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An African American woman, who was born into enslavement, later became a famous public speaker, inspiring suffragist, and devoted Baha’i. Learn about the life of Coralie Franklin Cook.
Coralie Cook’s Background, Family, and Career
Coralie Cook was born in 1861 in Lexington, Virginia to enslaved parents, Albert and Mary Elizabeth Edmondson Franklin.
She was a great-granddaughter of Brown Colbert — the grandson of Elizabeth Hemings, the matriarch of the enslaved Hemings family at President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Elizabeth Hemings was the mother of Sally Hemings — the famous enslaved woman who was impregnated at least six times by her enslaver, Thomas Jefferson, who was 30 years older than her.
In 1880, Coralie became the first known descendant of people enslaved by Thomas Jefferson to earn a college degree when she graduated from Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. She taught English and elocution at Storer College and purchased her own home from the college in 1884 when she was just 23 years old.
She later moved to Washington D.C. and became a faculty member at Howard University. She was the Chair of Oratory at Howard and taught elocution there. That’s where she met her husband, George Cook.
Like Coralie, her husband, George, was born into slavery in Winchester, Virginia, in 1855. He managed to escape from slavery, attend school, and graduate from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in 1886 and a law degree in 1898. He was the Professor of Commercial and International Law and the Dean of the School of Commerce and Finance. Coralie and George got married on August 31, 1898, and had one son, George William Cook Junior.
In addition to teaching at Howard University, Coralie was the second woman of color to be appointed by the judges of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia to the Board of Education. She held this position for 12 years — the longest term held by any board member. She was also the director of the Home for Colored Children and Aged Women and a member of the Red Cross, the Juvenile Protective Society, and the NAACP.
Coralie Cook’s Work As A Famous Writer, Speaker, and Suffragist
Coralie was an ardent activist, dedicated to obtaining equal rights for women, especially the right to vote.
RELATED: In Pursuit of Equality: 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage
As Abdu’l-Baha, one of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, said at a talk at a women’s suffrage meeting in New York in 1912:
The most momentous question of this day is international peace and arbitration, and universal peace is impossible without universal suffrage.
In a talk in Paris, he addressed how:
the female sex is treated as though inferior, and is not allowed equal rights and privileges. …Neither sex is superior to the other in the sight of God. Why then should one sex assert the inferiority of the other, withholding just rights and privileges as though God had given His authority for such a course of action?
He also spoke about the unique and vital role that mothers have in society:
In the necessity of life, woman is more instinct with power than man, for to her he owes his very existence.
If the mother is educated then her children will be well taught. When the mother is wise, then will the children be led into the path of wisdom. If the mother be religious she will show her children how they should love God. If the mother is moral she guides her little ones into the ways of uprightness.
It is clear therefore that the future generation depends on the mothers of today.
In her editorial, “Votes for Mothers,” published by the NAACP magazine, “The Crisis,” Coralie wrote:
Mothers are different, or ought to be different, from other folk. The woman who smilingly goes out, willing to meet the Death Angel, that a child may be born, comes back from that journey, not only the mother of her own adored babe, but a near-mother to all other children. As she serves that little one, there grows within her a passion to serve humanity; not race, not class, not sex, but God’s creatures as he has sent them to earth.
It is not strange that enlightened womanhood has so far broken its chains as to be able to know that to perform such service, woman should help both to make and to administer the laws under which she lives, should feel responsible for the conduct of educational systems, charitable and correctional institutions, public sanitation and municipal ordinances in general. Who should be more competent to control the presence of bar rooms and ‘red-light districts’ than mothers whose sons they are meant to lure to degradation and death? Who knows better than the girl’s mother at what age the girl may legally barter her own body? Surely not the men who have put upon our statute books, 16, 14, 12, aye be it to their eternal shame, even 10 and 8 years, as ‘the age of consent!’
If men could choose their own mothers, would they choose free women or bondwomen? …I transmit to the child who is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh and thought of my thought; somewhat of my own power or weakness. Is not the voice which is crying out for ‘Votes for Mothers’ the Spirit of the Age crying out for the Rights of Children?
Coralie was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and a member of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. Coralie, who was recognized nationally as an excellent public speaker, was the only African American woman who was invited to speak at Susan B. Anthony’s 80th birthday party in 1900.
However, she had spent so much of her life advocating for the rights of women and women of color and had grown disappointed by white women’s reluctance to work with Black women within the suffrage movement. Disheartened that the movement had, in her words, “turned its back on the woman of color” and did not view the rights of African American women as a priority, Coralie expressed her grievances in her speech.
Coralie said, “…And so Miss Anthony, in behalf of the hundreds of colored women who wait and hope with you for the day when the ballot shall be in the hands of every intelligent woman; and also in behalf of the thousands who sit in darkness and whose condition we shall expect those ballots to better, whether they be in the hands of white women or Black, I offer you my warmest gratitude and congratulations.”
She would later refuse to participate in white-dominated suffragist organizations and activities and became very active in the fight against Jim Crow laws.
As author and college professor Paula Giddings wrote, “Throughout their history, Black women also understood the relationship between the progress of the race and their own feminism. Women’s rights were an empty promise if Afro-Americans were crushed under the heel of a racist power structure. In times of racial militancy, Black women threw their considerable energies into that struggle—even at the expense of their feminist yearnings.”
Coralie Cook’s Life As a Baha’i and Racial Justice Activist
Coralie and George learned about the Baha’i Faith in 1910 and became Baha’is in 1913. In the Baha’i Faith, racism is regarded as “the most vital and challenging issue” confronting the United States.
RELATED: 5 Inspirational Baha’i Women in American History
Coralie and George organized Baha’i events at Howard University, including one talk by Abdu’l-Baha, and they even won awards for their social welfare work in the African American community.
In a letter she wrote to Abdu’l-Baha in 1914, she described how egregious racism was in the U.S.:
Knowledge of the progress of the colored people during their fifty years of freedom has astounded the world and incited the envy and hatred of those who prophesied their extinction and argued their inability to work for themselves.
In the midst of unfriendly surroundings they have accumulated $7,000,000,000 worth of property raising a million and a half of dollars in the past year alone for educational work, coming out of slavery with 95 percent of their whole number unable to read or write to say that number is reduced to only 30 percent an advance surpassing that of the whites during the same period.
Instead of this marvelous achievement appealing to all that is best and noblest in the whites, it has seemed to have a contrary effect. Laws are being passed in many sections compelling colored people to live in segregated districts, where they have had handsome houses among white residences these houses have been attacked, lives endangered, valuable property ruthlessly destroyed, anonymous orders to vacate, if ignored, have even resulted in the use of dynamite and total destruction of a house and its contents, the Law Courts offer no redress for the word of a black man is not taken against that of a white man where Judge and Jury are all of the dominant class.
She believed that the Baha’i teachings are “not only the last hope of the colored people, but must appeal strongly to all persons regardless of race or color…” So, she encouraged Baha’is to “stand by the teachings though it requires superhuman courage…”
She worked for racial justice and taught the oneness of humanity until she passed away in 1942. What a remarkable woman in our history to look up to.
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