Cook, John, Sr.

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John Cook, Sr.

Educator, minister

John Francis Cook Sr. became an educator in the period when education was neither a right nor a privilege for African Americans. He was born a slave in 1810 and lived as a slave until his eighteenth birthday when his freedom was purchased along with that of his family. His aunt, Alethia Tanner, purchased the Cook family's freedom after purchasing her own. She used money, which she had saved from selling surplus crops from her garden to pay for these freedoms; however, Cook worked very hard as an apprentice shoemaker for five years to repay her. Cook's first job that led him into the public sphere was as an assistant messenger in the government's land office. Cook was not fulfilled in this position although it was seen as a decent position for an African American at that time. He left this job to fulfill his calling as an educator.

As for Cook's family background, information on his education is sparse. It is believed that he attended the school in which he later worked as the principal and that he was self-taught in the rudiments of education methods. He also studied in preparation for his pastoral duties.

Cook was a family man. He was married first to Jane Mann and then to Jane LeCount. These marriages produced five children, three boys and two girls. It is not clear which marriage produced which children. Two of the schools that he founded were run by two of his sons, John Jr. and George. One of his sons also became the first superintendent of Colored Schools in Washington D.C. and was later elected as an alderman in 1868.

Cook was interested in the education of African Americans. His main aim was to operate a school for freed African Americans. Cook became a teacher when a school for African Americans, which was first run by Henry Smothers, then by John W. Prout, failed as a free school and resorted to requiring tuition. Cook became the principal, and he took over from the Board of Trustees which had been in charge of the school since its inception in 1822. When Cook took charge in 1834, the school flourished as it provided quality education and was well attended. Cook renamed the school (previously called the Columbia Institute) Union Seminary. Union Seminary was known as a coeducational school for African American children.

Unfortunately, Cook had to flee Washington D.C. in 1835 because he feared for his life. In this period, the Snow Riot—an anti-African American civil act—threatened the lives of African Americans, so many of them fled from the community. Despite the destruction of part of the schoolroom, Cook persevered; he reopened the school when he returned to the city in 1836. It is believed that he also taught school in Columbia, Lancaster County, where he took refuge.

Cook sought to provide religious teachings that were more relevant and meaningful to the lives of the African Americans in his community. In 1836, Cook studied to become a minister, and by 1838, he was a preacher at the Israel AME Church on South Capitol Street, Washington, D.C. Cook made two great contributions to the religious lives of the African Americans in Washington D. C, as he organized the Union Bethel Church (which later became the Metropolitan AME Church), and the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in 1840. After withdrawing his membership from Bethel Church, he started the 15th Street Church in his schoolroom, and this congregation was made up solely of Africans Americans. This church became the first African American church in Washington D. C. It was accepted into the Presbyterian community as an official member in 1842. Cook was officially ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1843 after he passed the theology examinations set by the Presbyterian Church. He also preached to white congregations who accepted his theology, and moderated at an assembly of white Presbyterian clergymen who assembled in Richmond, Virginia. Cook brought the African American presence into the church hierarchy as he became licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in Washington D. C. in 1848. He was also one of the original members of Daniel A. Payne's Ministers Council for AME Churches.

As a Christian, Cook believed in the spiritual well being of his fellow men and a good burial after death. Cook helped to establish the Colombian Harmony Cemetery in which freed African Americans could bury their dead. It was relocated at Landover, Maryland and is known as the National Harmony Memorial Park.

As a multifaceted African American, Cook also became involved in politics as he wanted to represent his people. He joined the Negro Convention Movement that was formed in 1830 by freed African Americans. The sole aim of the convention was to improve the lives of African Americans. He was nominated corresponding secretary to the District of Colombia Convention, and later, at the fifth meeting, he became the general secretary of the National Convention.

The National Convention's aim was to improve the lives of African Americans in all areas, one of which was the writing of literatures from the African American perspective. Freed African Americans were interested in writing their histories and their stories. A literary and debating society was formed to voice the opinions and views of African Americans.

Cook died on March 2, 1855 and his funeral services were held at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. He worked to improve the lot of the freed African Americans who were not prepared for their emancipated lives. Cook provided meaningful religious, educational, social, and moral teaching for free African Americans.



Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

                                       Denise Jarrett


Born in Washington, D.C.
His aunt, Alethia Tanner, purchases his freedom
Serves as principal of Union Seminary School
Flees from Washington D.C. for protection from Snow Riot
Returns from Columbia, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where he sought protection from the riot
Preaches in Israel AME Church on South Capitol Street, Washington D.C.
Forms 15th Street Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C.
Ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church
Licentiate in Presbyterian Church
Dies in Washington, D.C. on March 2