Ora Dell Cooley Jackson has lived an intriguing life. From the cotton fields of her father’s farm to a gun-toting bailiff in Shelby County courtrooms, Mrs. Jackson blazed her way into the history book of “African-American firsts.”
This year, she turns 100, and her impressive tribe of descendants is planning a shindig worthy of a queen.
“She is a queen,” said daughter, Elsie Lewis Bailey. “Mother is our queen. Each year for her birthday, we plan a huge reunion and we all get together so she can see everyone again. These celebrations have gotten bigger and more extravagant over the years because we have been building up to the 100th year. We are excited. Mother is excited. It’s going to be spectacular.”
Mrs. Jackson’s memory is still as sharp as someone decades younger. She often tells stories about growing up in Indianola, Mississippi, and picking cotton on her father’s farm.
“There were families that did some sharecropping that we knew,” said Mrs. Jackson. “But Poppa owned his own land. We grew cotton, and we grew our own food. Momma and Poppa fed everybody. They never turned anyone away who was hungry and needed a meal. I guess that’s where I get it from.”
“Momma and Poppa” were Francis and Virge Cooley. Young Ora was born on July 5, 1921, in Indianola, the last of 21 children.
Back in that day, when an African-American girl completed the eighth grade, she was considered “educated.” Ora was not only extremely bright, but she was tall and widely considered in her county as a “great beauty.”
But Poppa kept a close eye on all his children, especially his baby girl, Ora. After she finished school, Ora, while, met Robert J. Lewis Jr. He joined an ever-growing number of ardent suitors who wanted to court Ora Cooley.
“I married Robert Lewis after we courted a while, and we moved here to Memphis,” said Mrs. Jackson. “Our eight children were all born here. Two of them are deceased. But I thank God for the time He gave me with every one of my children.
Mrs. Jackson found employment in Memphis with great ease because of her level of education and charming demeanor. She worked a number of jobs until the mid-1960s.
In 1962, Mark Luttrell Sr. was appointed superintendent of the Shelby County Penal Farm. (His son, Mark Luttrell Jr., would later follow him into the field of law enforcement, serving as Shelby County Sheriff and later, was elected to the Shelby County mayor’s office.)
Shortly after that time, Mrs. Jackson applied for the position of matron in the women’s prison at the Penal Farm. Superintendent Luttrell interviewed her and liked the skills of diplomacy and dignity she could bring to the position. Although, no African-American woman had ever worked as the matron, he hired Mrs. Jackson, and she thrived in the post.
“I came to love those women,” said Mrs. Jackson. “Black, white, whatever they were, I taught them things that I had taught my own daughters. I taught them about hygiene and grooming. Some of them could not read. So I tried to improve their life skills while they were incarcerated.”
As matron of the women’s prison, Mrs. Jackson carved out a uniquely styled administration that combined both structure and compassion.
“I remember Mother would load up a bus and bring the women to church,” said Pastor Larry Lewis, Mrs. Jackson’s baby son. “She would have them dressed in white blouses and black skirts. They had formed a choir. That was at Castalia Baptist Church when Rev. Calvin Mims was pastor. And in all those times that she brought a busload out, not one escaped, or tried to escape. I still find that remarkable.”
Mrs. Jackson had a philosophy that seemed to work for her in that matron’s position.
“I have always thought that if you treat people with respect, you will get respect,” Mrs. Jackson said. “I taught those women to respect themselves and to respect each other. I treated them like my own children, and they responded in kind.” Mrs. Jackson desegregated the living quarters of the women and by her own example, generated harmonious relations among the inmates.
When Lewis was about 10 or 11, he started to come to work with his mother.
“I always tell people my baby went to prison when he was still young,” Mrs. Jackson said. “I would bring him to work with me, and sometimes he would spend the night there.”
Lewis can recall coming to work with his mother and sometimes bringing his bike to ride on the premises.
“I would ride my bike along the sidewalks around the penal farm,” said Lewis. “I remember the atmosphere inside the facility being very peaceful and respectful. Even as a boy, I thought that might be a little unusual for a prison.”
In the late 1970’s, Mrs. Jackson was promoted to the rank of sergeant, moving into the courtrooms of Shelby County.
“I served with Judges Arthur Bennett, Otis Higgs, and H.T. Lockhart,” said Mrs. Jackson. “They were all great men of integrity, and it was an honor to serve with them. We were proud of our black judges.”
Mrs. Jackson divorced and continued raising her children alone. In 1974, she married John D. Jackson, whose companionship she enjoyed until his death in February, 1990.
“John Jackson was so good to me,” said Mrs. Jackson. “He was just the best husband any woman could have. My husband bought me lots of gifts, and tried to show me every day how much he loved me. I still miss his friendship. He was such a wonderful companion.”
Mrs. Jackson is a faithful member of Lewis’ church, and she thinks “it’s great” that her baby son is also her pastor.
“I’m just so proud of my son,” said Jackson. “He’s a good preacher, a real good preacher. And, I’m not saying that just because he’s my son. I enjoy our service, and I’m always there for Sunday School.”
Lewis is pastor of Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding Ministries on Park Avenue in the Orange Mound Community.
Of Mrs. Jackson’s eight children, six are still living. There are 20 grandchildren, 32 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren.
This year’s birthday bash will span a four-day schedule of activities, from Friday through Monday, July 2-5. Sunday, a special church service will be held at True Faith Baptist Church in South Memphis. On Monday, her actual birthday, a culminating family brunch will close out Mrs. Jackson’s 100th birthday celebration.
Longevity runs in the family. Mrs. Jackson’s father, “Poppa,” lived to be 107.