This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
Helen Appo Cook put her life on the line for women’s suffrage. The DC educator rallied other Black women, and in 1896, she founded the National Association of Colored Women.
On its website, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs stated that “long before the founding of the organization, our forbearers had organized ourselves into self-improvement and charitable organizations.
These organizations were led by women named Harriet Tubman and Helen Appo Cook (both NACW founders), Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and a plethora of unnamed others whose lives were devoted to the struggle to free people of color from the bondage of slavery, illiteracy, and prejudice in an unforgiving world that treated them as less than human.”
The site noted that it was also the time of Ida B. Wells Barnett and her Red Record, voluminous documentation of the lynching of black Americans.
At a conference held in 1896 in the District, Ruffin stated that the reasons were apparent as to why the organization should confer.
“We need to talk over not only those things which are of vital importance to us as women, but also the things that are of special interest to us as colored women, the training of our children, openings for our boys and girls, how they can be prepared for occupations and occupations may be found or opened to them, what we especially can do in the moral education of the race with which we are identified, our mental elevations and physical development, the home training it is necessary to prepare them to meet the peculiar conditions in which they find themselves, and how to make the most of our own opportunities,” Ruffin stated.
“These are some of our questions to be discussed.”
Cook took the lead in bringing those issues to the forefront.
Born in New York in 1837, Cook was considered wealthy, with an estate valued at more than $250,000 — equivalent to $5.4 million in 2020.
In 1864, she married John F. Cook, Jr., and the couple had five children.
According to Jones Massey’s index of “Famous Black People,” W.E.B. DuBois invited Cook to submit a paper in 1898 for the third annual Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems held at Atlanta University.
The purpose of the conference series, which ran from 1896 to 1914, was to identify difficulties the African American community faced and suggest solutions, Massey noted.
Others invited to submit papers included Rev. Henry Hugh Proctor of First Congregational Church (Atlanta, Georgia), journalist and attorney Lafayette M. Hershaw, and Miss Minnie L. Perry, a board member of the Carrie Steele Orphanage.
Massey wrote that Cook’s paper outlined the accomplishments of the CWL, including the enrollment of more than 100 children in its kindergartens.
In the 1927 book, “Out of the Depths, or, The Triumph of the Cross” by Nellie Arnold Plummer, Cook’s trailblazing mission for women’s and African American rights are summarized:
“We, the living who worked with her, know the devotion she brought to the cause. Under her administration, the scope of the Association was enlarged, and hundreds of children were brought under care.
“[Cook], being identified with the people cared for by the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, felt and exhibited a sympathy impossible to be cherished by those who belonged to another race, a racial affinity, an instinct as deep and lasting as human nature itself — altruism energized by this affinity is dynamic force, worthy of deep thought and consideration in all efforts to save.
“Therefore, because she was a colored woman because she had deeply realized and felt the woes and sufferings of her people, Mrs. Cook laid upon the altar her talents and services for the uplift of the poor and needy. She needs no epitaph. The race will remember Helen Appo Cook as a leading and devoted worker of the Association through many years of its splendid service to God and humanity.
“From its birth the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children has had many able secretaries whose reports make most interesting reading, embodying as they do the real history of the Home. In the beginning and until 1880, the secretaries were white.
“Then Mrs. Helen Appo Cook became secretary.”