Born in Mankato, Minn., and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Marvel Jackson Cooke moved to New York in 1926 and worked as secretary for W. E. B. DuBois, editor of The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Later, she worked for The Amsterdam News and The People’s Voice in Harlem.
At The Amsterdam News, she helped organize a unit of the American Newspaper Guild, which struck for 11 weeks in 1935. On the picket line, she met Benjamin J. Davis, later a New York City Council member, who invited her to join the Communist Party.
In 1949, she went to work for The Daily Compass, a successor to the experimental newspaper PM. ”There were no black workers there and no women,” Ms. Cooke said in 1988. At the time of her hiring, The Chicago Defender, a black-owned paper, called Ms. Cooke the first black woman to get a job as a reporter on a mainstream white-owned paper.
Ms. Cooke’s race helped her gain access to certain news events. On one occasion, she was assigned to write about killings committed by a young black man who had been sent home to Brownsville, Brooklyn, from a prison for the criminally insane. The family talked to her while the community barred The Compass’s white reporter, Ms. Cooke told Kay Mills in an interview for a 1988 book, ”A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Page.”
Ms. Cooke wrote a series about the exploitation of domestic workers. She went to a pickup point in the Bronx to be hired with others seeking work by the day. Some on the corner warned her about employers who turned clocks back so they could pay less, even though the pay was only 80 cents an hour. Sure enough, the woman who hired her tried this trick, but Ms. Cooke insisted on being paid for the full five hours of scrubbing and ironing.
The Compass promoted the series with truck signs that said: ”Read: I Was a Slave, by Marvel Cooke.”
After The Compass closed on Nov. 3, 1952, Ms. Cooke left journalism and worked for left-leaning organizations like the Committee for the Arts, Sciences and Professions and, later, the Angela Davis Defense Fund.
Ms. Cooke’s husband, Cecil Cooke, died in 1978. She is survived by a sister, Helen Wilkins Claytor of Grand Rapids, Mich., a former national president of the Y.W.C.A.