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Mrs. Laura Jolly, an unsung hero of Black Chicago

Mrs. Jolly lived through dark chapters of African American history yet triumphed as a lifelong educator. It’s important to acknowledge the contributions of our elders who made a difference in their communities and families.

Mrs. Laura Jolly.
Mrs. Laura Jolly. It’s important to acknowledge the contributions of our elders who made a difference, Natalie Moore writes.
Provided photo.

Laura Jolly witnessed poll taxes, Jim Crow and this country’s first Black president in her 103 years.

She died last month, and I like to think of her as an unsung hero of African American history in Chicago. Someone who may not be in textbooks or canonized at elementary school assemblies, but a woman who lived through dark chapters of yesteryear and triumphed with a story to tell.

I met Mrs. Jolly as a little girl attending Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Chatham neighborhood. She taught me in Sunday School. But more importantly, I always made a point to greet and hug Mrs. Jolly. Young people — well, everyone — loved Mrs. Jolly for her warmth and support. I felt she was proud of me whether in high school, college or my career. Her granddaughter Jaci was my babysitter; my friends and I looked up to her for her style, beauty and her aura of being an “it girl.” She, too, took me under her wing.

I didn’t know the full story of Mrs. Jolly’s life until reading her obituary at Cage Funeral Home in South Shore. I knew she graduated from college and had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago — a feat for a Black woman born in 1918. I knew she was born in Tennessee and her father was committed to Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln. She inherited that loyalty until Barack Obama ran for president. I interviewed her about her voting decision and Mrs. Jolly pulled out what I had previously only read about in U.S. history texts — a poll tax receipt. In 1912 and 1913, her father had to pay one dollar to vote. Poll taxes were a legal way to keep African Americans from voting in southern states, despite having the right to vote granted by the 15th Amendment. She saved those racist records.

Mrs. Jolly moved to the big city, Birmingham, at 11 years old, after her father died. She attended Alabama State University, a historically Black college, and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She lived long enough to see her great-granddaughter be a fourth generation AKA. Mrs. Jolly taught in the Birmingham public school system. She married and moved to Chicago and received a degree in supervision and administration from the University of Chicago in 1945. But the couple briefly returned to Alabama, and Mrs. Jolly taught at her alma mater in the education department because she was committed to the uplift of Black people. Her young students included future civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and Mayor Eugene Sawyer.

An education journey that never stopped

The Jollys returned to Chicago in the early 1950s, settling in Chatham just as white flight transformed the neighborhood into a Black working- and middle-class enclave. She pushed education and experiences in her family. Her daughter Delia, at age 16, integrated Briarcliff College in upstate New York. Mrs. Jolly loved to travel and visited every continent except Antarctica. She took Jaci to the Caribbean, to Africa and Broadway.

When I read those details, I elbowed my mother jokingly to see where she plans to take my little daughter on vacation.

After a career as a teacher and administrator in Chicago Public Schools, Mrs. Jolly retired. But her own education journey didn’t stop. At age 64, she earned a law degree.

A week before she died, I called Jaci, who, even though is a big sister, has transitioned into a peer as I have aged. Jaci happened to be with her grandmother and told her “Natalie is on the phone. Do you know who she is?” Mrs. Jolly, her voice weakened but mind ever sharp, replied, “Yes, I know her. I taught her.” I heard a hint of “duh, Jaci” in her voice. I told her happy belated birthday.

Living to 103 is rare, but our communities are full of elders who made differences on their blocks, in classrooms or in families. It’s important to acknowledge their contributions and lived experiences. Even if they aren’t in history books.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.

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