A version of this story was written by Cirien Saadeh for the Journalism and Women Symposium of which she serves on the Board.
February is Black History Month, and while it is always appropriate to honor the work of Black women journalists who have given so much to the field, we at Minneapolis Schools Voices wanted to also take time to honor the work of a Black woman journalist who hails from Minneapolis.
Marvel Jackson Cooke was the first Black woman to work at The Compass, a mainstream, white-owned newspaper. Jackson 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 Community School in 1909, according to The Minnesota Daily. As an education reporter covering Minneapolis Public Schools, this is a story I wish I had known and grown up with!
Pratt Community School renovated its playground and named it after Jackson Cooke’s family in 2020.
Jackson Cooke graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in English in 1925 and the following year moved to Harlem in New York City, where she worked for and was mentored by W.E.B Du Bois.
According to the New York Historical Society, Jackson Cooke is particularly well-known for her work, alongside Ella Baker, in exposing the Bronx Slave Market for The Crisis. Jackson Cooke and Baker went 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. Jackson Cooke 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.
Jackson Cooke was, according to a Teen Vogue article, 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 article, Jackson Cooke was invited to join the Communist Party while on the picket line.
The following 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, Jackson Cooke and her colleagues secured victory through union recognition and a raise from Amsterdam News' management. Roger Streitmatter, a historian who profiled Jackson Cooke, believes this is the first time that Black workers were involved in a labor action against a Black employer and won.”
Jackson 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 being subpoenaed to testify in front of Congress as part of the Red Scare, to reporting on sexual harassment, to her work during the Great Depression, in my mind 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 Jackson 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 Jackson Cooke and her work. If you want to read or watch more about Jackson Cooke’s work, here’s a few resources:
- An archive of some of Jackson Cooke’s work from New York University
- Jackson 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.