Thursday, November 6, 2008

At 106, Ann Cooper finally sees a black president-elect

Ann Nixon Cooper, 106, listens to a reporter's question during interview Atlanta home, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008. President-elect Obama, sprinkled his victory speech with references to the civil rights struggle, and paid tribute to Cooper, daughter of slaves born at a time when women and blacks couldn't vote. AP Photo 

CHICAGO, Thursday

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 colour of her skin.”

That’s how Barack Obama described Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106-year-old voter before a rapturous crowd of more than 125,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park yesterday.

He added: “And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: ‘Yes we can’.

Ann Cooper is an Atlanta housewife who has overcome personal hardship to raise a family and serve her community.

Cooper doesn’t usually stay awake past midnight. But on Election Night she had special reason to do so: She was waiting for Mr Obama to mention her name.

Cooper, one of the oldest voters for the nation’s first black president, had been tipped off by the Obama campaign that she would be mentioned in his acceptance speech. Toward the end, she got her moment. “I was waiting for it,” said Mrs Cooper. “I had heard that they would be calling my name at least.”

Mr Obama introduced the world to a woman who “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 colour of her skin.”

Mrs Cooper first registered to vote on September 1, 1941. Though she was friends with elite black Atlantans like W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin and Benjamin E. Mays, because of her status as a black woman in a segregated and sexist society, she didn’t exercise her right to vote for years.

Instead, she deferred to her husband — Dr Albert B. Cooper, a prominent Atlanta dentist — who “voted for the house.”

Her husband died in 1967. Cooper has outlived three of her four children and lived to see women gain the right to vote and the end of segregation. On October 16, she voted early for the Illinois senator, who called to thank her after reading a news article about her.

“I feel nothing but relief that things have changed as much as they have,” she said. “After a while, we will all be one. That’s what I look forward to.”

Cooper turns 107 in January, just a few days before Obama’s inauguration.

Millions of voters

Mr Obama said that of all the millions of voters who had cast their ballot Mrs Cooper was on his mind, because of the enormous sweep of American history that her long life had witnessed.

The centenarian was born Ann Louise Nixon on January 9 in 1902 in Shelbyville, Tennessee, one of six siblings.

When her mother died the brothers and sisters were split up, and Mrs Nixon Cooper was raised by her aunt.
In 1922 at the age of 20 she married Albert Berry Cooper, a dentist from Nashville, Tennessee. The young couple moved to the city of Atlanta, in Georgia, where for a few months she worked as a policy writer for the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, before starting a family.

Like other black Americans, Mrs Cooper would have gained the right to vote a mere 43 years ago, at the age of 63. She was still active in the community, teaching residents to read at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the 1970s. (Agencies)