Coralie Franklin Cook
Educator and Activist
The horrendous system of slavery has of course existed since ancient times, but in the U.S. it took a war to end the tragedy. Yet in a way American society did benefit in the aftermath when some of those enslaved persons and their descendants made great contributions to American life and culture. And one of these was Coralie Franklin Cook, a descendant of several of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved servants who became an educator, public speaker and advocate for the rights of women. In fact, she was the first descendant of the enslaved at Jefferson’s Monticello home to graduate from college.
Coralie was born in March, 1861 in Virginia in the dying days of U.S. slavery, and was a descendant of Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings, whose family members held valued and important positions at Jefferson’s home.
Then as the Civil War officially ended American slavery, Hemings’ family members found new lives in the freedom of the post-war society. For example, Coralie’s father Albert Franklin became what one source called “A very well respected man amongst his community.” In 1870 Mr. Franklin was able to send his daughters Coralie and Mary Elizabeth to attend the Storer Normal School at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, at the time one of the only higher education institutions that enrolled Black Americans. While the sisters were there Coralie developed her talent for literature and reading.
Miss Franklin graduated in 1880 and the next year she pursued further education at other facilities in Boston and Philadelphia where she specialized in learning elocution. This special type of public speaking was widely practiced at this time.
Later Miss Franklin taught elocution and English at her alma mater Storer College as an assistant professor from 1882 till 1893. Then she was an instructor at a school in Missouri until she and close friend Mary Church Terrell moved to Washington D.C. to pursue careers in education. There in the capital city she taught elocution at Howard University and was a professor at the Washington Conservatory of Music. She also served on Washington’s Board of Education, becoming the second Black woman after Terrell to do that. At this time she also spent five years as director of a local institution called the Home for Colored Children and Aged Women.
Terrell and Franklin then became important leaders among prominent Black women of the time as well as participating in the Black Woman’s Club movement. They were early members in one of the oldest Black women’s club in Washington and then became part of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1896.
At about this time Miss Franklin also became focused on the subject of women obtaining the vote as she and Ms. Terrell joined a national women’s suffrage organization. They began to take an active part and because of that plus her prominence as a public speaker led to her being asked to speak at a special event. This was the 80th birthday of suffragist advocate Susan B. Anthony in 1900—in fact Miss Franklin was the only Black woman to speak at that time. At that time, according to one source, she “…praised the movement for encouraging women to recognize their potential political power and their responsibility to one another…” One area of concern for the speaker was how she feared her fellow advocates who were white might not understand the importance of the inclusion of Black women.” With this possibly in mind she addressed the celebrant saying, “…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.”
In 1915 Coralie Franklin Cook published an article titled “Votes for Mothers” in the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis where she expressed the importance the vote for all—no matter the gender or color. She wrote: “Disfranchisement because of sex is curiously like disfranchisement because of color. It cripples the individual, it handicaps progress, and it sets a limitation upon mental and spiritual development.”
However, once the 18th amendment became law in 1920 and women received the right to vote, Coralie Franklin Cook came to believe that her fellow women’s rights advocates seemed to have forgotten Black women. So after that she turned her attention to empowering Black people and encouraging racial equality.
In 1884 Miss Franklin purchased a home in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, acquiring it from Storer College at a time when she was teaching there. Then in 1898 she married Professor George William Cook who at that time was the Dean of the school at Howard University. Their son George W. Crook Jr. was born in 1901. Her husband died in 1931 after 33 years of marriage and Mrs. Cook passed away in 1942.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.