Inauguration Diary: Ruth Vernette Harper

By way of MPR’s Molly Bloom, Ari McKee-Sexton shares this story with us today.


Ruth Vernette Harper McKee was an early adopter.

In the ’40s, she was the only woman in the only integrated student organization at the U of M — the jazz society. In the ’50s, as a white Georgia housewife, she had a tendency to have a drink or two and give impassioned and unpopular civil rights speeches at cocktail parties. In the ’60s, she was watching history and introducing her two pre-teen girls to Dylan (they only wanted to listen to the Osmonds). In the ’70s, she was alone and an entrepreneur, a single mother raising her youngest girl on a bookseller’s salary. In the ’80s, she was sticking out like a sore thumb at computer conventions amongst all the young geeky guys, looking for something new to play on her Commodore 64. By the ’90s, she was selling books on Amazon. And in the early 2000s, she had discovered Barack Obama before anyone else I knew, listening to his books on CD and shyly displaying the signed photograph she’d received after sending him one of her few fan letters (he is in the illustrious company of Kurt Vonnegut and Marc Chagall).

Born in 1931 in Chicago to a violinist and a language major, she would never live in affluence or power, but she surrounded her three girls and herself with music, art, books, and a rich and sturdy philosophy of social justice, integrity, obsessive curiosity, and love. This is where we learned about family, including our family history, which she’d spent 40 years researching. Among other things, we were taught to speak truth to power, whatever the cost.

She died in December 2007, when it was starting to look like Obama could win Iowa. She did not live to see him win the state or the country, but she did live long enough to hear another truth. Long-suspected but unrevealed in all her research, she learned she was 9 percent sub-Saharan African according to a DNA test (the results of which we had to ask the lab to please rush). The news made her deeply happy, perhaps satisfying the most searching and curious part of her. Before Christmas she was gone.

I know my mom is only one of many people who should have lived to see this day. Like many families, we will watch with pride and sadness, knowing that we are able to spectate and participate in this fine history in no small part because of people like her and of her generation, who made brave choices. When the credits roll, her name will be there in the universe.