Cook, (Will) Mercer 1903–1987
(Will) Mercer Cook 1903–1987
Mercer Cook was the son of two popular black entertainers who became a professor of romance languages at Howard University and an international diplomat. During his academic career, Cook translated several important works of African and West Indies scholars from French to English. He also wrote several books of his own, including some literary criticisms as well as books about Haiti. Additionally Cook published several journal articles and served on the editorial boards of academic journals. He also traveled extensively in Europe, the West Indies, and Africa. In 1961 he was appointed U.S. ambassador to the newly independent nation of Niger. He later spent two years as U.S. ambassador to Senegal and Gambia.
Will Mercer Cook, popularly known as Mercer Cook, was born in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 1903. He was the second child, and only son, born to two prominent black entertainers. His mother, Abbie Mitchell Cook, was a soprano singer who was the lead singer for the Memphis Students. She was also a respected actress who is probably best known for playing Clara and introducing the song “Summertime” in the original production of the musical Porgy and Bess. As a child Mercer Cook traveled extensively in the United States and Europe with his parents as they pursued their respective careers in the entertainment industry.
Cook’s father, Will Marion Cook, was a famous composer, violinist, and conductor. He was a child prodigy in violin who attended the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory at age 13 and studied in Berlin, Germany, at age 16. Will Marion Cook was the first black composer to write a musical for Broadway featuring an all-black cast in 1898. He composed many musical numbers featuring his wife Abbie Cook. In the 1930s father and son wrote a folk opera together called “St. Louis Woman.”
Mercer Cook’s musical world extended beyond his immediate family. As a child he also lived across the street from the legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington. Despite these musical influences, Mercer Cook did not pursue a career in entertainment. His aspirations lay in academia. Cook attended Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., which had a reputation for educating the future leaders of the city’s black society. Cook’s
At a Glance…
Born Will Mercer Cook on March 30, 1903, in Washington, DC; died on October 4, in Washington, DC; son of Will Marion Cook and Abbie Mitchell Cook; married Vashti Smith on August 31, 1929 (died 1969); children: Mercer and Jacques, Education :Amberst College, BA, 1925; University of Paris, teacher’s diploma, 1926; Brown University, MA, 1931, PhD, 1936, Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Howard University, Washington, DC, assistant professor, 1927-36, professor, 1945-60, 1966-70, head of romance language department, 1966-70, professor emeritus, 1970-87; Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA, professor, 1936-43; University of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, professor, 1943-45; American Society of African Culture, foreign representative, 1958-60; Congress of Cultural Freedom, director of African program, 1960-61; U.S. Ambassador to Niger, 1961-64; United Nations General Assembly, alternate delegate, 1963; U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Gambia, 1965-66; Harvard University, visiting professor, 1969.
Memberships: Association for the Study of Negro Life and History; American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers; American Association of Teachers of French; French Academy of Political Science; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Phi Beta Kappa.
Awards: John W. Simpson Fellowship, 1925-26; General Education Board Fellowship, 1934, 1942; Rosenwald Fellowship, 1938; Received decorations from the Government of Haiti, 1945, the Republic of Niger, 1964, and Senegal, 1966; Palmes Academiques, France; LL.D., Amherst College, 1965; LL.D., Brown University, 1970.
Dunbar classmates included William H. Hastie, who became a federal judge; Sterling Brown, a well-known author and literary critic; and Charles Drew, a famous scientist.
Cook continued his education at Amherst College, where he earned a B.A. in 1925. He then received the John W. Simpson Fellowship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, where he earned a teacher’s diploma in 1926. In 1929 Cook married Vashti Smith, a social worker. The couple had two sons together named Mercer and Jacques. Next Cook attended Brown University and earned a master’s degree in 1931 and a doctorate in 1936. He returned to Paris in 1934 on a fellowship from the General Education Board.
While completing his graduate education, Cook worked as an assistant professor of romance languages at Howard University from 1927 until 1936. Upon completing his Ph.D., Cook became a professor of French at Atlanta University from 1936 until 1943. During that time he received a Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Paris and the French West Indies. In 1942 he received another General Education Board Fellowship to the University of Havana. From 1943 to 1945 Cook worked as a professor of English at the University of Haiti. During this time he wrote the Handbook for Haitian Teachers of English. He also wrote the literary criticism titled Five French Negro Authors and edited an anthology of Haitian readings.
