Living through COVID-19 – Part XVI

This is the 16th installment of The New Tri-State Defender’s ongoing account of three Memphians coping with the coronavirus amid government-directed efforts to slow the virus’ spread.

Pictured (l-r): William Gandy Jr., Margaret Cowan and James Cook.

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches a full year of negatively impacting the lives of people here and around the world, disrupting businesses and most people’s daily activities, three Memphians The New Tri-State Defender has followed since April continue to make personal and career adjustments to cope with the pandemic.

The TSD last checked with nonprofit founder Margaret Cowan, barber and musician William Gandy Jr. and entrepreneur James Cook just before Thanksgiving. Here is what is happening in their lives as the new year takes off.


Margaret Cowan (Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/TSD Archives)

Cowan is the founder of the nonprofit I Am My Sister’s Keeper, which helps single working mothers increase their earning potential.

When we last checked, she felt God was telling her to shift her nonprofit focus from South Memphis, which is home to several organizations working to improve residents’ lives, to the Raleigh area. 

She said a swift series of events confirmed that calling.

She moved into a new apartment in Raleigh on Jan. 7. In the process, I Am My Sister’s Keeper has added five new mothers, bringing the number to 25, and donations of goods and money have increased.

 “We do a ‘Sunday Shop.’ Every other Sunday, the moms can shop for items, such as toiletries and nonperishable food items,” she said.

On the Wednesday before the Sunday shopping event, Cowan asks for requests from the moms about what they need. The items are boxed and distributed via curbside pickup to maintain COVID-19 safety protocols.

Meanwhile, she spends one day a week at a YMCA branch, helping the organization with its bulk food-giveaway program.

One of I Am My Sister’s Keeper’s initial goals was to build affordable housing for the program’s moms. 

Because of financial realities, Cowan said, “We’ve had to change our focus. Now, we’re focusing on, for the moms who need it, developing bank accounts, where the moms make deposits and we match them, so they can buy cars for cash.”

Cowan also wants to create a fund called Project Hope that would help her moms, who need assistance, pay deposits and first-month rents for better housing. The moms would have to meet certain conditions, such as credit counseling, Cowan said.

William Gandy Jr.

William Gandy Jr.

COVID-19 still has taken a big bite out of the barbering business, Gandy said.

That has not slowed him down, however, in his effort to create a movie based on his book and musical production “Grandma’s Big Vote,” about his 106-year-old grandmother Mary Alice Gandy, who made national headlines when she cast a vote for the first time in her life. She voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

But, COVID-19 has slowed the effort. The pandemic resulted in Gandy having to cancel a meeting with potential investors and filming has stopped because virus-safety issues have prevented casting calls for the movie.

However, there is good news on the movie front. Amazon Prime Video is airing the musical and the movie trailer. Search for “Grandma’s Big Vote,” which was released Jan. 20, which just happened to be inauguration day.

Gandy also has released a new blues composition “Chucks and Pearls,” which has been a signature clothing style of Vice President Kamala Harris.

The pearl necklace holds a special meaning to Harris because it represents her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the first African-American sorority in the country.

The sorority’s founders and the women who expanded the organization are referred to as the 20 Pearls.

Regarding the Chucks, they are Harris’ favorite sneakers, which she frequently wore on last year’s campaign trail. 

Gandy said his “Chucks and Pearls” is a “down-home blues” song that celebrates all women, not just Harris.

James Cook

James Cook (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

James Cook owns and operates two restaurants at Memphis International Airport — Lenny’s Grill and Subs and Runway 901 Bar & Grill. He has been operating the eateries on a reduced schedule because the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a significant drop in airline passenger traffic, which buttress Cook’s eateries.

Airport officials said passenger volume dropped 56 percent in 2020. When the pandemic really took hold in April, Memphis airport passenger traffic had dropped about 94.5 percent from April 2019.

Cook said Thanksgiving travel sparked passenger surge, but Christmas passenger travel was a bust. 

“It was kind of like they got it (holiday travel) all out of their system (at Thanksgiving),” he said.

Meanwhile, the ice and snow has negatively impacted his restaurants.

Airport officials announced Wednesday (Feb. 17) morning that some restrooms and restaurants were closed due to a loss of water pressure amid the freezing temperatures. On Friday, the water-pressure issued forced the airport’s closing

Cook said his restaurants would have been impacted, if he had decided to open. However, he had made a business decision to remain closed, reasoning that weather-related flight delays and cancellations would drop passenger traffic to a trickle. He said he will monitor the situation daily to decide whether to open.

Tuesday, though, he was able to provide lunch for airport employees, who were working to keep the runways and airport roadways clear.

On another note, Cook said he is awaiting approval from state regulators, so he can open his style shop. He expects that to happen soon.

And, he said his new clothing design enterprise (www.nubiandesign) has been doing well.

The entrepreneurial spirit runs in the Cook family. His wife, A’Seri, has launched a courier and delivery service, MMJ Logics. MMJ are the initials of their children’s first names ⸺ Michael, Mickhel and Jamie.

Cook’s sister, Jannah Cook, has even started an event-planning business, Theory and Design. 

“She had been doing it for five years, but decided to do her own thing,” Cook said.

(Jerome Wright is deputy editor for The New Tri-State Defender. Reach him at [email protected].)


Maneuvering through the perils of COVID-19

Living through COVID-19: A trio of profiles – Part II

Living through COVID-19: A trio of profiles – Part III

Living through COVID-19 — Part IV

Living through COVID-19: A trio of profiles – Part V

Living through COVID-19: Part VI

Living through COVID-19: Part VII 

Living through COVID-19, Part VIII

Living through COVID-19, Part IX

Living through COVID-19, Part X

Living through COVID-19, Part XI

Living through COVID-19, Part XII

Living through COVID-19, Part XIII

Living through COVID-19, Part XIV

Living through COVID-19, Part XV