Sitting in the sun on the deck of a local pub, Tee Cook is dressed in a power print dress, red straw hat and high heel shoes. She’s holding a Long Island Tea in one hand and her Wonder Woman key chain and wallet in the other. It’s a fitting scene for this noble woman who has fought with grace and wonder for her rightful place in the Indiana sun.
The red hat is just one of many Cook wears these days. She’s a mild-mannered cake baker, wedding planner, and CPR instructor by day, and a peace and unity activist when she’s off the clock. She’s also a mom, wife, friend and mentor to many in Northeast Indiana.
“My drive is my ancestry,” she told me that day at the pub. “My drive is to teach my kids that nobody can stop you. I’m a little Black girl who sold drugs and carried a gun at 13. And now I have a doctorate. I have a master’s from Harvard University. It’s a big deal to me.”
Growing up, Cook spent much of her time with her grandparents, listening to stories of what life was like for the enslaved community of the United States.
“Slavery didn’t end when the textbook says; the name did,” she said. “Poor black people who had nothing and nowhere to go were still slaves.”
Although the Union had promised freed slaves “40 acres and a mule,” that guarantee never manifested. General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 on Jan. 16, 1865 splitting up 400,000 acres of Confederate territory among the 3.9 million freed slaves. Each family was to be granted 40 acres of tillable ground in a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida. Later, Sherman agreed the Army would lend the new settlers their mules. But after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865, his successor, Andrew Jackson, overturned the order that fall, returning the land back to the original owners — the same ones who had declared war on the United States of America. With many of the freed slaves too poor to survive outside the houses they worked in, they stayed.
Cook’s grandmother can recall her mom (Cook’s great-grandmother) being a house slave and cleaning and cooking and feeding kids.
“When my grandmother was born, she was born into slavery,” Cook said. “My grandfather the same. For me to hear these stories from people who raised me, I always wanted to be more educated because they didn’t have that right. I always wanted to take advantage of the fight they had to fight for us, for me.”
Cook is not the first of her generation in the family to go to college, but she is the first to go on to grad school. She holds an Associate’s degree from Indiana Business College and a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from the University of Central Florida. She started her Master of Business Administration at Indiana Tech and finished the program online from Harvard University. She also has an honorary doctorate from the Universal Life Church and is an ordained minister, a title that helps her in the wedding business.
Cook owns All-in-One Cakes and Events LLC and Praying Hands Healthcare Services LLC. Her healthcare business has mostly dried up due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the events business is able to offer socially distanced weddings. She has contracted with the city of Fort Wayne parks and recreation department to hold outdoor weddings as long as they last less than two hours. For $450, she will set up the arch, place 12 chairs six feet apart, officiate the ceremony, and provide facemasks for guests. Couples receive a personalized certificate, bouquet, two appetizers and a one-tier cake. Her husband, Sto Cook, DJs the music during a 60-minute mini reception, which includes a first dance — but that’s the only dance.
“There’s no dancing after the wedding, like during the reception,” she said. “It’s pretty much mingling. I can’t stop people from hugging. Somebody got married. They hug. It allows people to still be able to have the joy of saying ‘I got married. Covid didn’t stop us. We couldn’t have the big, lavish thing we wanted to have, or have all our friends and family come watch, but I was able to do something and I didn’t have to go into a courthouse where it wasn’t personal at all.’”
Entrepreneurship runs in Cook’s family. Her grandmother started a cleaning company after the MEMCORP factory she’d been working at closed.
“It will always freak me out about her cleaning company,” Cook said. “I was like, ‘Grandma, you were a slave and had to do this. Why are you doing this now?’ And she just said, ‘It’s what I know.’ So that’s what she did.”
Cook’s mother also has an amazing story.
“She was a recovering drug addict who literally lost everything because of drugs,” Cook said. “She got herself together and was in the process of opening her own group home when she passed.”
Cook’s mom was working as a manager of a group home when she died of renal failure, never realizing her dream of opening a shelter of her own.
“She was really serious about opening a group home here in Fort Wayne where she was from, because there’s no care here for women,” Cook said. “She had to go all the way to Lafayette to get help. But she was ashamed of her story. She didn’t like to tell people she used to be a real bad drug addict. I’d always go, ‘Mom, what is wrong? That’s not who you are now. You got a story to tell. Look at where you’re at now. You’re active in your church. You’re managing a group home. You’re getting a paycheck.’ And she’d go, ‘Tish (she called me Tish), I’m just so shamed.’ Watching her be shamed and me trying to encourage her makes me want to now tell my story. It’s not an easy story. I’ve never been a drug addict. I’ve never been a prostitute. But I did sell drugs. I did carry a gun. I did things a little kid shouldn’t have to do.”
That lifestyle ended when Cook was 19 and found herself with a child of her own.
“I went, ‘Oh my God, I have a son, a Black son,’” she said. “And it scared me because even 22 years ago when I had this son, they were still killing little Black boys. When I had my son, I said, ‘I won’t raise him like this. The life that I’m living right now — being in a gang — I won’t raise my son like this.’ I packed up all my shit and cut off all my hair and moved to Florida.”
She enrolled in the University of Central Florida’s nursing program, graduating in 2006. Two years later, she started Praying Hands Healthcare Services.
She found one client, Mr. Cecil, particularly endearing.
