Ossie Jefferson-Corley has lived the kind of full rich life that many of us hope to experience in our own way. Born the oldest of eight children to a family of farmers, she remembers her youth fondly spent playing outdoors and reading voraciously, despite neither of her parents finishing high school. She recalls older relatives bringing the family reading materials, and proudly says was always given first choice in what she wanted to read. By the time she started school she could already read … and even today her house is still filled with books, including many by her favorite author Louise Hay.
Q: Tell us about your roots and being from a big family
A: My father moved to Nashville, and I was born in Nashville. My mom was from Lynchburg, Tennessee. She was the youngest of ten kids. She could’ve gone to college and done anything she wanted to, but she wasn’t interested. She moved to Nashville and that’s where she met my dad. I was born in Nashville, but then moved to Cumberland Furnace and then back to Nashville. We went to a one-room schoolhouse. My siblings and I would walk to school every day. I had a sister … we were very close, and two younger brothers who we looked after … we took care of each other.
Jefferson-Corley learned the value of hard work from her parents and did well in school while also helping raise her younger siblings at home. She decided she wanted to become a nurse, a goal which she began pursuing around the age of 13 or 14. She worked in several different hospitals before eventually arriving at Alive Hospice, an organization that has been active in Middle Tennessee since 1975. It was while working there that Ossie began what she’s most famous for among FiftyForward center members: her “words of wisdom.”
Q: Throughout your career and into retirement you have been known for sowing seeds of kindness by printing little strips of paper with words of encouragement for others and passing them out or leaving them in common areas where folks could be inspired. How did that begin?
A: I decided I wanted to do something to encourage [people at Alive Hospice] and to help people if they felt like they needed it … so I started making little books with encouraging articles. I would put funny things in there, and they could go and look at the books. Then I decided I wanted to pass out a thought of the day every day to the staff and patients and their families. I used to do it there every day, and then I started coming to FiftyForward Knowles and I started doing it weekly. Some are funny, some are logical … and then others you have to think about.
Through a mutual friend, Jefferson-Corley would then meet and befriend one of the most influential people in her life, as well as in the lives of millions of civil rights activists the world over.
Q: You and Rosa Parks were friends and roommates. How did you meet?
A: I first met Ms. Parks on the street in the 1960s – we stopped, and I asked for an autograph. And then in the 1980s, one of my good friends started traveling with her so we connected that way. Ms. Parks was a friend of mine from the early 80s until she died. Around 1987, my husband and I separated, and I needed a place to go, and she had just moved into a four-bedroom house. They asked if I would like to move with her, and I said yes. I paid a very small rent, but they wanted me to provide the food and do the cooking. I’m a Buddhist and she’s a Methodist, so I was really worried about if she’d have a problem with me being a Buddhist, and so I asked her, and she said no. It helps you, and anything that helps you I have no problem with. Ms. Parks and I shared the house for seven years. I moved out because I got married again, so I had to leave her. Shortly after that, I worked for her institute for three years before I came to Nashville.
Jefferson-Corley also recalls a special birthday party where Ms. Parks flew to Nashville from California just to celebrate with her. It’s a powerful testament to Jefferson-Corley’s experience as a cherished friend, sibling, caregiver, and member of her community.
To hear more of Jefferson-Corley’s inspiring story, please give a listen to our latest podcast.