It Is Well with My Soul: The Extraordinary Life of a 106-Year-Old Woman


An African American centenarian who saw W. E. B. Du Bois speak in 1924 and attended President Barack Obama?s inauguration in 2009 shares wisdom from a life well lived during a crucial period in American history

Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson was an inspirational, dynamic, and one-of-a-kind woman, whose ordinary life was nothing less than extraordinary throughout the course of her 106 years. A graduate of Case Western Reserve University, Ella Mae was the child of former slaves and ...

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It Is Well with My Soul: The Extraordinary Life of a 106-Year-Old Woman

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An African American centenarian who saw W. E. B. Du Bois speak in 1924 and attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 shares wisdom from a life well lived during a crucial period in American history

Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson was an inspirational, dynamic, and one-of-a-kind woman, whose ordinary life was nothing less than extraordinary throughout the course of her 106 years. A graduate of Case Western Reserve University, Ella Mae was the child of former slaves and experienced the best and worst of the past century in America—from the Jim Crow era and the Great Depression to the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009, which she memorably attended. Through it all, she endured—and thrived—by adhering to the example of the Good Samaritan: the belief that compassion is the key to the good life and offering to help without expecting payback brings its own rewards. In It Is Well with My Soul, Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson shares her insights on living a long and enjoyable life and her hopes for the future.

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  • Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson
    Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson was probably the only guest at the 2009 presidential inauguration whose parents were antebellum slaves. Now 105 years, the oldest living black graduate of Case Western Reserve University has much to remember, and her reminiscences place road markers and how far we have traveled and how far we still need to go. A paperback original. (Hand-selling tip: Johnson also offers cheering insights about living a long and fruitful life.)

From the Publisher
"Now 105, Johnson offers a broad perspective on life for a woman who was the child of former slaves and lived to attend the inauguration of the first black president of the U.S. She describes herself as an "unabashed beggar," meaning unashamed to admit to her needs and ask for help and also happy to switch roles and fulfill the needs of others. She was born in Texas, orphaned at 4, and raised by a neighboring family. With aid and the support of family and friends, she studied at Fisk University, participating in a boycott organized by W. E. B. DuBois to protest authoritarian treatment of students. She went on to get a Master's degree in social work from what is now known as Case Western Reserve University. Johnson survived the Jim Crow South, the Great Depression, and widowhood as she raised two young sons and worked as a social worker in Cleveland. Johnson offers encouragement and inspiration, citing her faith as a source of strength over a long and fruitful lifespan.
-Vanessa Bush, Booklist

"Ella Mae's memoir describes a parallel history of the black experience in our nation that is so rarely recorded. After living a life of quiet dignity, Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson, in It Is Well with My Soul shares a story that is inspiring and uplifting."
-Richard Glaubman, coauthor of Life is So Good

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143117445
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/27/2010
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 696,876
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson was born in 1904 in Dallas, Texas. In 1924, she saw W.E.B. DuBois speak at Fisk University, and in 2009, she attended Barack Obama's presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. She is a great-grandmother and lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Patricia Mulcahy is a freelance writer who has worked on books including The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, Ten Minutes from Normal, and A Freewheelin' Time. She lives in New York City.

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Reading Group Guide


On January 20, 2009, Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson woke up “before dawn and put on [her] pearls and layers of clothes” (p. 164) before making her way to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. There the 105-year-old woman waited for eight hours—in a frigid cold that discouraged others just a fraction of her age—so that she could witness Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. As incredible as her stamina and determination were that day, her attendance simply marked one more chapter in a life that was never less than inspirational.

Born Ella Mae Dawson in 1904, at a time when “black citizens had no official papers” (p. 4), she never met her birth father, and her young mother died when she was four. Her mother’s parents were too poor to raise the orphaned girl, so their next-door neighbors, Moody and Tennie Davis, took her in and “embraced her as their own” (p. 6). She led a modest childhood, but absorbed the Davises’ values of hard work and compassionate giving that would guide the rest of her life.

Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Ella Mae lived in a segregated world. She recalled that “because of limited funds and prejudice, public facilities were denied me, including public transportation, swimming pools, restaurants, and most hurtfully, libraries” (p. 13). Yet, despite these obstacles, Ella Mae graduated from high school as salutatorian and gained admission to Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

After earning her master’s degree from Case Western University, she went on to become a social worker, formalizing her lifelong commitment to helping those in need. When her beloved husband Elmer died, she raised two sons on her own. Fifty-four years after her retirement, Ella Mae said, “I wake up and often I look at the painting of the Good Samaritan. In terms of what I’ve done lately, I think: Was that compassionate? Did that help anybody? Could I do something different?” (p. 145).

Although Ella Mae’s religious faith was profound, she never felt the need to impose her own beliefs on others. Late in life, she began to travel the world, and took many trips to the Holy Land. “For me,” she reflected, “there is nothing more important than a broad vision of the world. . . . I was as comfortable praying in Jewish synagogues and the Bahai shrine in Haira as in a Japanese shrine outside Tokyo” (p. 126).

Ella Mae died in March 2010. For the last thirty-four years of her life, the twice-widowed great-grandmother lived in a retirement community in Cleveland. She was an avid reader. A self-dubbed “beggar for needy people” (p. 153), she raised thousands of dollars for HIV/AIDS relief and to help children born with cleft palates.

It Is Well with My Soul is the uplifting story of one woman whose outwardly ordinary life encompassed the great complexity of the last American century.


Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson (1904–2010) was born in Dallas, Texas, and lived much of her life in Cleveland, Ohio.


  1. Ella Mae remembers how “in those days, there were plenty of other students who didn’t live with their biological parents. They were taken in by relatives or neighbors. There was no court to take care of it” (p. 14). Would the informal network that Ella Mae remembers work today? What, if anything, has changed?
  2. As a member of the choir at Fisk, Ella Mae encountered “some people who didn’t want to sing these ‘slave songs’” (p. 23). Discuss arguments both for and against preserving these cultural reminders.
  3. During Ella Mae’s time at Fisk, she and many of her fellow students participated in a boycott to protest the restrictive regulations placed upon them by the white college president. Was the victory over the Fisk administration worth the loss of education the students suffered? In retrospect, did they have an alternative?
  4. What role should the historically black universities play in today’s post-integrated world? If you were a black high school student today, where would you want to go to college, and why?
  5. Do you know anyone like Ella Mae within your own community? If so, what lessons have you learned from him or her?
  6. If you live to be one hundred and six, what is the one thing for which you’d most like to be remembered?
  7. For most of Ella Mae’s life, she never imagined that a black man could be elected President of the United States. What is something now considered unlikely or impossible that you would like to see change within your lifetime?
  8. Ella Mae advises us to “use your mind and goodwill. I don’t believe in reparations, for the same reason I don’t believe in ‘giving back,’ as in squaring an equation. Acting with compassion is its own reward” (p. 160). Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
  9. “I don’t call myself white. I could pass sometimes, though. A lot of people did it. It was not necessarily honest, but we had to get past a government that was keeping us down” (p. 166). Was passing an act of subversion? What would you have done in her situation?
  10. Have you read any of the books that Ella Mae mentions? If so, can you see how they helped to shape her beliefs?
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 31, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Will inspire you to make more of your life regardless of circumstances

    Picked this one up on a whim and found it hard to put down. A fast and enjoyable first read, I'm sure it will be a continued inspiration to reread. Ended up giving the copy I bought and read to a friend for her 40th birthday and will buy another for me -- and possibly another for my mother.

    Mrs. Johnson tells her life story very simply and beautifully. She makes no excuses or apologies for her life and does not suggest that anyone should follow in her footsteps, just puts it all out there for peoplr to think about and make their own assessment of it. She was orphaned young and taken in and raised by elderly neighbors who had been born into slavery. She somehow found a way to get not just a college education (not easy at all for an African-American woman in the 1920s) but a master's degree in social work. She valued education and passed that value on to her family. She practices thrift and Christian kindness and believes in being fully engaged in the world around her. She managed to travel the world, despite the fact that obtaining a passport was not easy for a woman who had no birth certificate because of her race.

    Definitely worth the time to read and reread this book, because Mrs. Johnson is a woman we can all learn and take inspiration from.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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