“He was really hard to handle because he was 90 years old and he called me his nigger,” she recalls. “He wouldn’t let anybody else give him a bath. He didn’t trust anybody to fix his food if it wasn’t his nigger.”
The word is highly offensive today, but Cook claims Mr. Cecil never used it as a pejorative, but rather more like a job title.
“Think about where life was 90 years ago,” she said. “You can’t change a 90-year-old man and how he thinks, not to mention he had a little bit of dementia. Him just saying it wasn’t like he remembered, ‘Oh God, I can’t say that anymore!’”
Mr. Cecil died in 2012. Shortly afterward, Cook’s grandfather took ill, so she returned to Fort Wayne to be with him. But he soon died. Then her grandmother passed.
“It was like a series,” Cook said. She decided to take some time off to grieve and heal from all the emotional trauma. “I didn’t have the mental capacity to handle everyday stuff.”
Later that year she started All-in-One Cakes, Catering and Events. Today, she is certified with the Board of Health, carries insurance and is a Serve Safe instructor. With all that, as well as her nursing background, she has developed a mindset about public health that has helped her navigate the rough waters of the pandemic while still keeping her business afloat.
It’s important to her to be a role model for today’s youth, and that’s why she’s decided to come forward and tell her story.
“I need young Black girls and young Black boys to know that this don’t have to be your life,” Cook said. “You can do something. And I see so much negative.”
When her grandfather was alive, he frequently quoted Proverbs 22:6, “Teach your children in the way that they should go.” That motto always stuck with her, especially as she raises the six sons she now cares for. The 22-year-old mentioned earlier is from a previous relationship. Sto brought four boys with him when they got together, and now the couple have one son together.
It was this love for her children that inspired her to participate in the protests in downtown Fort Wayne after the George Floyd murder this year. She never damaged any property or injured anyone that weekend, but Friday night, she was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital after the Fort Wayne Police Department deployed tear gas into the crowd. Another peaceful protestor, Balin Brake, lost his eye when a rubber bullet struck him in the face.
The FWPD released this statement May 30: “Yesterday evening a protest was scheduled from 5pm to 8pm at the courthouse square in downtown Fort Wayne. For a time, the protest was and remained peaceful. The crowd began spilling into the street around 7pm and at that point 10 Point Coalition was utilized to get people back onto the sidewalk and lawn. However, the crowd became hostile toward them and began making threats to them. The protest then became increasingly aggressive and police intervention began. Police made several announcements to leave the area, to disperse the crowd. The crowd refused. After several attempts and only after the crowd began jumping on cars and then began hurling rocks and water bottles at officers did the Public Safety Response Team deploy smoke and tear gas.”
But that’s not what protesters say actually happened. The ACLU of Indiana filed suit June 25 against the City of Fort Wayne and the Allen County Sheriff to immediately stop the use of chemical agents and projectiles on protesters. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 13 individuals who were arrested or allegedly injured in recent demonstrations, argues that the use of chemical agents and projectiles for crowd control violates the First and Fourth Amendments.
“FWPD and members of the Sheriff’s Department have used force to prevent peaceful protesters from gathering on the Courthouse Green and in other public places in Fort Wayne,” the ACLU said in a statement. “More recently, on June 14, as protesters dispersed to get away from the weapons being deployed, police dragged protesters out of private businesses in which they were seeking shelter.”
In the statement, Ken Falk, legal director at the ACLU of Indiana, said, “Police must not respond to protesters speaking out against police brutality with yet more brutality. We will not let these violent attacks on our constitutional rights go unchecked. Excessive use of force against protesters chills free speech, and widens the rift of distrust between communities and the police that are sworn to serve them.”
On Aug. 24, the City filed a 90-page response denying any wrongdoing and requesting a jury trial.
“City denies any such deprivation has occurred and further denies the Plaintiffs are entitled to any of the relief sought,” the court document said.
Cook maintains she was neither rioting nor looting.
“I have pictures on my phone of the person, a little white boy with curly hair, who was totally trashing stuff,” she said. “The sad part about it was it was not the protestors and I will say that in a court of law. We were there peacefully.”
Cook’s path to entrepreneurship was forged by protestors of the past.
“If Martin Luther King hadn’t have marched through the streets, me and you probably wouldn’t even know each other and that’s a sad truth, because I love you,” she said to me across the table. “And I think about other relationships I’ve had that would not be had people not marched in the middle of the street and stopped traffic.”
Cook considers the actions taken during the demonstrations a reflection of an overall problem in not just the criminal justice system, but in the American mindset. She explains cries to “defund the police,” are often misconstrued, but it’s an important conversation a civil society needs to have.
“Defund and dismantle are two different things,” she said. “If I called 911 because my 13-year-old is erratic and behaving badly, I think they should send a social worker and maybe one cop. That’s all. The cop is there to protect everybody but the social worker is there for the problem. I think funds should be allocated elsewhere. They’re getting way too much money to play with. They had way too much to bring out freakin’ tear gas and armored vehicles on protestors. They need to put more money into education. They need to put more money into programs for the youth.”
As frustrating and heartbreaking — and downright frightening —as it all is, she keeps trying.
“I’m scared but I keep talking,” she said. “Think of all the people who are scared and shut up. Even in my fear, I still get out there and put my fist up. I love my people, even when we don’t love ourselves. This is my history. This is who I am. This is where I come from.”