Thursday, February 28, 2008

Salute to Janis David Cooley

Black History Month

The House of David

A Family History

by Janis David Cooley, Ed.D.

This is a salute to Janis David Cooley who I had the good fortune to become acquainted with in the early part of the year 2005. We had regular contact several times a week for several months during which we engaged in some interesting conversations.

I think she would be pleased I chose this Black History Month of February to write about her as she was very proud of her African-American heritage. She was well aware she told me, that with her light skin she could easily have passed as white, as others had suggested she should consider doing, but chose not to do so.

She presented herself to me as an obviously well-educated, attractive older woman, friendly, personable, and warm in manner. A delightful sense of humor was often quick to surface as I came to know her.

One day she quite enthusiastically told me she had been writing the history of her family and was now in the final process stages of self-publishing the book. She was in the midst of her final editing of proofs. A few weeks later she announced with great relief this step was completed, the corrected proof's returned to her publisher, Xlibris, for initiation of the actual printing process. During subsequent weeks of waiting to receive word her book was finally published, she spoke of her gradual increasing anxiousness to see the finished product of her labors, but clearly was trying to remain patient.

I would come to learn the pages of Janis Cooley's book chronicles individual family members' lives. A few pages graphically arrange names in family tree fashion. Short biographies and pictures of numerous family members fill other pages. She adds informative commentary about her personal and professional life including various moves with her husband beginning in Chicago, eventually to the east, then west coasts. Most recently she had been continuing to provide English essay writing assistance for a Chinese and a Cuban senior high school student to enable their passing their necessary tests, which they successfully did.

She notes in her book, "Virtually all of my African-American forbears were slaves until the end of the Civil War in 1865." Her historical accounts confirm the rightful pride she expresses in her ancestors wide range of achievements -- including some who became theologians, others, educators as did she.

She also recounts unique experiences with descriptions of some occasions when others assumed she was white, or forgot she wasn't -- the comments they made, even the questions she was asked as a white skinned black woman, an African-American. We had laughed together incredulously as she relished telling me some stories of those instances, or about other situations such as she relates in her book. I couldn't help thinking how we often find humor where pain can sometimes rest just below the surface.

Wilberforce University receives special attention in a few pages, since it played a significant role in her families life and her own early years. They lived in the Ohio town the University website reports was "named to honor the great 18th century abolitionist, William Wilberforce." Formed in 1856 the University describes itself as "the nation's oldest private college historically black."

This educational institution had been established " provide an intellectual Mecca and refuge from slavery's first rule: ignorance." The University in west central Ohio was a major destination point in The Underground Railroad, for slaves escaping "the yoke of slavery" preceding the years before the Civil War (1861-1865.)

I recall my mother telling me she had been told by her parents, who lived during slavery years, of a nearby house in her Northern Ohio farm community that had been a safe haven and rest spot for slaves on freedom's journey headed toward Canada via that virtual railroad. There were numerous such safe houses in Ohio and quite a few in various other states.

The author smiles at me in the photo on the cover of her book, exactly as I prefer to remember her on the occasion before I last saw her. Our last encounter was a late Friday afternoon when I took a few minutes before leaving for the weekend to see if she had yet received word about her book, or wanted to have a brief chat.

Much to my surprise she was not sitting up at her computer, or planning her next activity in the retirement community where she resided, but was reclining in bed. I learned later she had played Bridge in the morning, but after returning to her room around noontime began to feel unwell.

When I looked at her, I sensed by her expression she seemed somewhat perplexed that she didn't feel well. Her wan, unsmiling facial appearance, and soft weak tired-sounding voice strongly indicated to me she was fatigued or more. Medical care had been provided, she said, and that she needed nothing, but I immediately re-confirmed that fact with staff. I did not linger with her, as her drooping eyelids suggested she might sleep. Sleep she did ..... later, in the very early hours of a new day ..... forever ..... on July 9, 2005.

Two weeks later word was received from her publisher the drop shipment of books she had ordered that many of us had wished to purchase was ready for mailing. She never saw her book in final published form -- The House of David, "A Family History" by Janis David Cooley, Ed.D.

I am reminded the words she wrote which appear on the back cover of this slender 93 page large-size paperback are much the same words she once said to me:

"This book is primarily for my family, because I want them to be aware of their marvelous background and hope that they will keep up the good work. A secondary purpose is the hope that people of other races will read it and realize that their ideas about black people are wrong."


  1. Oh Joarad...How sad that she did NOT get to see the "finished" product...! Incidentally: It is interesting about Xlibris...I have s friend who self-published a Children's Book through them, and has had nothing but problems with the edition---mostly in regard to the color reproductions of his drawings....Anyway, this book sounds like a wonderful wonderful book and one that I would very much enjoy reading....! This post is such a lovely tribute to your friend....!
    Have you seen any of Louis Henry Gates' series on PBS called AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES? There have been 8 hours so far---four back about two years ago, and just recently four more.....I found the first four hours utterly fascinating and amazing, Especially in regard to the DNA sections which led people back to their African Roots.....! And this most recent part, too...the tracing of 8 or 10 peoples ancestors here in America....The thing that is the most astounding about these programs is the research it took to uncover the ancestors of each of these people back to slave days and then to Africa. To finally know who one's ancestors really are----well, this has to be so life affirming in every respect. It is difficult to imagine your idemtity being completely obliterated because your ancestors were bought and sold in the slave trade and the name you were born with most likely was the white slave owner's name, not your actual "family" name....Who we are and what we come from is such an important thing. How wonderful that SHE was able to piece all that together and to put it into book form for whomever might read it, besides her family members...! It is, as I said, so very very sad that she did not ever see th finished product. And how lovely of you to write so wonderfully about her!

  2. oldoldladyofthehills:
    Yes, I have seen some of the PBS series you described -- truly remarkable. You have certainly written eloquently here of how important it is to know who we are as individuals and as a people -- facts that so many of us take for granted knowing. We have been so long overdue in knowing the history of all of those who people our country, and still we're learning.

    I recall her saying a brother was especially involved in the labors for this book's publication, and a sister, possibly other family members, may have been
    instrumental in information gathering. I didn't have a blog when I knew her, for if I had, knew I'd be writing this, I would have been more meticulous collecting facts. She would have been a marvelous person for a first person interview -- such a thoughtful person and with a great sense of humor. Her memory is still with me as this piece attests.

  3. Great story about an interesting lady and her family! I can see why you were taken with her. And how sad that she never saw her book in oublication.

  4. Janis is my grandmother. Thank you for writing this. We miss her.

    1. You are most welcome. Appreciate your comment as am so pleased you found this remembrance of your grandmother. I knew her for such a short period of time in her life but she left a lasting impression with me as I'm sure she did with so many others.