Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Helen A. Cook, 1837-1913


By Ciara VanCour, undergraduate student: SUNY Potsdam, Potsdam, NY



Mrs. Helen A. Cook, from The Colored American (Washington, D.C.), June 4, 1898.

Helen Appo Cook was born in the state of New York in 1837, and died in Washington, D.C. of pneumonia and heart failure in 1913. She was born to William Appo and Elizabeth Brady Appo, both African American. Her father was a musician, who taught both music and French when he was not performing, and her mother owned a millinery business. Not much is known concerning Cook's upbringing. It is believed that she was well-educated, as she came from a prominent family, and it has been reported that she could speak French and play the organ with great skill. Through her mother, Helen Appo Cook became familiar with the cause of women's rights. In a letter to Susan B. Anthony in 1898, Cook describes accompanying her mother at a young age to the home of Lucretia Mott where she listened to several speakers discuss human freedom and women's rights. These experiences led her to attend the first suffrage conference held in Washington D.C., which she describes as a disappointment in that women's suffrage was completely ignored, and the suffrage of newly emancipated slaves was the main topic of concern.

In 1864, Helen Appo married John Francis Cook, Jr. and moved to Washington, D.C. where her husband was an educator and tax collector. Together they had five children. The Cook family was one of the most prominent and wealthy black families in the nation's capital at the time. Her in-laws were known for their work in education, religion, politics, and community service.

Upon moving to Washington, D.C., Helen Appo Cook took an interest in the situation of black women. Though some sources report Helen Cook to have been a mere housewife, she was actually a key leader in the women's club movement. In 1892, Cook began working with the Colored Women's League and became its first president, a role that she would continue to fill until 1903. The purpose of the Colored Women's League was to collect facts regarding the moral, social and intellectual development of blacks, to foster unity, to encourage progress, and to determine how best to promote the interests of blacks. The League also held sewing classes, mothers' meetings, held garden parties to raise funds for day nurseries, and offered night classes to black mothers.

In 1895, Cook traveled to Boston where she attended the First National Conference of Colored Women of America. The conference was called in response to an assault on the character of black women by the Missouri Press Association, and lasted for three days. Cook was elected vice president of the conference, and on July 29th addressed her peers calling for unity among black women through the creation of a national league. As a result of the conference, the National Federation of Afro-American Women was created with the goal of restoring the reputation of all black women across the country. A year later, in 1896, Cook's vision of a national league came to fruition when the Colored Women's League and the National Federation of Afro-American Women consolidated under the National Association of Colored Women. The consolidation was the result of much negotiation between the two clubs concerning leadership. The NACW was placed under the leadership of elite and well-educated women (including Helen Cook), who viewed racial uplift as a means of maintaining their own social status. However, Cook has been documented as being genuinely concerned with the welfare of black women and children.

In 1898, Cook joined W.E.B. Du Bois at the Congress of Mothers Conference. In her speech "We Have Been Hindered: How Can We Be Help?" (See p. 50 of Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention of the National Congress of Mothers) Cook denounced the tendency for whites to identify negative behavior traits as inherent among blacks. Instead, Cook explained that such traits were the effects of poverty and prejudice, to which blacks had disproportionately fallen victim. In 1906 at the age of sixty-nine, Cook continued her reform efforts by joining the Niagara Movement. Led by Du Bois, the Niagara Movement explicitly and forcefully condemned racial discrimination and segregation. Its members, like Helen Cook, demanded economic and educational opportunities, as well as the right to vote for both black men and women.

Helen Appo Cook's spirit as a leader is best captured in an article from the Washington Colored Women, which noted "Under her intelligent, tactful and energetic leadership a magnificent organization has been perfected, and many reforms helpful to our women, have been instituted."


Wikipedia sketch of Helen A. Cook. Accessed online at

Report of the Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention of the National Congress of Mothers, Held in the City of Washington, D.C., May 2nd-7th, 1898, by The National Congress of Mothers. (Philadelphia, PA: Geo F. Lasher, 1899).

Carle, Susan D. Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford U.P., 2015.

Gordon, Ann D. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: An Awful Hush, 1895 to 1906. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers U.P., 2013

Moore, Jacqueline M. Leading the Race: The Transformation of the Black Elite in the Nation's Capital, 1880-1920. Charlottesville, Va: U of Virginia P, 1999.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Washington Colored American (Washington), May 27, 1899, quoted in Jessie Carney Smith, Notable Black American Women, Book II (Detroit: Gale Research, 1992), 139.

"We Have Been Hindered" speech can be found at:

"Congress of Mothers . . . Mrs. Helen A. Cook's Eloquent Defense of Negro Character—the Spirit of Imitation and Environment Responsible for Alleged Race Traits and Tendencies." Washington Colored American, June 4, 1898.

Find-a-grave death record at


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