One hundred years after the birth of Minnesota’s first Black person, Marvel Jackson Cooke made her own history as the first Black birth in the city of Mankato. Her life was full of more firsts on her journey to becoming a pioneering journalist and political activist.
Born Marvel Jackson in 1901 to Madison Jackson, the son of a free farmer, and Amy Wood Jackson, a teacher, Jackson saw early on the effects of racism. Though her father graduated with a law degree from Ohio State University Law School, he could not get a job, ultimately working as a railroad porter.
He soon moved the family to Minneapolis, where they were the first Black residents in the Prospect Park neighborhood, and Cooke became the first Black student to attend Sydney Pratt Elementary School. She went on to be one of five Black students to graduate from the University of Minnesota in 1925.
After graduation, she moved to Harlem, New York, where she worked as an editorial assistant at the NAACP publication Crisis. In 1928, she became the Black-owned New York Amsterdam’s first woman reporter and helped organize its first union. In 1929, she married Olympic-champion sailor and sprinter Cecil Cooke.
In 1950, she was hired as the first Black person and only woman to work at The Daily Compass, a White-owned newspaper. There, she wrote a series of investigative reports on the “Bronx Slave Market” for the New York-based paper that earned her widespread recognition.
“I was part of the Bronx Slave Market long enough to experience all the viciousness and indignity of a system which forces women to the streets in search of work,” wrote Cooke.
The five-article series exposed the perils Black women faced in attempts to get hourly or daily work. This included standing outside in rain or snow, inadequate and unreliable wages, exasperated racism, and often unsafe working conditions.
In 1953, she was elected as the New York director of the Council of Arts, Sciences, and Professions. One year later, she was forced to testify before the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations because of her communist beliefs. She went on to work as the national legal defense secretary for Angela Davis and as the national vice chairman of the American–Soviet Friendship Committee from 1990 to 1998.
In 2000, she died of leukemia at the age of 99.