Inspired By

Honoring Black Women Journalists: Marvel Jackson Cooke
By: Cirien Saadeh, JAWS Board Member

February is Black History Month, and while it is always a great time to honor the work of Black women journalists who have given so much to the field, we at JAWS want to recognize and honor Black women journalists all year. We’ll be profiling some of the great Black women journalists, those active in the field, and those who have gone before us. Our first profile is of Marvel Jackson Cooke (1903 – 2000).

Marvel Jackson Cooke was the first Black woman to work at The Compass, a mainstream, white-owned newspaper. Cooke was also the first student to desegregate both her elementary school and high school in the Minneapolis Public Schools district when she was enrolled at now-named Pratt Elementary School in 1909 – this according to The Minnesota Daily. (As an education reporter, covering Minneapolis Public Schools, this is a story I wish I had known.)

Cooke graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in English in 1925 and moved to Harlem in New York City in 1926 where she worked for, and was mentored by,  W.E.B Du Bois.

According to the New York Historical Society, Cooke is particularly well-known for her work, alongside Ella Baker, in exposing the Bronx Slave Market for The Crisis. Cooke and Baker had gone undercover “to expose the working conditions faced by Black women domestic workers in the Bronx in the middle of the Great Depression.” More information on that work can be found here. Cooke had worked for The Crisis – the NAACP’s official magazine co-founded by Du Bois –  in the earliest years of her career and co-published the series of exposes years after leaving the magazine.

Cooke was, according to an article in Teen Vogue, a card-carrying Communist. She had joined the New York Amsterdam News in the early 1930s, and helped to organize a labor union at the newspaper. According to the Teen Vogue article, Cooke was invited to join the Communist Party while “on the picket line.” This is from the Teen Vogue article and it absolutely bears quoting in my mind:

“After an 11-week strike and a few stints in jail for picketing, Cooke and her colleagues secured victory through union recognition and a raise from Amsterdam News’ management. Roger Streitmatter, a historian who profiled Cooke, believes this is the first time that Black workers were involved in a labor action against a Black employer and won.”

Cooke’s career spanned decades – and incredibly important moments in our field, even though she did eventually leave journalism to become a full-time activist. From the Red Scare and being subpoenaed to testifying in front of Congress, to reporting on sexual harassment, to her work during the Great Depression, there is so much to learn from this journalist, particularly as we (as a field) have conversations about objectivity and bias, #metoo in the newsroom, newsroom unions, and more.

Learning about Cooke was particularly interesting and powerful to me, and I hope it’s powerful for you, but – honestly – there is still so much to learn and know about Cooke and her work. If you want to read or watch more about Cooke’s work, here are a few resources:

An archive of some of Cooke’s work from New York University
Cooke’s obituary published in the New York Times
A profile from the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Every article profiling Cooke and her work highlights the ceilings she shattered, the spaces she had to fight her way into, the important stories she reported on. It is a lesson, I think, for all of us that we stand on the shoulders of giants as we move forward in our own reporting work.

Finally, as we exit February and Black History Month, we would love your recommendations for other inspiring women journalists to highlight in the next months. For International Women’s Month in March, we’re planning to feature journalists who have received less attention than they deserve, especially those from historically marginalized communities – including Black and Brown women, LGBTQ people and women with disabilities.

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*photo from Wikepedia