Black Women Suffragists --- The APPO Women by Sandra Weber
Colored Women's League of Washington
In the years leading up to the 100-year anniversary of women winning the vote, I started looking for Essex County suffragists. I found many local white women and men, and white summer people, and famous white visitors associated with the suffrage movement. There were also prominent black men, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, who visited the area and were supporters of woman suffrage. Eventually, I discovered one black woman suffragist, Helen Appo, mentioned in Blacks in the Adirondacks by Sally E. Svenson.
Helen Appo’s father was William Appo, a notable musician from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who purchased 148 acres of land near Lake Placid, NY, in 1848. He settled among a community of black farmers known as “Timbucto” and became good friends with abolitionist John Brown and his family. Svenson’s book said that Appo’s daughter Helen married into the wealthy Cook family of the District of Columbia and became famous as founder and president of the Colored Women's League, a precursor to the National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACW). Amazing!
As I searched for more information about Helen Appo Cook, I discovered that Helen’s mother, Elizabeth Brady Appo, and Helen’s daughter, Elizabeth Appo Cook, were also involved in the women’s movement. Here were three notable black woman suffragists with a link, albeit a tenuous link, to the Adirondacks.
Schoolteacher ELIZABETH BRADY APPO (1818-1863) of French and Spanish origin married musician William Appo in 1836 when she was about 18. The next year, she gave birth to daughter Helen and later, more children. At that time, William and Elizabeth lived in New York City where she owned a millinery business. In the 1840s, they lived in Philadelphia and Mrs. Appo often took young Helen with her to Sunday afternoon meetings at the home of Quaker Lucretia Mott, leader of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Association.
Women formed the anti-slavery group because men banned them from speaking at most other anti-slavery meetings. In addition to working to abolish slavery, the interracial PFAA addressed women’s rights. (In 1848, Lucretia Mott would organize the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.) However, in 1849, fourteen black women decided to form an all-black group that would better serve the anti-slavery cause and the immediate needs of the free black community.
Elizabeth Appo was elected president of the meeting to form the Women’s Association of Philadelphia. The prominent abolitionist Martin Delaney addressed the gathering and even prepared a constitution, which stated the main goal: “the Elevation of the Colored People in the United States by Self-Exertion.” Funds raised by the group were used to support Frederick Douglass’ newly-launched North Star newspaper and public lecturers devoted to the elevation of blacks.
HELEN APPO (1837-1913) inherited a passion for abolition and woman’s rights from her mother, while her father passed along his musical and linguist talents (in addition to playing music, William taught music and French classes). At age 20, Helen completed teacher training at Colored Normal School in New York City, and her graduation, along with that of her friend Elizabeth Jennings, made the pages of the Liberator newspaper. At the elaborate diploma ceremony for new teachers in the city, the two girls of “darker complexion” were pulled from the line and given their diplomas in private.
The diploma incident caught the attention of Susan B. Anthony, who then railed against racial discrimination in a speech at the New York State Teachers’ Convention. She said the exclusion of black children from public schools and colleges was “the result of a wicked prejudice against color.” She called the exclusion of Helen Appo and Elizabeth Jennings from the diploma presentation “a gross insult to their scholarship and their womanhood.”
Mrs. Helen Appo Cook
In 1863, Helen Appo moved to Washington, DC, and married John Francis Cook Jr., a trustee of Howard University and one of the wealthiest black men in the city. In addition to woman suffrage, Helen Appo Cook supported other social causes, such as the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children, which helped find suitable home, board, clothing, and education for poor women and children.
A few years later, Cook attended the first national suffrage convention in DC. Since the event was organized by the local Universal Franchise Association, she expected support for voting rights for black men and for black and white women. Instead, she heard repulsive talk about the inconsistency of “newly-emancipated slaves” getting the right to vote while “cultivated white women” remained disenfranchised. Cook complained to Susan B. Anthony, saying: “It was an appeal to prejudice, as unexpected as it was disappointing.”
