Joan Higginbotham & James Mitchell
Story by Michaela L. Duckett
Photography by Jon Strayhorn of Media Arts Collective
When Joan Higginbotham met Charlotte City Council member James Mitchell in September of 2009, she scarcely could have imagined that two and half years later they would be planning their wedding.
For starters, she was not into dating politicians.
"When he told me that he was an elected official, I didn't necessarily see that as a plus," she told QcityBride.com. "I come from Chicago, and we have a long line of very interesting politicians."
In addition, she was at a point in her life when making a love connection was not a top priority. She had just retired from a 20-year career as a mechanical engineer with NASA, where she made history becoming the third African-American female astronaut to travel into space. Plus, her new position working with Marathon Oil was keeping her busy. She worked in the company's social responsibility office and did a lot of traveling. Her focus was on international operations, including managing a malaria program in Equatorial Guinea in west-central Africa.
Can I have this dance?
The night Joan and James met, they were in Washington, DC, attending the annual Black Party held during the Congressional Black Caucus Convention. One of their mutual friends encouraged James to ask Joan to dance.
"We danced all night," she says. "We talked a little bit, and it was really nice. We kind of shut the party down."
She attended the party with a group of friends from work, who all decided to go out after it was over.
"I was like, 'No, I'm going home to bed,'" she recalls. "He offered to walk me home... We talked a little more. He gave me a hug, and then he left."
That's her version of how they met. His version is basically the same, except he adds a few details.
"I'm going to tell the real story," James begins. "We started dancing. We were throwing down and really having a good time. And so, she had on these cute shoes, you know, trying to be cute, and her feet started hurting. So we just sat down and started talking."
That's when she told him that she had just retired from NASA and was a former astronaut. It blew his mind.
"I couldn't believe it," he says. "I knew there were three black women [who went into space.] Mae Jemison. Stephanie Wilson and Joan Higginbotham. I couldn't believe I was sitting beside a legend."
Their first date
They met later that week for lunch and went shopping.
"She put me on an interview," said James. "She used the excuse, 'Let's go to lunch, get something to eat and I'm going shopping.' Four hours later, I realized that she was actually interviewing me, and we laughed about it."
Later that night, they went to the Congressional Black Caucus Dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and the first lady. James received a private invitation to the after party with the first family, but the catch was he had to bring a date. Of course, he asked Joan and she accepted. She shocked him again, when he realized that she knew Michelle Obama; they had attended high school together and shared a mutual friend.
"We had a great time," he said. "The next day I had an early flight back to Charlotte, and she flew back to Houston."
A long-distance love
They stayed in touch by phone, but didn't see each other again until weeks later. Joan had foot surgery, and James flew out to Houston to take care of her.
"She was a hard patient," he says. "She is so independent. She would rather do things by herself. This woman was on crutches hopping up three flights of stairs. She wouldn't even let me turn off the light. She would stand on one leg and take a crutch and do it before she would let me walk over and turn off the switch."
For the next two years, they dated long distance, racking up thousands of frequent-flyer miles between Houston and Charlotte.
"It was nice because you miss each other, but then it was bad because you miss each other," says Joan. "When we got together it was good. It was short and sweet. I think towards the end of that second year, leaving was not such fun. It got a little tough."
They discussed marriage, and it became clear that something had to give.
"Initially, I think we both really liked each other, but we didn't know it was going to be such a long lasting kind of thing, and it just grew," said Joan. "At some point we decided that we were going to try and make this work, so one of us was going to have to move, and that one of us was me."
It was a decision that initially gave Joan's mother some cause for concern.
"My mom was like 'You're moving to Charlotte and leaving your job. You have a very successful career. Have you lost your mind?' " says Joan. "I'm her baby, and she was a little concerned."
Joan took note of her mother's words but decided to follow her heart. She wanted to marry the man she loved and did not want to take him away from his two children, of whom he shares joint custody.
James calls her decision "a tremendous sacrifice."
"It put a lot of pressure on me because when she got here, I was like 'I've got to make this woman happy' because of all of the sacrifices she made."
He also understood her mother's concerns and wanted to make sure that he did what he could to make her feel more at ease before asking for her daughter's hand in marriage.
Cramped on bended knee
Joan moved to Charlotte in October of last year. The following Thanksgiving, her family came to town for the holidays. That weekend Joan and James invited both of their families and all of their friends to their new house, which she picked out with his daughters. They wanted everyone to get to know each other and to show Joan's mother that she was in a good environment.
"At the end of the evening he got up, and he thanked everybody for coming," says Joan. "He looked at my mom, and he said, 'I probably should have done this a while ago,' and then he asked me if I would marry him. I started bawling even though I knew [the proposal] was coming."
According to James, the moment seemed to last an eternity.
"It was so funny because she knew she was getting the ring, but she cried for like five minutes," he says. "I was down on one knee for so long that I cramped up, and she was still crying and caught up in the moment. I was like, 'baby are you going to say something?'"
Joan says she only cried for about 30 seconds, a claim James quickly disputes.
"Don't even try that," he quipped. "I wouldn't have cramped up in just 30 seconds."
Joan is now busy planning their wedding, which will be held in mid June at East Stonewall A.M.E. Zion Church.
She says she is enjoying her new life in Charlotte and loves her new job. She is the Director of Community Relations for Lowe's, where she oversees the company's charitable and educational fund, which distributes about $20 million annually and has a primary focus on education in grades K-12 and community improvement in areas across the nation where Lowe's has operations.
Taking a chance on love
Prior to meeting and falling in love with James, Joan said that she had almost given up on love and had grown tired of dating. The issue, she says, was finding someone who she felt was worth her time. She doesn't believe that a woman should ever settle.
Joan, like James, had been married before and did not think that at this stage in her life she would get married again.
"I pretty much thought it was like getting struck by lightning," she says. "I wasn't so sure it was going to happen. I felt like it would be a nice thing if it did. But if it didn't, I wasn't going to go to my grave heartbroken. Love sometimes comes when you are not necessarily out there looking. When it comes, it comes when it's time."
James had his own relationship issues. He was going through what he describes as a bitter divorce when he and Joan started dating. He said the fact that she did not balk when confronted with all of his drama helped him see that he had someone special. He said seeing her interact with his two daughters – whom he fondly refers to as his "blessings" – sealed the deal.
Joan does not have children of her own, and James said that within days of her coming to Charlotte, her maternal instincts kicked in like second nature. "It made me feel good that, right off the bat, she was like, 'These are my children [too],'" he says.
James admits that being with such a successful woman can be intimidating at times.
"When I think about all of her accomplishments, I think to myself 'she loves me?' " he says. "She is like 'You are the one.' I just realize how fortunate I am to have someone in my life who is so giving. She has a tender heart."
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