A history-maker passes at 106: Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson

Sometimes we need to step back from ponderous tomes full of sweeping narratives and grand historiographical theories and look at the people around us who carry history with them. My wife Sharon works in hospice care and meets history-makers all the time. Her own grandmother, Jessie Creelman, was a nurse in Nova Scotia who lived to 103. She lived from the horse-and-buggy age to the internet age. (We have a photo from Jessie’s 100th birthday party, when our oldest daughter, Kate, was just 11 days old. There’s Jessie, and Sharon, and Kate: women whose lives stretch across four generations!)

In her work, traveling from house to house, giving care to people in the twilight of their lives, Sharon meets more history-makers in a week than I’ve ever met.

Here’s a brief NPR piece about one such person: Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson, an African American woman who just passed away at the age of 106. Ella Mae was the first black student at her college in 1926. She wasn’t allowed to live on campus. She was a professional woman in an era of “extreme prejudice.” And she suffered, but she held her head up and she made history.

When Ella Mae made her trip last year from her Cleveland assisted-living facility to Barack Obama’s inauguration, it wasn’t easy. She was very uncomfortable. She sat out in the crowd in her wheelchair, covered from head to toe in a sleeping bag, with only her glasses peeking out. But she just had to be there, to witness one more piece of history being made.

Now the story of Ella Mae’s own history-making life is being published by Penguin. It’s already near the very top of the Amazon.com sales list, and it hasn’t even been released yet. It’s called It Is Well with My Soul: The Extraordinary Life of a 106-Year-Old Woman. I really want to read it. I think Sharon and I will probably read it together.

Take some time this month to get together with a history-maker and hear their story. What a great way that is to absorb and be inspired by our history.

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