Cook, John, Jr.

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John Cook, Jr.

Educator, government official

A multifaceted man, John Cook Jr. was a staunch supporter of suffrage, public schools for black people in Washington, D.C., and civil rights. Cook held a number of political offices that gave him influence in the Republican Party. He belonged to one of the black elite families in the district and acquired considerable wealth on his own. Cook Jr. and his family were socially exclusive, but he demonstrated his concern for the entire black community by working through various organizations in their behalf.

Born in Washington, D.C., on September 21, 1833, John Francis Cook Jr. was the son of John Francis Sr. and Jane Mann Cook, a woman of Afro-Indian ancestry. His father was a prominent African American clergyman, educator, and community leader. He had a younger brother, George F. T. Cook, who became the first and for many years the only black superintendent in the District of Columbia. John Cook was educated at Union Seminary, which was his father's school, located on H Street near 14th Street, NW. Then he attended Oberlin College in Ohio from 1853 to 1855. After their father died in 1855, the Cook brothers, both Oberlin students, returned to Washington to take control of their father's school, Union Seminary.

Cook Jr. taught in Union Seminary for a few years and then relocated to New Orleans where he continued to teach. When the Civil War began, he returned home and to Union Seminary which the two Cook brothers operated until it closed in 1867. In that same year, the District of Columbia opened public schools for its African American residents, which caused Union to suffer. George Cook became superintendent of the separate school system that the district maintained for blacks, while in 1867 John Cook entered a career in government service by working as a clerk in Washington's office of the collector of taxes. In 1868 he was elected to the Board of Aldermen; this was the first election in which blacks were permitted to vote. By now he was heavily involved in Republican politics and had some political power. In 1869 he was elected city registrar. When Washington became a federal territory in 1871, he was reappointed to that post.

Cook served as justice of the peace from 1869 to 1876. In 1872 and again in 1880 Cook was a delegate to the Republican National Convention. The shrewd and tactful Cook endeared himself to influential members of Congress and to those in the White House as well. In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him district tax collector—a post that he held until 1884 when the Democratic Party and Grover Cleveland took office. He was jury commissioner in 1889. He became less prominent as a local official when be left his post as tax collector.

Takes Interest in Educating Blacks

Cook maintained a keen interest in the education of blacks in the district. From 1875 to 1910, he was a member of Howard University's board of trustees. He was a member of its executive committee as well, sometimes serving as chair. In 1873, he opposed the action of the House of Delegates for the District of Columbia, which kept blacks from establishing a normal school. Noted black leaders in D.C, including Cook, diplomat and lawyer John Mercer Langston, surgeon Charles Purvis, and orator and local office-holder Frederick Douglass, had been unsuccessful in their efforts to strike down segregation in the local public schools. When the old school board was reorganized in 1906, Cook became a member of the new District of Columbia board of education and held the post until he resigned a few months before his death.

Throughout his life, Cook worked in the interest of civil rights and the welfare of black people. He was a member of the Board of Children's Guardians beginning in 1892 and continuing for nearly two decades. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children. He served on the board of trustees of the Harmony Cemetery, which his father founded. While the entire Cook family was considered class conscious, his work in various organizations testified to his concern for blacks at all social or class levels.


Born in Washington, D.C. on September 21
Studies at Oberlin College
Manages Union Seminary, with brother George F. T. Cook
Marries Helen Appo
Begins career in government service
Joins Board of Aldermen
Becomes city registrar
Serves as justice of the peace
Becomes city registrar for second time
Serves as district tax collector
Serves on Board of Trustees for Howard University
Becomes jury commissioner
Becomes member of the District of Columbia Board of Education
Dies on January 20

A number of social and cultural organizations were founded in Washington's black community beginning in the 1880s. They represented an opportunity for Washington's black aristocracy to join, further separating themselves from those of different social strata. One of these was the Diamond Back Club, to which the Cook brothers belonged, along with other prominent black men, such as politician P. B. S. Pinchback, U.S. senator Blanche K. Bruce, municipal judge Robert H. Terrell, and assistant librarian of Congress Daniel Murray. For ten terms Cook was grand master of the Eureka Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, which Willard B. Gatewood in American National Biography called "the oldest and most prestigious chapter of Prince Hall Freemasonry in the Washington area." His appreciation for music led him to membership in the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Association and to its presidency. The association was chartered in 1903 and named for the Afro-British composer. He also followed his father's interest in the Harmony Cemetery Association. Cook demonstrated an interest in preserving Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass located in the Anacostia section of the district. He became a trustee of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association which worked to make the home an historic monument.

About 1863 Cook married Helen Appo (1837–1913), a New York native and the daughter of William and Elizabeth Brady Appo. The family relocated to Philadelphia where her father was a musician and music educator and her mother owned a millinery business. Helen Cook became a leader in the women's club movement, and she was the longtime president of the Colored Women's League and an organizer of its successor, the National Association of Colored Women. Her contemporaries were illustrious black women, such as Charlotte Grimké, Lucy Moten, Anna J. Cooper, and Mary Church Terrell. The Cooks, including their children, took seriously their membership in the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church which Cook Sr. had founded.

John and Helen Cook built a large home of brick and stone on Sixteenth Street in the district. At some point John Jr. owned the Langham Hotel Building in the city. Their wealth came from wise real estate investments, including property in the business district. In 1884 Cook and his wife were among Washington's black four hundred, or those worth over $70,000. Called the Elite List, this forerunner of the Social Register carried the Cooks well after the names of other black elite families were no longer listed.

Cook died of heart failure on January 20, 1910, and was buried on January 28 at Harmony Cemetery in the District of Columbia, which his father had helped to found. His legacy lay in his efforts to provide public schools for blacks, his dedication to higher education as demonstrated in his long membership on Howard University's board of trustees, and in the political offices he held in the District of Columbia.



Cromwell, John W. The Negro in American History: Men and Woman Eminent in the Evolution of the American of African Descent. Washington, DC: The American Negro Academy, 1914.

Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

――――――. "John Francis Cook Jr." American National Biography. Vol. 5. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Logan, Rayford W. Howard University: The First Hundred Years, 1867–1967. New York: New York University Press, Issued under the auspices of Howard University, 1969.

Wormley, Stanton L. Jr. "John Francis Cook Jr." Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.


The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University has additional information on John F. Cook Jr. and the Cook family.

                                Jessie Carney Smith