Illustrated collage portrait of Cora Belle Jackson

Cora Belle Jackson, AB 1896, led a life of teaching and service. Her portrait here is based on a 1919 photograph that appeared in the Chicago Defender. (Illustration by Nadia Radic)

An unseen life

The untold story of Cora Belle Jackson, AB 1896, the first Black graduate of the University of Chicago.

The University of Chicago student body was racially integrated on the very first day of classes in 1892, but just barely. Its first cohort included a single Black student, Cora Belle Jackson. When she graduated in October 1896, she became the University’s first Black alumna (or alumnus). So it says in the FAQs on the University’s website. So it was noted in the exhibition Integrating the Life of the Mind: African Americans at the University of Chicago, which was presented in what is now the Regenstein Library’s Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center from 2008 to 2009. Cora Jackson’s enrollment and graduation are the entirety of the information the University has previously given about her—and nearly the entirety of the information it ever compiled about her. Of the path that brought her to the University of Chicago and of the life she led afterward, there has been hardly a word.

Cora Jackson, it turns out, is remarkable not only—indeed, not chiefly—for being the first Black graduate of the University of Chicago. In the 46 years after her graduation, she devoted herself to the “achievements and common welfare of the Race,” to quote a report in the Chicago Defender, and herself made important contributions to those ends. That she lived a life unnoticed by the University, her classmates, and her teachers is a testament to the segregation of knowledge, concern, and experience even in an outwardly integrated institution in her time.

On that first day of classes in 1892, Cora Belle Jackson entered the Academic College, as the freshmen and sophomores were then known. She had come as a transfer student from Howard University in Washington, DC. Although the official register listed a Hyde Park address, 5429 Jackson (now Maryland) Avenue, she was not a Chicagoan. She was born in her mother’s hometown of Detroit in 1873, and the family soon moved to her father’s adopted state, Ohio, where her younger brother, Harvey Cook Jackson, was born three years later.

Jackson’s father and mother were free Blacks, born before the Civil War into Virginia families who came north. Her father, James, was a steward and her mother, Virginia Cook, known as Jennie, was a seamstress. The Cook side of the family put a high value on education. Jennie Jackson’s father, Major Cook, was a skilled craftsman, a shoemaker. Her eldest sibling, John Hartwell Cook, graduated from Oberlin College and worked as an agent and the chief clerk in the Freedmen’s Bureau, the government agency created to assist the nation’s new Black citizens.

John H. Cook undertook the study of the law in 1869 as a member of Howard’s first law school class and later served as a professor and dean of the school. His wife, Belle Lewis Cook, was also a graduate of Oberlin and an instructor at Howard. They lived on the Howard campus. (The site of their home is now a marked stop on Washington’s African American Heritage Trail.) Their son, Will Marion Cook, four years older than his cousin Cora, studied with Antonin Dvořák and made a celebrated career as a composer of songs and musicals for vaudeville and as a mentor to musicians like Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington.

The last Cook sibling, Lucinda, 10 years younger than Jennie and 24 younger than John, attended the preparatory school at Oberlin College. She then moved to Washington to board with her brother’s family and attend Howard’s “model [high] school” and its teacher’s college, or normal school. She later took summer courses at New York University. After graduation Lucinda Cook taught in the segregated public schools in Washington for more than 15 years, rising to principal. At the turn of the century, she moved to Baltimore’s school system for Black students, where she served as a school “supervisor” (principal) and as a teacher in the system’s normal school. (She spent the last 22 years of her career affiliated with the normal school at Wilberforce in Ohio, the first college sponsored and led by African Americans.)

Eleven years younger than Lucinda, Cora Jackson followed her aunts’ and uncle’s path to Washington and better opportunities. As we shall see, Lucinda Cook was likely also involved in the early moves of her niece’s teaching career.

In 1891, after graduating from the “academic course” of a public high school in Washington, Jackson started her studies at Howard as a senior in its college preparatory department. The Howard directory listed her home (permanent) address as St. Paul, Minnesota. According to the city directories for 1890 and 1891, she also worked as a teacher in Washington, residing at an address on the Howard campus, even before her own graduation from secondary school.

When she arrived in Chicago in 1892, Jackson was the second recipient of a University of Chicago scholarship awarded to the top scorer on the entrance examinations. While a student, she was active in the campus chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), serving as chair of the prayer, missionary, and proper meeting committees and as the vice president during her final year. She also participated in the YWCAs in the city. In 1896 she played a bit part in an “entertainment” at the Auditorium Theatre titled “Thirty Years of Freedom,” the proceeds for the benefit of Provident Hospital, founded five years before as Chicago’s first Black hospital.

Graduating from the College of Arts, Literature, and Science with a degree in English pedagogy in October 1896, Jackson embarked on a career in which Christianity, education, and the condition of Black women would remain at the center of her concerns.

In 1897 Jackson relocated to Indianapolis, teaching in public high schools. Four years later she moved on to Baltimore and the Colored High and Training School, where she shared a residence with her aunt Lucinda Cook. Jackson stayed in Baltimore for seven years, earning a reputation, her principal indicated, as “one of the most influential and winning teachers our school has ever had.” In 1908 Howard called her back to be the “preceptress in charge of the young women of the school”: the matron of the women’s residence, Miner Hall. Reporting on her arrival, a Howard publication noted that Jackson’s mother, Jennie, had come along to assist her, having earlier stayed “with her through her college course in Chicago University.” (A few months earlier, women in Miner Hall had founded Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black college sorority, and held its first induction in Miner Hall during Jackson’s tenure.)

