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Marvel Cooke; Pioneering Black Journalist, Political Activist

December 06, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marvel Cooke, a pioneering black journalist who crusaded for racial reform as a reporter and as a political activist, has died.

Cooke died of leukemia on Nov. 29 in New York. She was 97.

Cooke was the first black woman to write full time for a major white-owned American newspaper, the New York Daily Compass. Her best-known work was a five-part series published in 1950 called "The Bronx Slave Market," which described the plight of domestic day workers.

She also participated in the arts and culture movement known as the Harlem Renaissance and was close to many of its most prominent figures, including the poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullee, novelist Richard Wright and singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson.

She lived most of her life at a legendary Harlem address--409 Edgecombe Ave. Sometimes called the White House of Harlem, the apartment building was home to sociologist and National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins (whom Cooke almost married) and other black luminaries.

Cooke was not nearly as well known a figure, although she gained some attention in recent years. She appeared in a PBS documentary on Du Bois in 1997. The same year, her series for the Compass was excerpted in a book published by Scribner called "The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism," edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda.

She went undercover to report the series, producing a stirring first-person account of putting herself out for hire on a New York street corner.

She described how she joined a group of women who had assembled early one morning in front of a Woolworth's store. Like them, she clutched a paper bag holding her work clothes. Waiting to be picked for a day's labor by one of the white housewives who frequented the spot, "I lost my identity entirely," she wrote. "I was the slave trading my brawn for a pittance on a Bronx street corner in 1949."

She was hired twice but quit the first job in a rage when her "slave boss" accused her of missing two panes on the window she was washing. On her second job she earned $3.40 for a day of numbing labor washing, ironing and scrubbing floors.

The experience was worlds away from her comfortable, middle-class upbringing in Mankato, Minn., where she was born Marvel Jackson in 1903. Her mother was a former teacher who left her job on an Indian reservation because she was too disturbed by the oppression she saw there. Her father had studied law at Ohio State University but was never able to practice his intended profession because of discrimination; he worked all his life for a railroad as a Pullman porter.

The Jacksons were the only black family in their neighborhood, so Cooke grew up surrounded by whites. While in high school, she was suddenly snubbed by a white friend. The experience made her anxious to leave Minnesota and find a place where she could live among black people.

That place turned out to be Harlem. While she was there on vacation, a friend took her to meet Du Bois, then editor of Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. When Du Bois learned that he had once dated her mother, he told Cooke to come see him about a job when she got out of college.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota with an English degree, she did just that. She arrived in Harlem in 1926 and became Du Bois' secretary. With Du Bois as her mentor, she entered Harlem's elite circles. Eventually she was assigned to write a column reviewing the country's leading magazines and wrote critiques of works written by the literary giants of the day, including Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Parker. It was at the Crisis that Cooke developed the literary style that would become her hallmark.

By 1928, she was ready to move into mainstream journalism. She took a job at New York's leading black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, and became the first woman reporter in its 40-year history.

While there, Cooke organized the first local newspaper guild at a black newspaper. The anti-union owner fired the entire staff and Cooke was jailed twice for picketing the paper in protest. The 11-week lockout in 1934 ended when the paper was sold to new owners who gave the staff a raise.

The episode marked the first time in American history that black workers were involved in a labor action against a black employer and the first time that black workers won a labor dispute, said Rodger Streitmatter, who profiled Cooke in his 1994 book on the history of black women in journalism. While at the News, Cooke joined the Communist Party and later was called to testify at hearings chaired by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950s.

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