Mary Virginia Cook Parrish (1863-1945), Louisville educator, journalist, orator

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This biosketch was written by Dr. Carol Mattingly, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Louisville. For her full project on “African American Women and Suffrage in Louisville,” visit https://arcg.is/1O8muW.


Mary Virginia Cook was born near Bowling Green Kentucky where, despite a limited formal education, she was invited to teach in a private school, the Bowling Green Academy, because of her intellectual aptitude. She came to the attention of William Simmons and of the New England American Baptist Woman’s Hope Society, who supported her education, in New England and at Louisville’s State University. She graduated at the top of both her normal school in 1883 and of her college class in 1887, becoming principal of the normal school and teacher of Latin and Mathematics at State University.

Mary Cook was active both locally and nationally. In 1893, she was elected recording secretary of the National Baptist Educational Convention and one of only two women who sat on its executive board, serving with twenty men. She was president of the Calvary Church King’s Daughters Missionary Society and helped to found the powerful Baptist Woman’s Convention in 1900; she became corresponding secretary for the convention, a post she held for forty-two years. She organized the first parent-teacher organization for parents of children in Louisville’s Colored Schools; helped, successfully, to petition for the city’s first African American playground; co-founded the Phillis Wheatley branch of the YWCA; helped to found the Kentucky Association of Colored Women; and, served on numerous boards. She traveled the state widely and nationally as well, to raise money for State University.

In 1892, Cook joined the faculty of Eckstein Norton Institute, a newly established industrial training school for African Americans in Bullitt County. In 1898 she married the president of Eckstein Norton, the Reverend Charles H. Parrish. The couple had one child, Charles H. Parrish, Jr., who became the first African American faculty member at the previously all-white University of Louisville in 1951, when the University absorbed its segregated unit, Municipal College.

Mary Cook Parrish was acclaimed for her rhetorical skills. While still in her twenties, she was speaking nationally at the American National Baptist Convention (1887), at the National Press Convention (1887), and at the American Home Mission Society (1888). She was a member of the Executive Committee of the Colored Press Association and second Vice President of the Woman’s Congress, a precursor to the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). She served as an officer and statistician in the NACW, where, still a young woman, she was received so well by the audience at her first speech to this body that she was granted additional time to speak. She wrote for a variety of newspapers, often under the pen name Grace Ermine, in a variety of genres. By 1887 she was editing a column for The South Carolina Tribune and the Little Rock Sun and representing these newspapers at the Colored Press Association. She also edited the woman’s column of the American Baptist and acted as education editor for the Baptist Our Women and Children.

Parrish developed fine business skills, lending her expertise to numerous organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women, where she served as statistician and treasurer; churches and institutions where her husband was pastor or president; the Urban League; and the YWCA. She became vice president of Domestic Life and Accident Insurance Company in Louisville. A mentor for Nannie Burroughs, who had lived with the Parrishes for several years when she arrived in Louisville, Mary Parrish served on the Board of Burroughs’s National Training School, traveling to the school for special occasions, such as commencement exercises.

Parrish was active politically as well. In 1892 she joined a large group of Black women in Frankfort to protest a proposed state law requiring African Americans to ride in segregated railway cars. Cook and Lavinia Sneed were two of the five women given time to speak before the General Assembly. She helped to organize and became the first president of the West End Colored Republican Women’s Club. Beginning in 1921 she served as GOP delegate to the local Republican party convention and was elected captain of the 8th ward; by at least 1932 she was serving as delegate to the State Republican Convention and alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago. She helped to organize Republican rallies and spoke in support of Republican candidates. Her activism was not received well by local Democratic officials. In 1926, they charged that she and sixteen other women, including fellow suffragists Eliza Kellar and Sylvia Butcher, were paid by the Republican Party to influence the election; the Democrats tried to have election results thrown out. When questioned by officials at a hearing Democrats had demanded, Parrish openly admitted her service to the GOP in canvassing her neighborhood and encouraging those eligible to vote, which, of course, was legal. The election results stood.

A quotation from a young Mary Cook perhaps best exemplifies her dignified yet adamant reproof of whites for their treatment of African Americans:

White faces seem to think it their heaven-born right to practice civil war on negroes (sic), to the extent of blood-shed and death. They look upon the life of their brother in Black as a bubble to be blown away at their pleasure. The same spirit that existed in the South twenty-four years ago, is still recognized in its posterity. The negro is still clothed in swarthy skin and he is still robbed of his rights as a citizen, made dear and fairly won to him by the death of those who fell in the late Rebellion. This outrage cannot endure. (quoted in I. Garland Penn)

Mary Virginia Cook Parrish and her husband are buried side-by-side in Louisville Cemetery, with individual gravestones. Her son Charles Parrish, Jr. is also named on her stone.

*** Sources ***

  • Advocate: 15 August 1924.
  • American Baptist: 8 January 1904.
  • Broad Ax: 16 April 1924; 9 August 1924; 16 August 1924.
  • Cleveland Gazette: 10 August 1912; 8 September 1917.
  • Dunnigan, Alice Allison. The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Traditions. Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, Inc. 1982. 230-31; 287.
  • Enterprise: 11 January 1896.
  • [Indianapolis] Freeman: 23 May 1896; 6 June 1908; 15 October 1910; 6 June 1917.
  • Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Huntsville Gazette: 8 September 1894.
  • Kansas Whip: 24 September 1937.
  • [Louisville] Courier Journal: [as Cook] 19 September 1884; 25 May 1888; 17 June 1891; 16 April 1892; 13 October 1893; 17 December 1893. [as Parrish] 5 October 1909; 6 October 1907; 8 October 1907; 2 October 1908; 25 June 1909; 16 July 1910; 6 August 1911; 5 January 1918; 30 June 1921; 5 March 1926; 28 April 1932.
  • Louisville Leader: 3 June 1922; 8 December 1923; 25 August 1928; 20 October 1928; 15 December 1928; 7 June 1930; 25 October 1930; 28 February 1931; 18 April 1931; 25 April 1931; 25 July 1931; 23 April 1932; 22 October 1932; 20 October 1934.
  • McDaniel, Karen Cotton. “Local Women: The Public Lives of Black Middle Class Women in Kentucky Before the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” PhD dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2013.
  • New York Freeman: 20 August 1887.
  • Penn, I. Garland. The Afro-American Press, and Its Editors. Springfield, MA: Willey and Company 1891.
  • Owen, Tom. “Mary Cook Parrish: Noted Educator and Religious Worker.” Louisville Defender (February 18, 1982): 1.
  • Saint Louis Baptist Journal: 20 August 1887.
  • Smith, Gerald L., Karen Cotton McDanial, and John A. Hardin, eds. The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 180, 397--98.
  • Smith, Lucy Harth, ed. Pictorial Directory of the Kentucky Association of Colored Women. Lexington: Kentucky Association of Colored Women, 1945.
  • Scruggs, L. A. Women of Distinction, Remarkable in Works and Invisible in Character. Raleigh, NC: L. A. Scruggs, Publisher, 1893. Google Books. 120-28.
  • Washington Bee: 13 June 1896; 2 October 1909; 15 August 1914; 9 June 1917; 9 August 1919.
  • Williams, Lawrence H. The Charles H. Parrishes: Pioneers in African-American Religion and Education, 1880-1890. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.
  • Williams, Lillian Serece, ed. Records of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, 1895-1992. Bethesda, MD. University Publications of America, 1995. Part 1, Reel 1: frames 00289, 00305, 00308, 00310, 00331, 00333, 00335, 00336, 00341, 00356, 00363, 00368; Part 2. Reel 8, frame 00749; Reel 24, frame 00484.