Ella Mae Johnson was witness to more than a century of black history. She insisted on seeing — with her own eyes — Barack Obama sworn in as president.
Ella Mae Johnson was witness to more than a century of black history. She insisted on seeing — with her own eyes — Barack Obama sworn in as president. Mark Duncan/AP
Ella Mae Johnson was a witness to more than a century of African-American history, and last year, on Inauguration Day, she was determined to be in Washington to see Barack Obama sworn in as president. When she died at home in Cleveland this week, at the age of 106, she felt that trip to the nation's capital was a highlight of her life. It also changed her life.
Johnson was a pioneering professional woman. In 1926, when she'd gone to graduate school to become a social worker, she was the first black student. But she wasn't allowed to live on campus.
She dealt with such slights throughout her life with an air of formality and dignity.
But on Inauguration Day, she was willing to look a little silly in order to sit outside in the bitter cold for seven hours. She put on an elegant jacket and put on her pearl necklace. But in her wheelchair, she let her nurse cover her from head to toe in a bright blue sleeping bag, with just her round glasses and her nose peeking through the puffy fabric.
The trip from Judson Park, her upscale assisted living facility in Cleveland, had been exhausting. She talked about what Obama's presidency meant to her. "My hope for him is my hope for the country," she explained. "If he fails, the country fails. He knows, and he says, 'Not me, but you. Not us, but all of us.' "
There was a surprise that came out of that trip to Washington: A book editor heard her story on NPR and offered her a contract. Next month, her memoir will be published. It's called It Is Well With My Soul: The Extraordinary Life Of A 106-Year-Old Woman.
When the galley proof for her book arrived recently, she picked it up and kissed it. She was proud that she'd leave that legacy.
"Ella Mae's real lesson is that compassion is what will get you through life," says her co-writer Patricia Mulcahy. "She was orphaned when she was only 4 years old, and literally raised by the next-door neighbors. And this incredible example of compassion, outreach, whatever you want to call it, informed the rest of her life."
She'd gotten help from others, too, when she needed money to go to college. In 1921, women from her town in Texas gave her a scholarship to go to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Later she would do graduate work at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
After she graduated, she wanted to turn things around. She wanted to be the one who gave to others. So she became a social worker. She was always reaching out to someone or raising money for some cause.
Last year, over Thanksgiving weekend, she had a stroke. She didn't want to let other people take care of her. She'd try to walk and she'd fall.
Her friend Betty Miller talks about the loving letter that came from one of her two sons. "He just wrote her a letter. E-mailed it to me, and I printed it out," Miller recalls. "And he just told her she'd been a social worker for years helping others, she'd been compassionate, now this is her time to get some help. This is her time to accept the fact that she's 106 years old. She read it and I said, 'Ella Mae, do you understand it?' And she said, 'I'll try.' "
There was one last act of determination. When Johnson died Monday evening, she died where she wanted. She was out of the hospital. She was out of the nursing home. She died in her apartment at her assisted living facility.
She was surrounded by friends, many of them from her church. And as Johnson died, Betty Miller was reading the 23rd Psalm — Ella Mae Johnson's favorite.