Remembering Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson

BY Gwen Ifill  March 23, 2010 at 7:00 PM EST

Regular NewsHour viewers know that, from time to time, the broadcast likes to note the passing of notable people — from famous entertainers to men and women of letters to consequential world leaders.

We introduced you to one of these consequential people on Inauguration Day 2009, a 105-year-old retired social worker named Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson. She traveled from Cleveland, though by then confined to a wheelchair, so she could witness Barack Obama take the oath of office with her own two eyes.

To use the word “confined” is probably not the most accurate way to capture Mrs. Johnson’s immense, sparkling spirit. At twice my age, she was probably more game than I was that day to wrap herself in down and woolens and spend the day at the National Mall. The child of former slaves, she lived to complete a book about her life.

Yesterday, she passed away. She was 106.

When NewsHour producer Terence Burlij and I met Mrs. Johnson in Washington last year, she had just celebrated her birthday with her family. Now she wanted to see who this new black president was.

Mrs. Johnson, who was the oldest living black graduate of Case Western University, clearly remembered a time when she called herself Negro — and before that, colored. She wasn’t always sure her country was ready for a black president, but she read his books, stayed up past her bedtime to watch him speak on election night from Grant Park in Chicago, and she hoped.

She said she needed to be at the inauguration. “I want to see the beginning of a shared responsibility by people,” she told us. “Not just white, not black, not any one people, but together. And it seems to me by the way people are responding to him, that he may be successful now.”

Mrs. Johnson’s optimism was infectious on a day when so many Americans were streaming into Washington with the best hopes for its new President, its place in the world and the prospects of comity. Fourteen months later, some of those hopes have faded amid the acrimony and messiness of governing. But news of Mrs. Johnson’s passing reminded me of how possible it all seemed that day.

“I hope the time comes when we can just be who we are and not worry or believe that, if we call ourselves something else, we’ll get better attention, better treatment,” she said.
“I hope that we get to the point, not because we’re Christians or Jews or Muslims, but because we’re human. And we want to be treated, we need to be treated, not one taking advantage, but all recognizing that there won’t be peace — there may be quiet or silence — but it won’t be peace.”

Mrs. Johnson’s book, “It Is Well With My Soul: The Extraordinary Life of A 106-year-old Woman”, goes on sale in bookstores on April 27. I had hoped to interview her again. That was not to be, but how fortunate I was to be able to cross paths with her even for a day.

For a woman who had lived history, she was convinced that experiencing history and seeing the new president — even at a distance — would be worth whatever discomfort she would have to endure on a freezing cold Washington day.

“I mean, I may not speak with him,” she said at the time. “I may not talk with him. But my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren will know I was there.”