Reference Entry

Cooper, Edward Elder

Benjamin R. Justesen

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Cooper, Edward Elder

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journalist, businessman, and civil rights organization leader, was born into slavery, probably near Smyrna, Tennessee, to unnamed parents, and apparently orphaned soon afterward. Little is known of his childhood, except that Cooper moved at an early age to Nashville, where he was educated at the old barracks school for African American children on Knowles Street, later the nucleus of Fisk University.Cooper later recalled working on a farm for two years before he began selling newspapers on passenger trains. He also worked briefly as a hotel waiter in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Centennial Exposition there in 1876. About 1877 Cooper migrated to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he worked as a book-seller and became one of the first African Americans to graduate from the city's Shortridge High School in 1882. He began working for the Railway Mail Service, and soon rose to chief clerk on the Louisville-to-Indianapolis route, but left in 1886 amid allegations of mail tampering.The business of journalism was his preferred profession, and one at which he showed considerable talent. Cooper helped create three of the nation's better-known African American weekly newspapers of the nineteenth century: the Indianapolis Colored World, co-founded with Edwin F. Horn in 1882; the Indianapolis Freeman, launched in 1888; and the Washington, D.C., Colored American, founded in 1893. Though a perfectly adequate writer in his own right, Cooper preferred to hire other writers, including such gifted female writers as Lucy Wilmot Smith and Lillian Thomas Fox, and to concentrate instead on handling front office affairs.His first experiment, the Colored World, was not a financial success, and Cooper soon turned over its operation to the schoolteacher Levi E. Christy in 1885. He then worked briefly as manager of the Baptist Watch-Tower, published in Evansville, Indiana. His next attempt, the Freeman, emerged as a daring, eight-page illustrated newspaper, using correspondents from around the nation and winning rave reviews from observers. In 1891, the editor and author I. Garland Penn called the Freeman “tho in its infancy … the leading paper of the race,” and it was compared favorably to Harper's Weekly for the quality of its cartoons and writing and its focus on regional and national news (Penn, 336).Financial problems finally forced Cooper to sell the newspaper in 1892 to one of his creditors, a prosperous local barber named George L. Knox, for whom he continued to work. Under Knox's ownership, the Freeman remained stable and a fixture of Indianapolis journalism well into the 1920s, and he painted a friendly if ambiguous portrait of Cooper in his memoirs, published in 1979. Others in Indianapolis were less kind than Knox. The World, for instance, in 1891 decried Cooper's business methods and called him “a positive detriment to the race” (Indianapolis World, 26 Dec. 1891).In 1893 Cooper left journalism to work in the Indiana legislature, before moving to Washington, D.C., with his bride, the former Tenie Porter of Kentucky, whom he had wed by 1893. It is not known if they had children. In August of that same year, Cooper's single most enduring venture appeared in the nation's capital, a distinctive new weekly billing itself optimistically as “A National Negro Newspaper.” Cooper listed himself as president and general manager. His Indiana colleague, Richard W. Thompson, once the managing editor of the World, was the most notable of a series of editors at the Colored American, succeeding Thomas J. Calloway and Jesse Lawson in that capacity. The Colored American, well-illustrated and well-written, succeeded beyond all expectations, reportedly achieving a paid circulation of twelve thousand by 1901. It became a determined editorial supporter of the accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington and an enthusiastic booster of many African American politicians, including the nation's only African American congressman at the time, the North Carolina Republican George Henry White; U.S. Treasury Register Judson W. Lyons; and former congressman Henry Plummer Cheatham, then recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia.Cooper was initially active in the new National Afro-American Council, a precursor of the NAACP founded in 1898, presiding over the local council, attending its annual national meetings, and serving until 1901 on the national executive committee of the early civil rights organization. He was also active in the National Afro-American Press Association, and championed both organizations in his newspaper, which appears to have been subsidized quietly by Booker T. Washington. In 1902 Cooper contributed a rare article, on the assassination of President McKinley, to an anthology of works on social and political issues. But success as a publisher did not teach Cooper to live within his means, and by late 1904, the Colored American was out of business, despite Cooper's pleas to Washington and others to rescue the flagging operation. Cooper blamed cash flow problems on delinquent advertisers and subscribers; others blamed his extravagance. His 1905 attempt to merge the paper into the Colored Catholic Herald lasted only one issue. Desperate, Cooper was forced to seek employment as a clerk with the District of Columbia Commission, as was noted by his rival, W. Calvin Chase, editor of Washington's Bee. In 1907 Cooper became a special agent of the U. S. Census Bureau and briefly toured the South to collect religious statistics among poor African Americans there.By 1908 Cooper's short-lived Colored American Novelty Company, which he had founded around 1905, had failed; his last position was performing unspecified duties for a Washington, D.C., steamboat company. A minor stroke in the spring of 1908 left him weakened, although he worked almost until the day of his death in July. Survivors included his wife and an unnamed sister and brother. Cooper was forty-nine and penniless, the victim of overextended dreams and bad luck.His modest home funeral was paid for by his friends, but drew a distinguished crowd to pay tribute, including pallbearers John C. Dancy, Judson W. Lyons, Judge Robert H. Terrell, and Ralph Waldo Tyler. His obituary in Knox's Freeman called Cooper “greatly loved by all who ever worked for him … for none were so genial, of such rare good nature, of supreme wit and tact in troublesome times.” Cooper's mission in life, the newspaper continued, “was to spread printer's ink over men—–to make ‘big Negroes’ greater, mediocre Negroes of some consequence, and little Negroes worth noticing—–by a liberal use of printer's ink” (Indianapolis Freeman, 18 July 1908).

Reference Entry.  1178 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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