In July 1948, Elizabeth Spencer – Bess to her family and friends – traveled far from her native Missouri for the first time. She was a Democrat going to Philadelphia. There, she joined other delegates and alternate delegates in nominating then-President Harry Truman at the Democratic National Convention.
Sixty-eight years later, Bess’ granddaughter, Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham, is in Philadelphia for a Democratic National Convention that Tuesday nominated Hillary Clinton for president.
In packing for the trip north, Charlotte’s Cotham – a superdelegate as a member of the Democratic National Committee – made sure to find room for a family heirloom. It’s a small donkey figure representing the Democratic Party that Grammy Bess bought as a memento of that long-ago convention that launched “Give ’em hell” Harry’s underdog campaign for a full term in the White House.
The message on the green donkey reads: “Vote Democratic 1948.”
There weren’t many women sitting on the convention floor at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall back then. Cotham said Bess appears to have been an alternate delegate. “It was a man’s world then,” Cotham said. Today, the Democratic Party requires delegates to be split evenly between men and women.
Cotham was born in September 1950 – about nine months before her St. Louis grandmother died in 1951.
“I wish I could have known my grandmother,” Cotham said Tuesday, “but I feel like I do know her because, growing up, I heard about her constantly.”
About how Bess’ husband, Joe, died in 1929 while she was pregnant with their seventh child. About how during the Great Depression, a lot of men and women cut back on haircuts so Bess, a beautician, made ends meet by doing the hair of the departed at funeral homes and cutting the hair of those housed in what in those days was called “insane asylums.” About how she was involved in grassroots Democratic politics back when they called precincts “wards.” And about how she played songs on the piano – especially Democratic tunes like “Happy Days are Here Again,” the theme song for President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
Born in 1892, Bess Spencer passed on to her daughter Libby – Cotham’s mom – a strong Catholic faith and a loyalty to the Democratic Party, especially during election years.
“Growing up, we always watched the conventions on television,” Cotham said. “It was mandatory.”
She claims one of the first words spoken by her baby brother, Chris, now a Republican in Texas, was “Kennedy,” the Irish Catholic Democrat elected in 1960.
In 1948, when Bess and the other Democrats gathered in Philadelphia, Truman’s convention was televised – in black and white – on the East Coast by CBS and NBC. It was a historic convention, with northern liberals, including then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, winning adoption of a strong civil rights plank in the platform. That prompted delegates from Mississippi and Alabama to walk out of the convention and eventually help start the Dixiecrat party that nominated then-S.C. Gov. Strom Thurmond for president in 1948.
It was also the convention in which the combative, white-suited Truman castigated the “do-nothing Congress” then controlled by Republicans.
But Cotham said Grammy Bess’ one comment about that July 1948 convention that has survived down the years was: “It was hot!”
Delegates to this year’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia enjoy, unlike their counterparts 68 years ago, modern air-conditioning. But on Monday, 2016 delegates had to endure temperatures of 98 degrees. Even Clinton delegates were “feeling the burn” – with a “u.”
Cotham came to the convention as a Bernie Sanders delegate – as in “feeling the Bern,” with an “e.”
“I read Harry Truman’s acceptance speech and it reminded me of Bernie Sanders,” Cotham said. “And when I read it, I thought about how (Bess) must have heard it (live). It must have been exciting.”
According to family lore, Truman, a fellow Missourian, sent his condolences in a letter to Bess’ family when she died of a heart attack in 1951.
Now a grandmother herself, Cotham is thrilled to be following in the footsteps of her grandmother this week in Philadelphia, where Cotham spent part of her childhood.
But the thing that brings her happy tears is how she feels her grandmother passed along a belief that women should be strong.
“She instilled in her daughters the idea that they came from from ‘strong stock’ and that they would be strong,” Cotham said. “And that has been passed down, as my mother instilled it in me and my brothers and sister and I instilled it in my daughter (N.C. Rep. Tricia Cotham).”
That, Cotham said, is the most enduring gift from her grandmother.
“It’s a real connection,” she said.