“I think one reason I have lived so long is I am, basically, a happy person. I like to laugh. I like to enjoy life. And I like to stay busy. I think those things help you to keep better.”
That reflection came from Ann Nixon Cooper, the voter President Obama mentioned in his victory speech on election night: “She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing—Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old. She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons: because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.”
I met Mrs. Cooper this summer when I helped her write the story of her life. Her family wanted her to talk about how much things had changed and wanted the world to know that she had actually accomplished quite a lot before the president-elect singled her out on election night. She died Dec. 21.
And she lived an extraordinary life. She was born outside Nashville when there weren’t many cars on the road, when the memory of the Civil War was still fresh, when a black local official was unthinkable, let alone a black president. She came to Atlanta as the young bride of a freshly minted dentist from Meharry Medical College, and together they built a life of community service and social involvement.
Although she hardly worked outside the home for pay, Mrs. Cooper constantly worked on social projects she felt the community needed. For example, there were no Boy Scout troops for black boys in the 1930s, so Mrs. Cooper organized other mothers and started one. She was an avid reader and belonged to several book clubs. She started the fundraising arm of a club for African American girls “so they would know there were things they could work toward, you know, and make the right decisions with the guidance of adults who cared about them,” she said. It still exists today. So does Gate City Nursery, after almost 60 years.
“We just did those things back then,” Mrs. Cooper explained. “We didn’t wait around for anyone to tell us whether or not we could. We did it because it was needed.” She wondered aloud why more well-off black folks don’t engage in the same kind of community service today, “Some do, but not enough,” she said. “And we need it more than ever.”
By the time the president had made her nationally famous, Mrs. Cooper was already considered an Atlanta icon. Although she was devastated by her husband’s death in 1967, she continued to lead a rich, full life. When she wasn’t volunteering, she was on the lookout for a killer pair of high heels she could dance in—until she was about 104. She often was the last to leave the dance floor—or would make younger people feel ashamed when they couldn’t keep up with her in fitness classes.
When she was interviewed in 2008 about her insistence on voting in person in the presidential election, she said mailing an absentee ballot wasn’t even on her radar screen: “I never thought I’d see the day when a black man might run for president and win, so I had to be here. Everybody should vote—doesn’t matter who you vote for, just vote your choice.”
Then the third-youngest daughter of Tennessee sharecroppers touched the voting screen and helped elect the nation’s first black president. On inauguration night, she sat in her den with close friends and family, and toasted the new president as he danced with his wife. “Who would have thought this could happen?” she said with a smile. “Isn’t life wonderful?”
Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News. Her newest book, A Century and Some Change: My Life Before the President Called My Name, was written with Ann Nixon Cooper and has just been published by Atria Books.
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).