By Penny Marler
Cotton was King in the antebellum South. The cotton trade was built on slavery, and so was Apalachicola. As a Gulf port town, shipping merchants and local households were the largest slaveowners. Slave women cleaned, cooked, sewed, and tended the children of their owners. Male slaves provided free labor for local estates and especially, for moving cotton through the port in season. Out of season, they were “hired out” by “slave agents” to other interests in the region.
Slaves in the South had no rights; they were the property of their owners who inherited or bought them and profited from their toil and sale. Slaves could not make a contract or marry. They had no say over the welfare of their children. They could be punished, even put to death, at the whim of their owners. Slave women who were fertile were especially valued as breeders, as well as housekeepers, nurse maids and laborers. Frequently, they had no (or little) choice of partners. It was illegal to teach a slave to read or write, although many were self-taught or instructed in Scripture by pious owners or clergy.
This is the record of Charlotte.
According to Trinity’s parish register, Charlotte was 23 years old when she and her 5 children (Frank, Sidney, Lewis, Sarah and Frances) were baptized on May 6, 1846, along with their father, Frank. Charlotte and the children were owned by Louisa Meyers, a church member and witness to the rites, and Frank was owned by a Nourse family member. Ten years later, three other children were baptized (Mary, another Frank, and Charles) with only their father, Frank Nourse and Louisa Myers as witnesses.
During the tenure of Reverend W.T. Saunders, there was a “colored class” in the Sunday School. In 1857, the rector’s young bride, Eliza, insisted on taking leadership of the class. In his memoir, The Pastor’s Wife (1867), Saunders explained, “Her instructions were efficient, and the class became very large, evincing much attachment to her.” He added, “The pupils were taught the Creed and commandments and could repeat hymns and quote Scriptures, which was acquired by oral instruction.” Nevertheless, the “love of excitement” among slaves “inclined them to prefer other instructions than those of the Episcopal Church,” Saunders observed.
By 1857, Charlotte and Frank took the name “Cook.” On January 20, 1857, an infant named Johnny was buried, a child of Frank Cook. The baptism of Benjamin Cook followed 2 years later. The parents, Frank and Charlotte Cook, were listed as witnesses. Charlotte was 36.
Jimmie Nichols, who compiled Trinity’s sesquicentennial history, suggested that the Cook family had been given their freedom and/or bought it prior to the Civil War. And different than other baptized slaves of members at Trinity, the Cooks remained active members. Charlotte, Frank, Sarah, and Mary Cook were listed—along with many prominent citizens of Apalachicola—as communicants in 1860, although at the end of an alphabetized list with the designation, “colored.” Nichols wrote that George Wefing later remembered playing with young Benjamin.
Emancipation brought more change. On May 4, 1866, Charlotte and Frank were finally confirmed in Trinity Church by the Rt. Reverend Francis H. Rutledge D.D., Bishop of Florida. Two years later, Sarah and Mary Cook were also confirmed by Bishop Young. Cook names appear, once more, at the end of the list of all confirmands with the notation, “colored.” Charlotte, Frank, Sarah, and Mary were recorded as the only “colored” communicants in 1870, though significantly, not at the end of the list.
According to Nichols, Charlotte’s husband became a florist, lived near the Wing family on 7th between Avenues B and C, and was a Vestryman and Sexton at Trinity for many years. The parish register records that Frank Cook (colored) died at age 71, November 24, 1889 and was buried on the same day in the Old Cemetery. There was no rector at the time, and services of the church were performed by Reverend Tompkins. No headstone remains.
There is no register entry for Charlotte’s death, although she appears as “deceased” in a revised communicant list from 1872. But I found her in the Old Cemetery, standing tall and proud. Charlotte rests on the downside of the hill, facing the back of the Chapman House, near Patsy, wife of Edward Porter, and Rose, a “faithful servant” of an unnamed Apalachicola family. Her headstone reads, “In memory of Mrs. Charlotte Cook, who died May 16, 1871, aged 48 years. A Communicant of the Episcopal Church. A faithful wife, mother, and friend. She trusted only in her Savior whose promises sustained and comforted her in her last hours.” Clearly, the “instructions of the Episcopal Church” were transformative, against all odds, for this one-time slave, indefatigable mother and wife, and committed Episcopalian.