After two years in Haiti, Cook returned to Washington, D.C., to work as a professor of romance languages at Howard University, where he stayed until 1960. During this time Cook continued to write about Haiti and he also translated works of African and West Indian writers from French to English. Most notably, in 1959, Cook translated the works of Leopold Senghor, who was a former president of Senegal and an established French author.
Became United States Ambassador to Africa
Cook became active in international relations in the late 1950s. From 1958 to 1960 he served as a foreign representative for the American Society of African Culture. The following year he worked as the director of the African program for the Congress of Cultural Freedom. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Cook as the U.S. ambassador to Niger. Niger was a French colony that had only achieved independence in 1960. Cook’s duties as ambassador included overseeing U.S. economic aid programs in the country, administering the Peace Corps, and supervising U.S. information and cultural activities in the country. His wife was also involved in many social programs, including a project to distribute medical supplies across the country and participation in women’s groups. One of Cook’s projects was an adult education program sponsored jointly by the United States and France. “The thrilling thing to see is the excitement of these people as they write their names for the first time,” Cook told Crisis magazine in December of 1963.
In 1963 Cook was also designated as an alternate delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations. He served as ambassador to Niger until 1964. In 1965 and 1966 he was appointed ambassador to Senegal and Gambia. In 1966 Cook returned to Howard University to become head of the department of romance languages. He worked as a visiting professor at Harvard University in 1969.
In 1969 Cook also published The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States, co-authored with Stephen Henderson of Morehouse College. The book consisted of expanded versions of speeches delivered by the two men at a 1968 conference in Madison, Wisconsin, called “‘Anger and Beyond:’ The Black Writer and a World in Revolution.” In his essay Cook described a half-century tradition of protest among African poets and novelists. Cook concluded his essay by stating: “In the main, statements by the Africans seem to me less extreme and violent than many by West Indian and North American blacks.”
Cook retired from academia in 1970, although he continued to write in the 1970s. In particular, Cook served as editor and translator for Cheikh A. Diop’s 1974 book called The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality? Cook also participated in the editorial boards of the journals Phylon, and the Journal of Negro History. Cook died of pneumonia in Washington, D.C., on October 4, 1987. Rather than follow his parents’ successes in the entertainment industry, Cook built his own reputation as a black leader through his academic work in romance languages as well as his international service to Africa.
(Editor) Le Noir: Morceaux choisis de vingt-neuf francais celebres, American Book Co., 1934.
(Editor) Portraits americains, Heath, 1939.
Five French Negro Authors, Associated Publishers, 1943.
Handbook for Haitian Teachers of English, H. Deschamps, 1944.
(Editor) The Haitian-American Anthology: Haitian Readings from American Authors, Imprimerie del’Etat, 1944.
Education in Haiti, Federal Security Agency, Office of Education, 1948.
(Editor) An Introduction to Haiti, Department of Cultural Affairs, Pan American Union, 1951.
(Translator) Leopold Senghor, African Socialism, American Society of African Culture, 1959.
(Translator) Mamadou Dia, The African Nations and World Solidarity, Praeger, 1961, reprinted, 1987.
(With Stephen Henderson) The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.
(Translator and editor) Cheikh A. Diop, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality? Lawrence Hill, 1974.
“Haiti’s ‘Youngest’ Ambassador,” Crisis, April 1957.
Foster, M. Marie Booth, Southern Black Creative Writers, 1829-1953, New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Page, James A., Selected Black American Authors: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography, Boston, MA: G.K. Hall and Co., 1977.
Ploski, Harry A., and Warren Marr, III (eds.), The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the Afro American, New York: The Bellwether Company, 1976.
Crisis, April 1957, p. 215; December 1963, p. 603.
New York Times, October 7, 1987, p. D22.
Washington Post, October 6, 1987, p. B4; February 18, 2000, p. N37.
“A Skillful Ambassador, Mercer Cook,” The African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/781/A_skillful_ambassador_Mercer_Cook (June 5, 2003).
“Will Mercer Cook,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 14, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Will Mercer Cook Papers, 1890-1985, housed at Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
—Janet P. Stamatel