She stayed only one year. In 1909 Jackson became the secretary of the “Colored Branch” of the YWCA in New York City. At Howard, the YWCA announced, “her broad Christian culture, superior intellect, tact and ability in dealing with young women attracted much attention, [and] she comes to us with the highest recommendations.” She managed the Y’s facilities and programs on West 53rd Street in Manhattan. She also gave public talks, in 1910 delivering a lecture on “The relation of education to the economical problems of the colored girl.”

After 18 months at the Y, in 1911, despite positive appraisals of her work in the Black press, Jackson abruptly resigned, offering no explanation. Apparently, she went back to education. The 1915 New York Census found her living on West 63rd Street, employed as a teacher, perhaps in a “progressive” school (like UChicago’s Laboratory Schools). She stayed engaged with the YWCA and Howard University. At a YWCA meeting in 1915, she gave readings to accompany a performance of Howard’s Dunbar Male Quartet. She was still in New York City in 1917, when she accepted confirmation in the Episcopal Church in a service at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

It was during this time, in the 1910s, that the University of Chicago lost track of her. The 1910 Alumni Directory identified her as a high school teacher in Baltimore. The 1913 edition found her in New York at the address of the YWCA. In 1919, however, the Alumni Association had no record of her location. In 1946, in anticipation of the 50th reunion of her graduating class—the University then considered her a member of the Class of 1897—the Alumni Association appealed for information about the whereabouts of 15 of its members, including her. Cora Jackson, though, was hidden in plain sight—if anyone had the habits to notice or the inclination to look.

As it happened, 1919 was perhaps the most eventful single year in Jackson’s life. In May she took a husband, at age 45. Her bridegroom, Samuel R. Parchment, was an immigrant from Jamaica, British West Indies, who had recently worked as a shoemaker. He was 38. They married in an Episcopal ceremony at St. Cyprian’s Chapel on 63rd Street. She registered her name as Cora Isabel Jackson and thereafter was known as Cora I. Parchment or Cora J. Parchment.

A few weeks later, the New York Police Department announced Parchment’s appointment as a “policewoman.” She was the first African American female officer in its 64-year history. The news appeared in the New York Herald and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle; on page 1 of the New York Age and the Birmingham Reporter, both Black newspapers; and in three brief notices in the Chicago Defender, one a front pager.

Parchment was assigned to work in Harlem, her duties “to investigate conditions in the dance halls and other places frequented by girls.” She saw it as a continuation of the pastoral work that had defined her entire career. A Defender correspondent recounted her activities in Indianapolis, Baltimore, and New York, and noted her University of Chicago degree. “When a reporter called on Mrs. Parchment, who looks many years younger than 45, he was made welcome by an educated and unassuming woman who consistently declined to accept publicity, a scholar very much interested in the achievements and common welfare of the Race,” he wrote. “She has been resident here for nine years, during which time she has been interested as an active worker in uplift movements.”

Cora Parchment’s police career did not last long. A year later, a Census taker recorded her occupation as “none.” She lived with her husband and mother on West 138th Street in Harlem. He reported his occupation as “real estate agent,” a business in which she probably staked him.

Her marriage also did not last long. By 1921 the couple had separated, and Samuel Parchment was in California, supporting himself as a teacher of theosophy, a modern esoteric religion with influences from Hellenistic philosophy, Hinduism, and Buddhism. A devout Christian, Cora derided his beliefs before his students and to his face as “the bunk” (or so he said in his divorce suit); a California court granted him a divorce in 1927.

Soon after the separation, Cora Parchment was again found in New York. Over the next 20 years she moved back and forth between Manhattan and Yonkers. In 1925 she was a “volunteer social worker” at St. Cyprian’s, the church in which she was married. The 1925 New York Census recorded her living in Yonkers with her nephew and her mother, employed as a “real estate operator.” In 1927 and 1928 she was active in Republican Party politics in Yonkers. In 1930 she and her mother were back in Manhattan, lodging in the Harlem home of an immigrant from British Guiana. Cora reported being married. Both women worked in “private homes,” Cora as a teacher, Jennie as a seamstress. (Jennie died in Manhattan in 1932.)

The 1940 Census found her again in Yonkers, still “married,” although actually long divorced, and apparently retired. She died in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1942, the coroner ruling her death accidental but the circumstances suggesting suicide: she was “found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning … while seated in her [niece’s] automobile.” Police investigators discovered she had vacated her home in Yonkers a month earlier and was employed as a live-in maid in Pelham, a mile from where she was found. Whether accidental or intentional, it was a tragic end to a notable life of service.

No word of her passing made its way back to the University of Chicago. How did it happen that the first Black graduate died in obscurity? Did she become estranged from the University, or did she simply drift away? Did she have no friends who kept in touch, not even the other YWCA women? Did she have no classmates who followed her career, no professors who charted her professional achievements, not even the other pedagogues? Did nobody who knew her read the Chicago Defender?

Sadly, for her and for us, the answers are not difficult to imagine.

John Mark Hansen is the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science and the College and the author of The City in a Garden: A Guide to the History of Hyde Park and Kenwood (Chicago Studies Publication Series, 2019).