Reading Guides

It Is Well with My Soul
Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson
Patricia Mulcahy
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On January 20, 2009, Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson woke up “before dawn and put on [her] pearls and layers of clothes” (p. 164) before making her way to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. There the 105-year-old woman waited for eight hours—in a frigid cold that discouraged others just a fraction of her age—so that she could witness Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. As incredible as her stamina and determination were that day, her attendance simply marked one more chapter in a life that was never less than inspirational.

Born Ella Mae Dawson in 1904, at a time when “black citizens had no official papers” (p. 4), she never met her birth father, and her young mother died when she was four. Her mother’s parents were too poor to raise the orphaned girl, so their next-door neighbors, Moody and Tennie Davis, took her in and “embraced her as their own” (p. 6). She led a modest childhood, but absorbed the Davises’ values of hard work and compassionate giving that would guide the rest of her life.

Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Ella Mae lived in a segregated world. She recalled that “because of limited funds and prejudice, public facilities were denied me, including public transportation, swimming pools, restaurants, and most hurtfully, libraries” (p. 13). Yet, despite these obstacles, Ella Mae graduated from high school as salutatorian and gained admission to Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

After earning her master’s degree from Case Western University, she went on to become a social worker, formalizing her lifelong commitment to helping those in need. When her beloved husband Elmer died, she raised two sons on her own. Fifty-four years after her retirement, Ella Mae said, “I wake up and often I look at the painting of the Good Samaritan. In terms of what I’ve done lately, I think: Was that compassionate? Did that help anybody? Could I do something different?” (p. 145).

Although Ella Mae’s religious faith was profound, she never felt the need to impose her own beliefs on others. Late in life, she began to travel the world, and took many trips to the Holy Land. “For me,” she reflected, “there is nothing more important than a broad vision of the world. . . . I was as comfortable praying in Jewish synagogues and the Bahai shrine in Haira as in a Japanese shrine outside Tokyo” (p. 126).

Ella Mae died in March 2010. For the last thirty-four years of her life, the twice-widowed great-grandmother lived in a retirement community in Cleveland. She was an avid reader. A self-dubbed “beggar for needy people” (p. 153), she raised thousands of dollars for HIV/AIDS relief and to help children born with cleft palates.

It Is Well with My Soul is the uplifting story of one woman whose outwardly ordinary life encompassed the great complexity of the last American century.


Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson (1904–2010) was born in Dallas, Texas, and lived much of her life in Cleveland, Ohio.


  1. Ella Mae remembers how “in those days, there were plenty of other students who didn’t live with their biological parents. They were taken in by relatives or neighbors. There was no court to take care of it” (p. 14). Would the informal network that Ella Mae remembers work today? What, if anything, has changed?
  2. As a member of the choir at Fisk, Ella Mae encountered “some people who didn’t want to sing these ‘slave songs’” (p. 23). Discuss arguments both for and against preserving these cultural reminders.
  3. During Ella Mae’s time at Fisk, she and many of her fellow students participated in a boycott to protest the restrictive regulations placed upon them by the white college president. Was the victory over the Fisk administration worth the loss of education the students suffered? In retrospect, did they have an alternative?
  4. What role should the historically black universities play in today’s post-integrated world? If you were a black high school student today, where would you want to go to college, and why?
  5. Do you know anyone like Ella Mae within your own community? If so, what lessons have you learned from him or her?
  6. If you live to be one hundred and six, what is the one thing for which you’d most like to be remembered?
  7. For most of Ella Mae’s life, she never imagined that a black man could be elected President of the United States. What is something now considered unlikely or impossible that you would like to see change within your lifetime?
  8. Ella Mae advises us to “use your mind and goodwill. I don’t believe in reparations, for the same reason I don’t believe in ‘giving back,’ as in squaring an equation. Acting with compassion is its own reward” (p. 160). Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
  9. “I don’t call myself white. I could pass sometimes, though. A lot of people did it. It was not necessarily honest, but we had to get past a government that was keeping us down” (p. 166). Was passing an act of subversion? What would you have done in her situation?
  10. Have you read any of the books that Ella Mae mentions? If so, can you see how they helped to shape her beliefs?