Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Channelling Isabella Cannon

I had to smile last night when I thought of Ms Cannon and her mayoral victory in 1977. Could our neighborhoods be coming back to civic life? If we ever needed Isabella's energy since 1977, now is the time.

As part of the Southern Oral History Program at UNC, Jim Clark interviewed Ms. Cannon in 1993. That oral history can be found here, for those who missed this era, a synopsis follows.

Isabella Cannon was the first woman mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina. As part of the Raleigh Bicentennial Task Force oral history project, Cannon discusses talks about her community and political involvement in Raleigh over the course of the twentieth century. Originally born in Scotland in 1904, Cannon came to America with her family in 1916. Cannon first moved to Raleigh with her husband during the Great Depression because of his job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA). She immediately sought to learn as much as she could about the history and culture of Raleigh. During this time, she and her husband were actively involved in the United Church of Christ, which she explains was very progressive in terms of its early advocacy for integration. In addition, Cannon was an active participant in community theater with the Raleigh Little Theater.

She left Raleigh for a number of years when her husband was asked to head the fiscal planning for the Lend-Lease Program in Washington D.C. Cannon worked intermittently as a statistician during these years and lived abroad with her husband in Liberia. After his retirement, they returned to the Raleigh area. After her husband's death, Cannon went to work for the North Carolina State Library for fifteen years, during which time she became increasingly involved in local politics. In the early 1970s, she actively campaigned for Jim Hunt's election as Lieutenant Governor.

Then, in 1977, at the age of 73, Cannon campaigned to become the first woman mayor of Raleigh. The "little old lady in tennis shoes" describes her grassroots campaign against incumbent Jyles Coggins and the national and global press her election received. As mayor, Cannon was especially concerned with issues of affirmative action, the Long Range Comprehensive Plan to support the growth of Raleigh, reconciling tension between the city and the police and fire departments, strengthening the relationship between city and state, establishing parks, and revitalizing the downtown area.

In 2000, she delivered the commencement address at Elon. She was 96, and she once again shared her philosophy of life: think globally / act locally, get and stay involved in your communities and neighborhoods.

I found this paragraph from Time Magazine, published at the time:
Generally, election winners were an eclectic group for whom age, sex or race seemed to be no barrier. Denying that she was a "little old lady in tennis shoes," retired Librarian Isabelle Cannon, 73, proved to be fast on her feet as she upset Jyles Coggins, 56, mayor of Raleigh, N.C. "How can you debate with someone who is old enough to be your mother?" complained Coggins. Said Cannon, who was backed by groups in favor of controlled growth for the city: "Raleigh is ready for a fresh new face."

Hear, here.

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