Like many young people looking for employment, the job market for Anne Cooke wasn’t in her hometown.
“There was nothing to do here. In Bluffton you could work in somebody’s house or shuck oysters in the winter months,” she said. Instead, she went to summer school after high school and took typing, bookkeeping, record keeping and shorthand courses. Then she headed for New York City.
Cooke – who stated quite clearly at the time of this interview “I am 74 and 9 months! 75 on June 28 – that’s three quarters of a century!” – was born in Miami. She moved to Bluffton with her family after her father died when she was not quite 3. He had been a jitney driver.
“That was a taxi, sort of like Uber. More than one person could ride at the same time,” she said. “Mother had lived on Bulls Island, moved to Miami then moved back to Bluffton when he passed.”
When Cooke went to New York, she got a job working for the State Department of Labor in the office where they did unemployment insurance.
“My aunt lived in New York, so I went there and I took my first business courses in Hunter College. That was close to where I lived on the east side of Manhattan,” said Cooke. “I don’t think I had a career. I did a lot of things. I worked in law firms the last 18 years of my working life. My specialty was estate planning and probate, and then I did litigations and bankruptcies.”
Cooke attended the Michael S. Riley School, which served the black community from elementary through high school until 1970.
“My favorite school subject was English. Right now, I’m putting together a book. I’ve been working on it now for five or six years. By the time I’m 80, I know it’ll be finished,” she laughed. “I remember all my teachers, but by the time we got to high school, M.J. Brown and Miss Joyner were the most memorable. Miss Brown did the plays and what we would call ‘extracurricular.’ Miss Joyner did the arts and crafts. She loved arts and crafts but she was tough, too. You had to do your work.”
There was no easy ride at home, either.
“When we were really, really young, we had a wood stove in the kitchen, and on the floor there was wood. You had to collect the little pieces of wood the older boys would cut and put them in the stove so we could cook,” Cooke recalled. “We had a hand pump in the yard, and it was mostly the girls’ job to bring the water in the house.”
Cooke said back then people didn’t have to worry about if it was organic or not – everything was organic. Horse manure out of the stable was spread on the fields and in the winter, when the tides went out, the marsh grass was collected and that also was laid in the fields.
“Everyone worked. There was no sitting around and doing nothing. We had chickens and you’d collect eggs, and in spring time you had vegetables out of the garden: peas and summer squash, green beans and sweet corn. We had cows and horses. My grandfather had a plow and horses – we didn’t have a tractor,” Cooke said. “I collected eggs, and one of my chores was to cut okra. Most folks would complain that the leaves ‘make my arms itch.’ It doesn’t bother me so much. I like okra any way you cook them – okra gumbo with shrimp, fried okra, okra with crab in it.”
As children, they used to go to pick tomatoes in her grandfather’s fields.
“He had 100 acres of land where Vista View is. What we would do is put salt and pepper in our pockets and as we picked tomatoes, we would eat them. He had a watermelon field one year, and one of the things you could not do is bust a watermelon because the crows would come and clear the field,” said Cooke. “What we could do was go and bust the watermelon by the stream, eat the heart out of it and then throw the rest in the stream.”
Her mother, Agnes Gadson Cook, who had once worked in a pie shop, cooked when she was a youngster.
“When her parents went away one time, she and her siblings killed a chicken and she cooked it. Then they cleaned the pots and washed the log off from blood and buried the feathers and bones,” said Cooke. “Her father came home later that day and said ‘You all killed one of my chickens.’ How did he know? ‘You forgot to wash the axe’.”
Cooke said they also used to go bobbing for crabs.
“Mr. Smith had a dairy farm across the street from where we lived and he had a little island and we would go bobbing for crabs,” she said. “Sometimes you’d get stuck in the mud and someone would have to come and pull you out. You’d go home all covered with mud but then you got to eat the crabs.”
When Cooke moved back to Bluffton, she began volunteering and enjoying her hometown.
One of the projects she is involved in is refurbishing the First Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery on Buck Island Road.
“We’re working on our cemetery and having each grave marked and identified. The Buck Island cemetery was for black folk and Bluffton Cemetery was for white folk,” she said.
After years of being away from Bluffton, Cooke said she returned because it’s her home. The former town councilwoman was also mayor pro tem.
“I like to keep up with knowing what’s going on. I’ve been here all these years. I’ve seen all these changes. Some good, some not so good,” said Cooke, who can often be seen attending town council meetings. “Sometimes you’ll see some new development popping up and it gets to be overwhelming. There are a couple of things I like to keep my finger on the pulse of.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.