Remembering Ann Nixon Cooper, Who Had Quite A Life Before Obama : The Two-Way Remembering Ann Nixon Cooper, who had quite a life before president-elect Obama cited her as a symbol of the nation's progress.
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Remembering Ann Nixon Cooper, Who Had Quite A Life Before Obama

When I went down to Atlanta last summer to visit with Ann Nixon Cooper in preparation for writing her memoir, she wanted me to be very clear about one thing: She thought it was lovely that president-elect Barack Obama had taken the time to mention her in his speech on election night, and while she reveled in the media attention that followed, she bristled a little bit that all these people thought she was a complete unknown before Mr. Obama called her name.

"I did have a life before that, you know," she told me.

And she proceeded to have her friends and family pull out photo albums, vintage newspapers and reams of letters to prove it.

There she was with eminent sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, whose landmark 1957 treatise, The Black Bourgeoise, would spark years of public and private debate on class stratification in black America. There she was in a group photo of black Atlanta socialites, her friend Coretta Scott King smiling a few people away from her. Newlyweds Nat and Maria Cole beamed in her den as they went out back to a clubhouse her husband built specifically so she could entertain in the style she thought appropriate.

She worked briefly as a policy writer for Atlanta Life, the big, black-owned hometown business. "They hired me because I had beautiful handwriting," she said proudly. "If you pull the old policy books, you can see for yourself." She quit that when she became pregnant with her first child, and stayed home to have and raise three more.

Although she didn't work for pay, Mrs. Cooper probably spent a full work week volunteering. She started the first black Boy Scout troop in Atlanta, founded several book clubs (and still participated in one until last year), taught fitness classes to senior citizens younger than she until she was 100 and was a literacy tutor at the church her friends, the Reverends Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr, pastored.

She wore heels higher than any I dared to and firmly believed one should capitalize on one's best assets. "Mine are my legs," she grinned. "I still got good ones!" And boy, did she.

Mrs. Cooper is gone now, just shy of her 108th birthday. But she enjoyed her life while she lived it. And last summer, as she pointed to the picture that brought her so much attention last year -- a picture of her casting her early vote, in person (in high heels, of course) -- she leaned over and patted my hand.

"When you think about where we were when I was born and what's happening now -- it's amazing. I never thought I'd live to see the day a black man might be president. And now here he is, in the White House! America is something, isn't it?"

It is indeed.

Courtesy of Karen Grigsby Bates.
Ann Nixon Cooper and Karen Grigsby Bates, July 2009, in Atlanta. \" class=
Courtesy of Karen Grigsby Bates.

(Karen Grigsby Bates is a California-based correspondent for NPR. A Century and Some Change: My Life Before the President Called My Name, by Ann Nixon Cooper and Karen Grigsby Bates, is due in stores by Jan. 5.)