Mercer Cook

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Will Mercer Cook
3rd United States Ambassador to Senegal
In office
July 9, 1964 – July 1, 1966
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Preceded by Philip Mayer Kaiser
Succeeded by William R. Rivkin
1st United States Ambassador to The Gambia
In office
May 18, 1965 – July 1, 1966
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Preceded by office established
Succeeded by William R. Rivkin
2nd United States Ambassador to Niger
In office
June 22, 1961 – May 30, 1964
President John F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson
Preceded by R. Borden Reams
Succeeded by Robert J. Ryan
Personal details
Born March 30, 1903
Washington, D.C.
Died October 4, 1987
Washington, D.C.
Nationality  United States
Spouse(s) Vashti Smith (August 31, 1929 - 1969, her death)
Children Mercer
Alma mater Amherst College, BA, 1925; University of Paris, teacher's diploma, 1926; Brown University, MA, 1931, PhD, 1936
Profession Diplomat

Will Mercer Cook (March 30, 1903 – October 4, 1987), popularly known as Mercer Cook, was an African-American diplomat and professor. He was the first American ambassador to the Gambia, appointed while ambassador to Senegal. He was also the second American ambassador to Niger.[1][2]


Will Mercer Cook was born on March 30, 1903, in Washington D.C., to Will Marion Cook, a famous composer, and Abbie Mitchell Cook, a soprano singer best known for playing the role of "Clara" in the premier production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in 1935. Cook's sister, and only sibling, was born Marion Abigail Cook in 1900. As a child, Cook traveled extensively in the United States and Europe with his parents as they pursued their respective careers in the entertainment industry. Cook also lived across the street from the legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington.

Cook attended Dunbar High School in Washington D.C., a predominantly black school. He graduated from Amherst College with his bachelor's in 1925 and received his teacher's diploma from the University of Paris in 1926. Cook attended Brown University and earned a master's degree in 1931 and a doctorate in 1936.

While completing his graduate education, Cook worked as an assistant professor of romance languages at Howard University from 1927 until 1936. Upon completing his doctorate, Cook became a professor of French at Atlanta University from 1936 until 1943. During that time, he received a Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Paris and the French West Indies. In 1942, he received another General Education Board Fellowship to the University of Havana. From 1943 to 1945, Cook worked as a professor of English at the University of Haiti. During this time, he wrote the Handbook for Haitian Teachers of English. He also wrote the literary criticism titled Five French Negro Authors and edited an anthology of Haitian readings.

In 1929, Cook married Vashti Smith, a social worker. The couple had two sons named Mercer and Jacques. He returned to Paris in 1934, on a fellowship from the General Education Board.

After two years in Haiti, Cook returned to Washington, D.C., to work as a professor of romance languages at Howard University, where he stayed until 1960. During this time, Cook continued to write about Haiti and he also translated works of African and West Indian writers from French to English. Most notably, in 1959, Cook translated the works of Leopold Senghor, who was a former president of Senegal and an established French author.


Cook became active in international relations in the late 1950s. From 1958 to 1960, he served as a foreign representative for the American Society of African Culture. The following year, he worked as the director of the African program for the Congress of Cultural Freedom. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Cook as the U.S. ambassador to Niger. Niger was a French colony that had only achieved independence in 1960. Cook's duties as ambassador included overseeing U.S. economic aid programs in the country, administering the Peace Corps, and supervising U.S. information and cultural activities in the country. His wife was also involved in many social programs, including a project to distribute medical supplies across the country and participation in women's groups.

In 1963, Cook was also designated as an alternate delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations. He served as the United States Ambassador to Niger until 1964.

In 1966, Cook returned to Howard University to become head of the department of romance languages. He worked as a visiting professor at Harvard University in 1969.

In 1969, Cook also published The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States, co-authored with Stephen Henderson of Morehouse College. The book consisted of expanded versions of speeches delivered by the two men at a 1968 conference in Madison, Wisconsin, called "'Anger and Beyond:' The Black Writer and a World in Revolution." In his essay, Cook described a half-century tradition of protest among African poets and novelists. Cook concluded his essay by stating: "In the main, statements by the Africans seem to me less extreme and violent than many by West Indian and North American blacks."

Cook retired from academia in 1970, although he continued to write in the 1970s. Cook died of pneumonia in Washington, D.C., on October 4, 1987.


  • John W. Simpson Fellowship, 1925-26
  • General Education Board Fellowship, 1934, 1942
  • Rosenwald Fellowship, 1938
  • Received decorations from the Government of Haiti, 1945, the Republic of Niger, 1964, and Senegal, 1966
  • Palmes Academiques, France; LL.D., Amherst College, 1965; LL.D., Brown University, 1970.



Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Philip Mayer Kaiser
United States Ambassador to Senegal
Succeeded by
William Robert Rivkin
Preceded by
R. Borden Reams
United States Ambassador to Niger
Succeeded by
Robert J. Ryan
Preceded by
post created
United States Ambassador to the Gambia
Succeeded by
William R. Rivkin

 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Department of State website (Background Notes).