Queen Elizabeth II
Today, on the funeral day of Queen Elizabeth II, I am taking a moment to honor three women of a generation that witnessed tremendous historical change. This trio had no shared experiences and were distinct personalities, but they each were mothers with devotion, in one form or another, at their core. And they lived incredibly long lives!
The women in focus are my Great Aunt Esther Cooper Jackson who died less than a month ago on August 23, 2022 at the age of 105 (Can you believe it?); my Grandmother Josephine Le Blanc Kelley who died on June 30, 2022, at the age of 102 (yes, one hundred and two!); and Queen Elizabeth II, who died on September 8, 2022, at the age of 96.
We all know the Queen’s story in one form or another. Her legendary tale is a historic record in time. Her devotion, clearly, was to her country, the monarchy and her family.
Queen Elizabeth, like my relatives, lived through change and was shaped by the remnants of one world war and the pain of experiencing another. These extraordinary women experienced The Great Depression, intense societal transitions, changing monarchical views and opposition and plenty of other historical shifts.
Esther Cooper Jackson
Throughout her adult life, my great aunt, Esther Cooper Jackson, not only witnessed change but was a dynamo who instigated it. My Great-Grandmother Esther Georgia Irving Cooper, (my great aunt’s mother), certainly inspired my Aunt Esther. In her younger years, she witnessed my great-grandmother’s founding of the Arlington, Virginia branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). My great grandmother also held a position on the executive board of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP while opposing Arlington County’s racial inequities throughout segregated high schools. She got involved in her community and made significant headway despite being the child of formerly enslaved parents. I’m sure my Aunt Esther took note of her own mother’s achievements because she carried the torch her mother lit throughout her lifetime.
Clearly, with the example of her mother, my Aunt Esther (and her two sisters – one of which was my gifted maternal grandmother, Paulina Cooper Moss) was bound to take the baton for racial and social change in her era. She became a feminist and a civil rights activist of the 1940s and made the cause for progress her life’s mission. Along with her husband, my Uncle Jack, James E. Jackson Jr., Esther made remarkable strides toward correcting civil and political injustices during the early days of the civil rights movement in the United States.
When I think of my Aunt Esther and Uncle Jack I think of devotion to a cause – the lived experience, desire and dedication to make life better for Black Americans and other oppressed people in the U.S. My aunt was the executive director of the Southern Negro Youth Congress soon after she finished graduate school during World War II. Notably, she worked with author and scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois, as he took on and pushed for advancements for people of color. During the 1960s she co-founded the popular publication, Freedomways and became its managing editor. Aunt Esther called Freedomways, “a tool for the liberation of our people.” It was an acclaimed journal for the cultural, political and social movement of her time. The magazine attracted a wide readership – from sociologists, historians and economists to artists, workers and students. Freedomways published articles by noted authors James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Pulitzer Prize-winner and poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, to name just a few. Through her lifelong works, Esther Cooper Jackson crossed paths with many dignitaries and celebrities but remained humble and driven by a devotion for social and political justice.
To learn more about the inspired life of Esther Cooper Jackson please read her Wikipedia article, interviews, academic articles and her obituaries in the following publications:
- The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/31/us/esther-cooper-jackson-dead.html
- The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2022/09/09/esther-cooper-jackson-civil-rights-dead/
- The Boston Globe: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/09/05/metro/esther-cooper-jackson-civil-rights-writer-leader-decades-dies-105/
- The Laura Flanders Show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_Hwtv7ZM54
- New York City Commission on Human Rights: http://nyc.gov/html/cchr/justice/html/videos/esther_cooper_jackson.shtml
- Society for U.S. Intellectual History: https://s-usih.org/2017/08/on-esther-cooper-jackson-and-intellectual-history/
Josephine LeBlanc Kelley
My Grandmother Josephine LeBlanc Kelley – wife to popular Washington, DC big band orchestra leader, Anthony W. Kelley, Sr. (my paternal grandfather) – lived a long existence experiencing change in a racially divided America. Her Louisiana derived mixtures of French, Creole, Native American and African lineage, and their cultural influences, offered her diverse experiences in a racially charged and difficult time. Her family was deeply affected by The Depression and her life reflected much of the challenges she’d experienced as a child living in the Bayou. However, through it all, her faith sustained her. Her devotion to her religion was awe-inspiring to me as a kid. Through a child’s eyes, I recall that everything she did resonated with a spiritual focus on the rituals, rites and restraints that is Catholicism. The Catholic Church was Josephine’s devotion.
So why have I elected to find parallels among three women from distinctly different world experiences – even though two (my aunt and grandmother) were loosely connected through extended family marriage?
I wanted to take a moment to pause during this, the year of their mutual passing, to honor these mothers and disparate figures of the same generation. They each achieved more than longevity; they also seized and molded moments often shaping their worlds, addressing societal injustices, and inspiring their families.
It goes without saying that these three women, of the same era, lived markedly different and contrasting lives. Yet, I’m certain that the majestic women on my family tree would have agreed with at least a few of the words spoken by the singular reigning Queen of England for much of their lifetimes.
The words of the Queen, retold in a recent BBC documentary:
We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love, and then we return home.
–Queen Elizabeth II
Click for more about the life and legacy of Queen Elizabeth II:
Remembering Three Extraordinary Women