Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
By Kathryn S. Gardiner
Coralie Franklin Cook
“Rochester has been proud of the citizenship of Frederick Douglass, it has honored Booker T. Washington, and now it is to have an opportunity of responding to a claim on its interest and consideration from a woman of the same race of these men,” declared the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York on Nov. 28, 1902. Coralie Franklin Cook was to speak at the Unitarian Church for their Political Equality Club. She was an active and notable member of the National American Women Suffrage Association, alongside Susan B. Anthony and other leaders of the day.
In its noting of the event, the Democrat and Chronicle quoted The New York Tribune’s coverage of a similar engagement featuring Cook: “It was left for a young colored woman to impress the Council of Women as it had not been impressed before during its sessions. Mrs. Cook came to the council as a fraternal delegate from the National Association of Colored Women. It is not too much to say that in voice, simple dignity and ease of manner Mrs. Cook is the peer of any woman in the council. The force of this may be appreciated when it is added that it is the general feeling among the women themselves. It was a revelation. There has been nothing finer in unconscious grace, nothing stronger than this young woman’s plea for the womanhood of her race. It stirred the council to the depths of its highest, noblest feelings.”
Coralie Franklin was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1861, two years before she and her parents, Albert and Mary Elizabeth, would be freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She was a descendent of Brown Colbert, an enslaved man owned by Thomas Jefferson and living on his Monticello property. In 1880, Brown Colbert’s great-grandaughter Coralie would graduate from Storer College, becoming the first of the Monticello descendants to earn a college degree.
Susan B. Anthony hosted the Rochester event showcasing Cook. Initially, the two women held each other in high regard. Cook once described Anthony as one of “the immortal few who have stood for the great principles of human rights,” and just two years earlier, in 1900, Cook had been the only African-American speaker invited to give an address at Anthony’s 80th birthday celebration.
In her speech honoring Anthony, Cook spoke poignantly about a weakness she saw in the movement, namely that the cause of white women remained the priority. While pursuit of the right to vote ostensibly crossed racial and socio-economic lines, the leaders remained primarily white, educated, upper- to middle-class—and largely guilty of prejudice against those who were not. (Indeed, much is revealed in The New York Tribune declaring a mannered and intelligent Black woman to be “a revelation.”) White suffragists generally believed that the racism experienced by women of color was a racial issue and therefore not within the bounds of their cause.
“No woman and no class of women can be degraded and all womankind not suffer thereby. …and so Miss Anthony,” Cook said, addressing Anthony directly before the audience, “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.”
The 19th Amendment granting the women the right to vote in 1918 was certainly a victory. However, for women who were not white, wealthy, or educated, it remained an incomplete one. Black men had been granted the right to vote in 1870 with the 15th Amendment, yet actual attempts to exercise that right had been repeatedly met with mob violence and lynching. Black women now faced those same obstacles to their rights, and women like Cook who had carried the suffrage banner found themselves standing alone in facing them. Seemingly, as far as white women were concerned, the battle was over.
Cook felt she was “a born suffragist,” but in 1921, she left the National American Women Suffrage Association, disappointed and disheartened by the apathy of her white peers. The Women Suffrage Association, she wrote, “had turned its back on the woman of color.”
With her husband George Cook, Coralie Franklin Cook converted to the Baha’i faith in her 50s and turned her energies to empowering African-Americans and fighting racial inequality. Cook died in 1942 at the age of 81.