ST. PETERSBURG — Interstate 275 practically runs over Mother Jessie's little cottage. Her house looks like something the world passed by. It's the only light at the end of a dead-end street, bumping against the big highway. She doesn't see the world as passing her by. She sees it as catching up. She is 83.
Mother Jessie Wells has three TV sets on. She doesn't want to miss a single second of what was happening Tuesday night.
This was the election that was supposed to have awakened young voters. For older black voters like her, it's nothing less than the biggest political and cultural moment of their lives — bigger than the Voting Rights Act, bigger even than King.
She felt it last week on Halloween. Kids hadn't come down her street in years. Every year she had bowls of candy left over, untouched. She finally stopped buying it. Last week, she found four children on her porch. She got her bowl of change, and poured coins in their bags. She watched them walk off in the dark. Three of the children were white, and one was black. She knew then this election would be different.
"Things are changing," she says. "Right where we are, right now."
If you picture Mother Jessie as some kindly, graying old soul who sacrificed her dreams for her children, who suffered quietly, who prayed her way through the Jim Crow era, whose reward is now a cane rocking chair, a tattered Bible, change the picture fast.
Until recently, she drove a 2008 green Jaguar. She's soulmates with the iconoclast black state Rep. Darryl Rouson, who calls her his "firecracker." Her children call the two of them "double trouble." She went back to college after bearing five children. She graduated the same year her oldest graduated from high school and her youngest finished kindergarten. She became a social worker, rescuing neglected children, most of them black. In her trunk, she kept soap, a gallon of water and clean children's clothes.
Jessie Kicklighter Wells was born Aug. 10, 1925, in St. Petersburg, delivered by midwife. Her father soon took the family to Lake City where he worked as a butcher. She walked to school. She remembers small white kids spitting at her from their school buses. She returned to St. Petersburg in her teens, "a little sassy girl," to stay with her grandmother. She graduated from Gibbs High School.
Her world was all black and insular. She missed the worst of segregation, simply because she was sheltered from it. She attended black schools and a black church. Her parents and teachers drummed into her that if she worked hard, she could accomplish anything. The subtext of "anything" was anything in her black world.
Anything did not include the presidency.
She met John W. Wells while working at the legendary Webb's City World's Largest Drug Store, covering 10 city blocks. Her husband-to-be said something smart: "Hey, where you goin'?" She didn't like it. She gave him a second chance.
"That chance lasted 59 years."
He worked as a handyman for the St. Petersburg Times. He became Mr. Mom for five kids — ages 7 to 15 — while Jessie spent two years at Florida A&M in Tallahassee.
He watched the kids at home while she marched on City Hall in 1978, protesting the police shooting of a black man in a white neighborhood. John Wells was the quiet one. He passed away at age 86 in 2007.
She is not the quiet one. But she is not the angry one.
"I'm a strong black woman," she says, but a realist, too. "I've never said everything is black or white. I've always said everything is right or wrong."
Tuesday night, the TV sets show blue sweeping the electoral map. As Obama takes Pennsylvania, she says, "I'm going to have to do some kind of dance tonight." As he takes Ohio, she shakes her head. She looks stunned. "Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, I'd have never seen this."
As Obama is declared president-elect, she looks at the portrait of her dead husband on the living room wall.
"Johnny," she says, "this has turned out all right."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com.