The Church and School That Jake Cook Built
In May of 1870, a baby was
born to George and Amelia Cook, former slaves of Judge J.B. Cooke of Athens.
The baby boy was named Jacob Lincoln Cook. By 1878, both George and Amelia
had died, and young Jacob, or Jake as he was called, was taken in by two other
former slaves, “Uncle” Nelse and “Aunt” Hildy Gettys. The Gettys seemed to
have taken great care in allowing Jake to obtain an education.
Jake became a dedicated and accomplished student, so much that he caught the attention of a local physician, Dr. Parkinson. With Parkinson’s help, Jake obtained a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. An excellent singer, Jake became a member of the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers.
After attending Fisk, Jake enrolled in Knoxville College. Jake paid his way through hard work and support from people back home in Athens, both black and white. After his graduation in 1888 he entered Allegheny Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, intent on becoming a Presbyterian minister. In April of 1890 he obtained his license as a minister, and returned to Athens where he established a Presbyterian mission in a building occasionally used as a dance hall. After two years of work, Jake founded the First United Presbyterian Church in a newly constructed building on Jackson Street, on the dance hall property owned by Uncle Nelse Gettys. In The History of First United Presbyterian Church, Athens, TN , it is recorded that “The Reverend J. L. Cook, a forceful and eloquent speaker, attracted many of the young people from the other churches, and many of them joined, forming the first congregation.” Jake continued for several years as its minister.
Having reaped the benefits of
his own education, Jake, along with the assistance of the Presbyterian Church,
organized a small three-room school called the Academy of Athens, located near
the Southern Depot on the hill above the town. According to the website of
Jake’s grandson, Jean Lawrence Cook, MD, most black schools in Tennessee at
that time were one-room schools with only one teacher. The Athens Academy was
certainly an exception.
By this time, Jake’s first wife, Pocahontas Gibson, had died. He then married Zella Cornelia Lawrence in 1898, a pretty young woman he’d met in Boston. She would give Jake a son, and cared for the daughter from his previous marriage as if she were her own.
Jake remained at Athens Academy until the summer of1900 when he was appointed as the first black President of Henderson Normal Institute in North Carolina. Zella died shortly afterward from typhoid fever in 1900, leaving Jake twice widowed with two young children. After a short while, he married a young woman named Amelia. But again, the marriage would be cut short by death when Amelia died in childbirth on February 9, 1903. Now thrice widowed, and at only 33 years old, Jake’s remarkable life ended when died on July 5th of the same year.
In 1925, twenty-two years after Jake’s death, the Athens Academy was destroyed by fire. The school continued to be held in the United Presbyterian Church, but a desire remained to build a new school to continue the educational tradition begun by Jake Cook. With funding from McMinn County, the City of Athens, and the Rosenwald Fund, a new all-black public school was built and opened December 10, 1926. Known as J.L. Cook School, the building had six classrooms, an auditorium, and six teachers including the principal, W.E. Nash. There were 150 pupils enrolled. As it grew in both reputation and enrollment, the school was enlarged to two stories and became the J. L. Cook High School, known throughout the state and the south as one of the premier black schools. It continued as such for several decades until the desegregation movement in the 1960’s when J.L. Cook High School was a victim of the movement’s good intentions. While the black community supported continuing the Cook School, the local education officials felt that an all-black school was no longer needed in McMinn County. And, so, J.L. Cook High School was closed forever in 1966.
J.L. Cook High School is gone, but Jake’s legacy is remembered in the park where the school once stood, as well as in the Presbyterian Church building that still stands as a landmark in Athens. Spread throughout the south today are people who are Cook School alumni. With their basic education obtained within the halls of Cook School, they continue the work of its founder, a man who through education and a care for his fellow men, rose above his humble roots, born in a community with strong ties between its people, regardless of race.
Joe D. Guy is a nationally published author, newspaper columnist, and historian residing in McMinn County, TN. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at PO Box 489, Englewood, TN 37329.