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Marvel Jackson Cooke (April 4, 1903 – November 29, 2000) was a pioneering American journalist, writer, and civil rights activist. She was the first African-American woman to work at a mainstream white-owned newspaper.

Marvel Cooke
Marvel Cooke
Marvel Cooke, c. 1950s
Marvel Jackson

(1903-04-04)April 4, 1903
DiedNovember 29, 2000(2000-11-29) (aged 97)
OccupationJournalist, writer, civil rights activist
EmployerNew York Amsterdam News, The Crisis, People's Voice, The Daily Compass, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College
OrganizationNewspaper Guild, National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions, American-Soviet Friendship Committee
Known forFirst African-American woman to work at a mainstream white-owned newspaper; assistant to W. E. B. Du Bois
Political partyCommunist Party, USA
Spouse(s)Cecil Cooke

Early life and educationEdit

Marvel Jackson, born in Mankato, Minnesota,[1] to Madison Jackson and Amy Wood Jackson, was raised in an upper-class, white neighborhood in Minneapolis, where her family moved in 1907.[2] Her father was an Ohio State University law school graduate who was unable to find employment as a black lawyer; her mother was a former teacher who once lived on a Native American reservation.[3][4] 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 assistant to W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, and in 1926 moved to New York City, settling in Harlem, during the Harlem Renaissance. Her ability as a writer was recognized by Du Bois, who put her in charge of a column in the magazine, where her brief included writing critiques of works by the literary giants of the day, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Parker.[5]

Mentored by Du Bois, she became friendly with leading writers and artists, including Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, Elizabeth Catlett and Richard Wright.[4][5] She broke off her engagement to (later NAACP leader) Roy Wilkins because she thought him too conservative.

In 1928, she went to work on the New York Amsterdam News, where she was the first woman reporter in their 40-year history.[5] In 1929, she married Jamaican-born Cecil Cooke[4] – a graduate of Columbia University, who was the world's fastest quarter-miler[6] when she met him; their marriage would last until his death in 1978. After marrying, they moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where Marvel taught history, English and Latin in the high-school department of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College.[2]

Returning to New York and the Amsterdam News in 1931, she helped found the first chapter in New York of the Newspaper Guild and was involved in strike action at the News, joining the picket for 11 weeks when the editorial workers union was locked out; the strike was finally ended on Christmas Eve 1934.[4] Cooke disliked the crime reports she was assigned by the News, finding distasteful the paper's handling of such stories, and preferring to expand the paper's coverage of the arts – for instance, traveling at her own cost to cover Marian Anderson's historic open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Cooke eventually left the paper for good in 1937, in protest over a sensational headline ("Killed Sweetheart, Slept With Body").[6]

From 1940 to 1947, Cooke worked on the People's Voice (a weekly owned by Adam Clayton Powell), as assistant managing editor. In 1950 she was hired by the New York paper 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 also the only woman employed there, as well as being the only Black journalist.[7] The following year, to highlight the exploitation of black domestic workers in white homes she got herself hired along with others seeking work by the day and then described her experiences in a compelling five-part series for the Daily Compass entitled "The Bronx Slave Market", which was promoted with signs that said: Read: I Was a Slave, by Marvel Cooke.[8][9] She remained with the paper until its closure in November 1952.


While working at the Amsterdam News in the 1930s, Cooke not only helped create a local chapter of the Newspaper Guild, the labor union of newspaper journalists, but held union meetings in her home and subsequently participated in an eleven-week strike, during which she joined the Communist Party.[5]

In the 1950s, she served as New York director of the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions. In 1953, when she was called twice to testify her involvement with the Communist Party before Senator Joseph McCarthy, in New York and Washington DC, she pleaded the Fifth Amendment.[4]

She volunteered as national legal defense secretary of the Angela Davis Defense Fund in 1971. 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 in Sugar Hill, that was home to many other black luminaries.[5]



External linksEdit