No story about the Amsterdam News labor dispute and the organization of the first Newspaper Guild unit at a Black-owned newspaper is complete without noting the significant role played by Marvel Cooke.
But before we allow Cooke to present her version of the dispute, let’s set the stage for this historic moment in Harlem’s history. In 1935, from Oct. 7 to Christmas Eve, fifteen Black editorial workers at the Amsterdam News engaged in a bitter dispute with their managers at the paper. What prompted this showdown was the demand by several writers to form a local unit of the ANG (American Newspaper Guild).
This action was met with resistance by the paper’s owners, Sadie Davis and her daughter, Odessa Morse. To offset this attempt to organize at the paper, the owners dismissed the instigators of the activity. Other editors and writers were also locked out and this precipitated a strike and boycott of the paper.
During an interview with Kathleen Currie for the Washington Press Club Foundation in 1989, Cooke recounted her tenure with the Amsterdam News which she began with no notion of being a reporter or being involved in the Guild.
“There was a reporter on the paper by the name of Ted Poston,” she said when asked about her beginning at the paper and contact with the Guild. “He found out that Heywood Broun had started a union. It was a horizontal union—just a union of editorial workers. It didn’t encompass the other departments of a paper at the time… We were interested and formed the first Black unit of the Newspaper Guild at the Amsterdam News. All of us, I think everybody, was pretty excited about the possibilities….”
Cooke said the union meetings were held at her apartment on Edgecombe Avenue. “We finally decided that we wanted to ask the owner of the paper, Mrs. Sadie Davis, for recognition. We had everybody in the group who was reporting to her what we were doing, and one morning I walked in and asked for the editorial mail, and she said, ‘Do you work here?’ I said, ‘I thought I did.’ And as each one came into the office, they were challenged that way.”
Later, the bookkeeper came and told them the editorial department was no longer needed. “We were ready for that,” Cooke continued. The night before they had discussed the possibility of being fired and having to strike. “But instead of striking, we were locked out,” she said.
“We quickly set up strike headquarters on 135th Street, across from the police station,” Cooke related. “At that time there was a police directive that only two people could picket at a time. When we wanted to be arrested and get some notice, we would send out a mass picket line. We had a lot of support from the community, from the doctors, the lawyers, and the preachers.”
She said the boycott was quite popular, which meant the Amsterdam News was unpopular. Most of the people wanted a better paper, Cooke explained. Support also came from other papers in the community, including The New York Times.
Things continued like this for eleven weeks, Cooke said, and it was settled on Christmas Eve. “When I went back in, the decision was that I was to be one of the reporters on the staff, which I was very happy about, because it took me out of the secretarial field, but I soon ran into some difficulties with the male editor, whose name was Earl Brown. I think that I was the first woman reporter at the Amsterdam News.”
Soon Cooke was filing a number of breaking stories, and she was elated that after the strike her salary increased. Before the strike she said she was earning $18 a week and after her salary went up to $35 a week.
Establishing the Guild proved successful, and the entire editorial team joined it. But a reporter at the Amsterdam News was just a stop along the way for the ever-adventurous Cooke and her radical days intensified when she became a member of the Communist Party and wrote for a number of militant publications. She is remembered too for a remarkable piece of research she completed with Ella Baker called “The Bronx Slave Market,” about Black domestic workers picked up there to be menially employed.
Cooke was 97 when she died in November 2000, almost active to her final breath on a variety of social and political issues, all of which continued her activism on behalf of W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, and other revolutionary freedom fighters.