If ever a woman could be called “a mother among mothers,” Ora Dell Cooley Jackson would have to be considered one. She is everybody’s mother!
At 96 (and celebrating another birthday in July “if the Lord lets me see it”), Mother Jackson came up from the cotton fields in Mississippi to sit among great men during her illustrious, trailblazing career in Shelby County Courts.
She still has her nails manicured and lacquered with bright, red polish. She is never late for church—Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding Ministries in Orange Mound, where her son, the Rev. Larry S. Lewis is pastor. When she shares her own pearls of wisdom there, everyone listens. Mother Jackson is the “Church Mother”—she’s everyone’s mother.
Her saga is a story worth telling, offering instructive life lessons and cautionary tales about raising children, succeeding when the odds are stacked against you, and everything in between.
In the life of “Mother Jackson,” as she is often called, hardship and adversity have been purveyors of wisdom and knowledge. From birth, there was an intriguing legacy of endurance passed on from those who came before her.
“It was the Lord that brought me this far,” she said. “Grace and mercy helped me feed my children, raise them in the church, and see all these generations after them go to college and achieve so many wonderful things in their life. I thank God for letting me stay here so long to witness it for myself.”
From humble beginnings…
Ora Dell Cooley was born on July 5, 1921, in Indianola, Miss. In a notorious era of a segregated and oppressive sharecropping system, the Cooleys were blessed to own their own farm.
Virge Cooley, Ora Dell’s father, was the son of a slave woman who worked in the house of her owner. Many African-Americans inherited the land of former owners when all of the white descendents died out, leaving Blacks who still resided on the land, according to historical records.
Many of the specific details about how “Papa” came to own that farm are missing from family lore. But the Cooleys raised meats and vegetables throughout the early 1900s, sharing and sustaining many families in Sunflower County.
Ora Dell was the youngest of her siblings. “Papa” was the father of 21 children from two marriages. Ora remembers her mother, Frances Cooley, as an exceptional cook and homemaker who prepared epic meals several times a day. Often, neighbors and guests found themselves sitting at the Cooley dinner table.
Young Ora was a determined and resourceful student, graduating high school in Indianola — a rare accomplishment for African-American children at the time. Many dropped out early to help support their families, working alongside their parents and siblings in the fields. An eighth-grade education was exceptional, but earning a high school diploma was a tremendous accomplishment.
She married her first husband, the late Robert J. Lewis Jr., and moved to Memphis in 1941, joining the wave of migrating young African Americans seeking better job prospects. The old local phrase, “Memphis is the capital of Mississippi” comes to mind — a saying signifying that Memphis was the place to settle, once you left Mississippi.
Robert quickly found work, and the couple began raising a family. They had eight children; six are still living.
A second marriage to the late John D. Jackson changed the total family dynamic. Mr. Jackson had married an “educated woman,” and he fully supported his bride as Matron of Women at the Shelby County Penal Farm. In this role — a first for an African American woman — she became a trailblazer in Shelby County law enforcement and criminal justice.
Ora cultivated a more family-like atmosphere in the women’s correctional facility. Inmates were taught homemaking arts and other life skills. Working double duty was normal as Mother Jackson brought her baby boy with her to work.
Later, she became a Shelby County Deputy and the first African-American woman to serve as a bailiff in the Shelby County Courts. She worked for Judges H.T. Lockard, Otis Higgs, and Arthur Bennett. A promotion to the rank of “Sergeant” distinguished her as another “first” for African-American women.
Sgt. Ora Jackson worked and raised her children, sending seven of the eight to college. Six daughters and one son earned various degrees and enjoyed successful careers. All are now retired.
But there has been heartache. Ora lost an older son, “Bubba,” when he became a young man and moved away from home. Earlier this year, she lost a daughter in a tragic car accident.
But the bloodline continued. She now has 20 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren, and nearly all of them are college graduates—a source of great pride for Mother Jackson.
Two of those “grands” and “great-grands” are law enforcement officers, one is a U.S. Navy pilot, a number of them are educators, one is a firefighter, one is a hotel general manager, two chose law careers, and several are presently attending college and graduate school.
“You know, I started out picking cotton in Mississippi, but the Lord has been good to me,” she smiled. “Look at how good He has been to my family. And I can say without a doubt that I’ve come this far by faith, leaning and depending on Jesus.
“I’ll tell anybody that whatever is going on in your life, you need the Lord. He’ll make you the best mother you can be,” she continued. “He’ll help your children, whatever the circumstance. Jesus is our everything.”