Almost thirty years later, in 1898, Helen Appo Cook expressed her “pained surprise” to read that Anthony was still using the same argument. Cook sent a letter to Anthony, condemning her for comparing the voting rights of “ex-slaves” with the large number of women of “high intellectual rank” who must admit their political inferiority. She suggested that Anthony abandon the old argument of disparaging views of black men, and instead, promote the cause of universal suffrage. Base women’s right to vote “wholly on right and justice,” said Cook.
By the 1890s, Cook had became a well-known and respected figure in DC, “a lady of the highest culture and social attainments.” However, she was also said to be “unassuming, modest and courteous to all.”
Along with Charlotte Forten Grimke, Mary Church Terrell, and other prominent women, Helen Appo Cook organized the Washington Colored Woman's League in 1892. Its goal was "the education and improvement of colored women and the promotion of their interests." The varied efforts of the League included starting a sewing school and “mending bureau,” and holding classes on subjects from English Literature to Hygiene and Dress. As president of the League for ten years, Cook was “a remarkably energetic executive officer and a lady of culture and refinement,” reported the Evening Star. She put her heart and soul into the work of building the League and extending it into a National League, believing that “in Union there is Strength.”
In July of 1896, members of the National League (led by Helen Appo Cook) and the Federation of Afro-American Women (led by Mrs. Booker T. Washington) met for a convention in Washington, DC. The groups considered merging with twenty other smaller groups, but members held differences of opinion on religious belief, suffrage, and temperance. For example, one woman said: “Our aim is to cultivate the home virtues first . . . . When we have made the colored women perfect wives and mothers, then we shall set about making them politicians.”
Later in 1896, the organizations merged to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) with Mary Church Terrell elected president. While Cook continued to be active in the NACW and the Washington League, she was becoming known to black political leaders. At the request of W.E.B. DuBois, she spoke at the Congress of Mothers Conference. In her speech “We Have Been Hindered: How Can We Be Help?”, Cook denounced the tendency for whites to identify negative behavior traits as inherent among blacks. She explained that such traits were the effects of poverty and prejudice, to which blacks had disproportionately fallen victim.
Helen’s husband, John Cook, also supported DuBois and became a member of the Niagara Movement, which strongly opposed discrimination and segregation. In 1906, Helen Appo Cook (age 69) accompanied her husband John to Harpers Ferry for the second national meeting of the Niagara Movement. Although Helen could not participate in the proceedings (as a woman, she was not eligible for membership), she joined the barefoot walk through the field circling the refurbished engine house known as the John Brown Fort. Before leaving Harpers Ferry, the group decided to admit women and Helen Cook became an associate member of the Niagara Movement.
Melodeon belonging to Ruth Brown Thompson (Kansas Historical Society)
Did Helen Appo Cook realize the connection between her father and John Brown? That they were Essex County neighbors for several years? That John Brown bought a melodeon from Mr. Appo as a wedding gift for his daughter Ruth? Ruth Brown Thompson recalled that Mr. Appo gave her music lessons and was a fine musician and wonderfully sweet singer. After the tragedy of Harper Ferry, Mr. Appo sympathized deeply with the Brown family in their sorrow and grief. Hopefully, further research can reveal details about the connection between North Elba and the Appo women.
Professor, Howard University, Elizabeth Appo Cook
Helen’s daughter, ELIZABETH APPO COOK (1864-1953), inherited traits of her grandmother Elizabeth and mother Helen. She possessed beauty and linguistic talent and became a professor of French and Spanish at Howard University, where her father was a trustee. She also excelled as a leader of young women. For example, when nine black students wanted to form a sorority at Howard University in 1908, Elizabeth Appo Cook served as faculty advisor. The Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority was the first black women's collegiate sisterhood, and when it incorporated in 1913, it became the first national incorporated Greek-letter organization for black college women.
The recent film, “Twenty Pearls,” documents the story of how these nine black women changed history. The Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority is still dedicated in sisterhood to live and work "by culture and by merit." It has thousands of alumni, including Kamala Harris, Vice-President of the United States.