dr. Powell—not Adam; a medical doctor—would say to me, "I don't agree with your political stance, but I like the way you write. Go on back there to that editorial department and ruin me." You know, he made statements like that. I was trying very hard to get away from there, because I had an offer from Adam Powell, who had started a paper, the People's Voice. One day the Amsterdam News—now, this is typical. Before I came to New York, and certainly since, the headline was exactly "Killed Sweetheart. Slept With Body." I went to Dr. Powell and said, "I can't work for a newspaper that comes out with headlines like this." And that's how I got away from the Amsterdam News. But to me, the press, with very few exceptions, the black press goes in for the sensational. They feel that this is the way they'll get readership.
Currie: Do you think that's true, that they have to do that?
Cooke: I don't think they have to. I think the People's Voice proved that, you know, that you didn't have to.
Currie: That's a good point. We'll get into that.
What were your parents' expectations, in terms of your career?
Cooke: Really, they wanted us to do what we wanted to do. For instance, if I wanted to be a teacher, that was all right. Anything we wanted to do was okay, just so we got an education and used it productively. I really didn't know what I wanted to do, except at the time I came along teaching or social work, not even journalism, was about the only thing open to a black female.
Currie: And to most females.
Cooke: I guess so.
Currie: Did your parents expect, for example, that you would marry?
Cooke: They expected us to marry. As a matter of fact, my father said very definitely, "I expect you to marry, but I want you to get through school and work at least two years, so you'll know that you can support yourself in case anything happens." They expected us to marry. We wanted to marry.
Currie: So the expectation was that you would work a few years, but then not work once you married?
Cooke: Well, they didn't go into that. They were really very progressive. They could live in this age. Actually, when I think of it, they could live right now and have the same expectations that they had before. They would move around in this generation very well.
Currie: I think that's a pretty good place to stop. We can go into how you got to New York next time.
© 1990, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.