Fannie Frank Cook (1893 – 1949)
Fannie Frank Cook was a civil rights activist and writer from St. Louis, Missouri. She worked on behalf of African Americans, Jews, women, and laborers in St. Louis and other parts of Missouri to help them gain equal treatment and fair wages.
Fannie Frank was born on October 3, 1893, in St. Charles, Missouri. She was the only daughter of Julius and Jennie Michael Frank. She had two brothers, Simon and William. Her father was a German Jewish immigrant who came to the United States in 1881. Her mother was the sister of Elias Michael, a president of Rice-Stix Dry Goods Company in St. Louis.
When Fannie was five, her father Julius joined her uncle Elias Michael at the dry goods company and moved his family to St. Louis. Julius later became a partner with a successful St. Louis company that made neckties.
As a child, Fannie won a writing contest in St. Nicholas Magazine. Her father was very proud of her and encouraged her to use her talents and abilities fully. Her aunt Rachel Stix Michael, Elias Michael’s wife, was a tireless worker for many important causes in St. Louis. She introduced Fannie to doing good works for people in need. Writing and working for social justice would later become the focus of Fannie’s life and career.
Fannie attended public schools in St. Louis. She went to Hamilton Grade School and graduated from Soldan High School in 1911. After graduation, Fannie moved to Columbia to attend the University of Missouri. She graduated with a B.A. in 1914 and moved back to St. Louis to attend Washington University.
Marriage, Family, and Political Activism
On October 28, 1915, Fannie married Dr. Jerome E. Cook, a well-known St. Louis doctor. Dr. Cook later became the director of medicine and chief-of-staff at Jewish Hospital, now Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Fannie graduated from Washington University in 1916 with a master’s degree in English. In 1917 her first son, Robert, was born. In 1919, soon after taking a part-time teaching position at Washington University, she gave birth to her second son, Howard.
Throughout the 1920s, Fannie was busy raising her sons and teaching at Washington University. When women got the vote in 1920, Fannie became involved with the St. Louis League of Women Voters, an organization devoted to making democracy work for all citizens. In 1924 she was appointed Chairman of the Education Committee of the League. She worked specifically on improving teacher training for black educators in St. Louis.
In 1930 Fannie was appointed chairman of the Race Relations Committee of the Community Council of St. Louis. She worked on many troubling social problems, one of which was the segregation of St. Louis theaters. In 1939 she called attention to the problem of homeless black sharecroppers in the Missouri Bootheel. She helped raise money to buy land and build homes and schools for the tenant farmers and their families. The project drew the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Fannie’s book Boot-heel Doctor (1941) is about this struggle.
A Writer with a Social Conscience
Fannie believed that literature should have a purpose other than entertainment. She wanted her fiction to reflect the social concerns of the times. She wrote five novels that came out of her own experience as a social activist. They show her personal understanding of racial and religious prejudice. As a Jew, Fannie knew first-hand the bitter taste of prejudice. Jewish people were subjected to unfair treatment all over America and the world. They were not allowed to stay in many hotels, live in certain neighborhoods, or serve on some committees. They were often unjustly blamed for society’s problems.
In 1943, Fannie was appointed to the St. Louis mayor’s Race Relations Commission. In that same year, she helped found the St. Louis People’s Art Center, an art environment for both black and white artists.
Fannie was a productive writer all her life. In addition to novels, she wrote short fiction, journalism, speeches, and poetry. She wrote about joblessness, discrimination, and problems faced by working mothers. Her third novel, Mrs. Palmer’s Honey, was published in 1946 and received the first Doubleday Dorna Award as an “outstanding work dealing with American Negroes.” In it Fannie told the story of Honey Hoop, a young black maid who rises from being a domestic worker to becoming a union organizer in a factory in St. Louis. Fannie drew from her own experience as an organizer of black domestic women and her exposure to segregated housing in St. Louis in the novel. About her city setting she said, “St. Louis is a rich field for any writer . . . I see its failures, its fascinations.”
From 1916 to 1949, Fannie Frank Cook lived, worked, and wrote as a social activist. She died on August 25, 1949, at the age of fifty-six of a heart attack. Though her novels are now out of print and hard to find, her contributions to the welfare of African Americans and other Missourians who suffered from injustice remain visible.
Research and text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O., et al, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 205–6.
Corbett, Katharine T. In Her Place: A Guide to St. Louis Women’s History. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999. pp. 256–58.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 volumes. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Volume 1: 227–28.
White, LeeAnn, et al, eds. Women in Missouri History: In Search of Power and Influence. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004. Pp. 236-252.