Dr. Cook was the first African American woman to earn the Ph.D. in Philosophy (Yale, 1965). Her areas of specialization included value theory, ethics, and social and political philosophy. We learned yesterday that she passed away on June 6, 2014.
In addition to being the first African American woman to earn the Ph.D. in Philosophy in the United States "Cook also broke the barrier against hiring female assistant instructors at Yale College to teach fields other than foreign languages. Indeed, she was the first woman appointee to teach in the philosophy department at Yale College (September 1959 to June 1961) and the first African-American woman to teach in the philosophy department at Howard University (September 1970 to June 1976). She has also taught philosophy at Connecticut College and Wellsley College. Cook received her A.B., with distinction in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College (1955). She also received her B.A. and M.A. from Oxford University (1957, 1961) with honors in a double major: philosophy and psychology. She went on to receive her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University (1965). Between 1959 and 1961, Cook was managing editor of The Review of Metaphysics (Yale University). Her area of specialization is value theory." (This quote is excerpted from George Yancy's African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations.)
When imagining what the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers Inaugural Conference (2007) would look like, the image would not have been complete without Dr. Cook’s presence. I was able to obtain her contact information through correspondences with Adrian Piper, the first African American woman to be tenured in philosophy. When I called Dr. Cook on the phone I did not know what to expect (in terms of her reaction to my call). I rehearsed how I would tell her about the Collegium and invite her to be our esteemed honoree (without sounding like a telemarketer). When she accepted the invitation (and then promptly requested that I send her the details in writing) I was both relieved and ecstatic. I followed up our phone conversation with the following letter:
Dear Doctor Joyce Mitchell Cook:
Please receive this letter as a follow up to our telephone conversation on Saturday (February 17, 2007). As I mentioned during our discussion, my name is Kathryn T. Gines and I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. With a great deal of support and encouragement, I have launched a philosophical organization under the title “Collegium of Black Women Philosophers” and I write to ask you to be our honored guest at the inaugural conference to be held OCTOBER 19-20, 2007. Your acceptance of this invitation means that your travel expenses and hotel accommodations during the conference will be paid for by the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers. I will contact you again by telephone so that we may make the travel and hotel arrangements on your behalf.
The award reception in your honor will be held on Friday October 19, 2007. During this reception, we will present you with an award for being the first African American woman to earn the Ph.D. in Philosophy in the United States and for your outstanding achievements in the profession. I believe that each generation should honor the generation that came before (and made a way for) them. You have truly laid the foundation for all of us to come into the discipline of Philosophy after you. Please accept this invitation and allow us this opportunity to recognize and honor your contributions!
If you have any questions, please contact me at work (615) xxx-xxxx or at home (615) xxx-xxxx.
Kathryn T. Gines, Ph.D.
Director, Collegium of Black Women Philosophers
Dr. Cook replied to my letter with the following note:
Dear Dr. Gines:
Thank you for your prompt follow-up letter to our telephone conversation of Saturday before last. I very much appreciate having received also the Internet information you sent me. I had no idea your organization was so far along in its mission statement, which seems to me to have anticipated the major ways in which newcomers to the profession may benefit from advice from those who have been there. My personal reaction is that I was born 40 years too soon, if indeed people any longer say such a thing!
I, too, look forward to our meeting in person along with all of the others. Adrian Piper introduced me to Anita Allen about 15 or so years ago when she was still at Georgetown. And I may have met a few others who may be there. So it will be a reunion for some of us, I hope.
All the best in your arrangements.
Joyce Mitchell Cook
I read this note with a smile. Again this was an encouraging moment for me as sent what seemed like hundreds of emails trying to locate black women in philosophy, invite them all to this conference, and as I organized the conference. How fortunate we are to have had the opportunity to recognize and celebrate this phenomenal woman who paved the way for each of us to be here.
At the inaugural conference, I presented Dr. Joyce Mitchell Cook with a “Flame Award” intended to represent the flame within her that made her a trailblazer and example to each one of us. It also represents the light that she has been to our paths, knowing that if she could do it, and if the others like Angela Davis, Adrian Piper, and Anita Allen could do it, then yes, we too could become philosophers. The award read: “The Collegium of Black Women Philosophers honors Dr. Joyce Mitchell Cook. First African American Woman to earn a Ph.D. in Philosophy. CBWP Inaugural Conference. October 19, 2007.”
In addition to the “Flame Award” the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers presented Joyce Mitchell Cook with Mahogany Photo Album, which I later filled with photographic memories of the inaugural conference as a way of commemorating the conference and our tribute to her.
The Collegium of Black Women Philosophers welcomes more posts reflecting on Joyce Mitchell Cook.
George Yancy has noted: the family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Avenue, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 19010, in memory of Dr. Joyce Mitchell Cook.