OKLAHOMA CITY — Robert Jones saw something election night he’d never thought possible. The 103-year-old — a lifelong voter, a grandson of slaves — saw a black man elected president.
“Not in my day. Not in my day,” he said. “I never thought I would see it in my time.”
The Oklahoma City man voted for Barack Obama and watched the election unfold on the big screen TV in his den. It was, Jones said, the most historic day of his life.
“It’ll be a good thing,” he said, “for both sides.”
Jones’ granddaughter, Victoria Kemp, stood in line for him Nov. 1. He’s healthy, but couldn’t have handled the four-hour wait for early voting at the Oklahoma County Election Board. When he arrived, everyone wanted to talk to him, Kemp said. People burst into spontaneous applause. Strangers took pictures of him.
“He was a rock star,” she said.
Jones said he was shocked to see so many people waiting.
“I was delighted,” said Jones, a thin man with white hair and a quick wit. “I really was. I never saw that many people. I voted a lot of times, but I never saw nothing like it before.”
Jones registered to vote in the early 1930s, but it wasn’t easy in Jim Crow days. The clerk had a habit of being unavailable for new black registrants — being home when someone was at his office, being at his office when someone went to his home. Jones finally caught up with the man and registered. He was determined to vote.
“It was a privilege that I knew that my parents and others hadn’t had,” he said.
Jones was born in 1905 outside Hamilton Switch, a black town a few miles north of Okmulgee that’s now called Preston. Soon after, his family moved to Vernon, another black town where Jones grew up safe and relatively insulated from the segregated world beyond. The town was young back then, like Oklahoma.
“The land was new,” he said. “Oklahoma was new.”
The Jones family grew cotton and corn. Parents Sylvester and Ester were good, Christian people — hardworking and strict. Robert’s education was interrupted by demands of the farm, but he graduated by way of correspondence courses.
He first met his wife, Elizabeth, in Sunday school when they were both 5. He eventually proposed to Elizabeth. They married and moved to Boley. Together they had five children — a son, fraternal twins and two younger daughters.
The Jones family worked as cotton sharecroppers on 120 acres. They lived in three rooms; Jones said it was partly a shack, partly a good house. Jones worked the farm in the mornings and looked for odd jobs in the afternoons.
Eventually, Robert and Elizabeth separated. His wife left him and the children and moved to Oklahoma City. Eventually, the kids moved to the capitol city one at a time. Robert followed and found a construction job at Tinker Air Force Base.
A few years later, he was hired as a metalworker for the Civil Aviation Administration. He started work three days after Christmas in 1953. Six months later, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. But segregation continued in Oklahoma.
“Now, I was there,” he said. “I know.”
Protests began. Black children sat in whites-only restaurants. Jones followed all the stories.
But while tension escalated throughout Oklahoma and the country, Jones’ job was a haven. He worked with blacks and whites and Native Americans; they all got along.
“It was a good place,” he said.
Jones keeps his work memories latched inside a faded blue suitcase. He has photos, letters and pay stubs. In one photo, Jones stands among everyone who received an award for outstanding service. The only black faces are his and a co-worker who was the pastor at his church, St. Mark’s Baptist. Jones won the award again. He always tried to improve himself, he said.
“You can learn something every day in the work field, after you learn to pay attention and where to look,” he said. “But that’s life in general.”
At age 103, Jones still pays attention.
He watches “Meet the Press” every Sunday and Atlanta Braves baseball when it’s in season. He talks politics, cuts his own hair and does his own banking. He prays a lot. He sees visitors often. He has 20 grandchildren, probably more than 30 great-grandchildren, he said, and then he loses count of the generations after that. He celebrated his 103rd birthday in October, and the potluck dinner turned into a two-day parade of loved ones.
His health is good, though he has trouble hearing and seeing sometimes. He’s colorblind. But he feels good about the world he lives in today. And he is grateful he lived long enough to have the privilege, he said, of voting for someone of color as president. The election bodes well for America, he said.
“I think we’re coming along pretty good,” he said. “I think we’re doing all right.”