On July 6, 2014, Brooklyn super-centenarian Susannah Mushatt Jones celebrated her 115th birthday. A few days later there was a celebration for her at the Vandalia Senior Center in Brooklyn, New York. Ms. Mushatt Jones is the oldest resident of New York State, the second-oldest American and the third-oldest person in the world.
Susannah Mushatt Jones was born on July 6, 1899 in Lowndes County, Alabama. This was one of the toughest times to be a person of African or Caribbean descent living in the rural south. I imagine she witnessed the cruel indignities that were designed to strip African and Caribbean Americans of all hope of ever achieving the basic civil rights enjoyed by their white counterparts. Despite these challenges, she would also witness some amazing “firsts” in Civil Rights history.
Ms. Mushatt Jones migrated to New York City in 1923, at the age of 24. Like those who made the journey before her, she dreamed of creating a new life filled with hope and promise. For many southerners moving “up north” this was a time filled great expectation, despite the harsh realities they would experience. This was a period when segregation was woven into every facet of life in America.
Opportunities for economic and educational advancements were non-existent. Often times, the only jobs available to African-Americans were as domestics or field workers. If exceptions were made, they were given the most laborious tasks. When using public transportation, they had to sit in the back of the bus. The same rule was in effect when traveling on the interstate.
The legal system was equally as cruel. For many, punishment for the slightest infractions could range from life in prison, to a life of hard labor. There was no hope of a fair jury trial. We also know that, during these times, lynching was the order of the day. This was truly “the worst of time.”
Thankfully, Ms. Mushatt Jones made it safely through these atrocities and settled into life in Harlem. She must have been so excited! This was the time of the Harlem Renaissance and the beginning of a whole new world on so many levels – intellectually, financially, socially and economically. She worked as a child-care provider for 42 years, until she retired in 1965. As she made her way in the world, America’s history was going through a transformation. She had a front row seat. Here are some of the wonders that she was able to see.
On the Road to Civil Rights – the mid 1950s through the 1960s.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation in public schools was illegal. I am not sure if I could articulate how Ms. Mushatt Jones felt when Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court delivered the court’s decision.
Surely she rejoiced on November 13, 1956 when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in the case of Browder v. Gayle that segregated bus laws in Alabama were unconstitutional. This case was presented after Rosa Park’s arrest on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a public bus to make room for a white passenger. Ms. Parks’ defiance sparked the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for 381 days, until the local ordinance segregating African-Americans and whites on public buses was repealed.
On August 28, 1963, she would see thousands of Americans participate in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wonder if she was there? This past August, we commemorated the 51st anniversary of this historic day.
One year later, on July 2, 1964, I envision Ms. Mushatt Jones rejoicing when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. I can almost see her listening to the radio as the provisions were read. Title VI prohibited public access discrimination and would lead to school desegregation. Title VII prohibited employment discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Title VIII was the original “federal fair housing law,” that was later amended in 1988.
On March 25, 1965, all eyes would focus on her home state of Alabama for the Selma to Montgomery March. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, in the campaign for voting rights. Residents in Harlem led their own demonstrations to show their support. Perhaps she was among them.
I would be remiss if I did not mention two additional milestones that took place in 1967. The first occurred when President Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to be the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. The second occurred when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Loving v. Virginia that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
As we know, the fight for Civil Rights culminated in the 1960s but is far from over. The decades that followed would be marked with notable firsts in education, housing, criminal justice and employment.
I would love to know what her reaction was when, in January 2009 and January 2013, Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States of America. His beautiful wife Michelle would take her place as America’s First Lady. When Ms. Jones was growing up the word “lady” was not given to African-American women. What a celebration this was for her on so many levels. She lived through a century of firsts with years to spare.
This list is by no means finite. I have presented it in this manner to provide a glimpse of what she lived through. I also imagine that she played an important role in securing many of the freedoms that we now enjoy.
As we help Ms. Jones celebrate another milestone, in addition to serenading her with the traditional “Happy Birthday” another song that was popular during the civil rights movement also comes to mind, “Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donny Hathaway.
Please join Brooklyn Legends in wishing Ms. Mushatt Jones a very Happy Birthday!
Photos of Ms. Mushatt Jones – The New York Times
Photos of The Little Rock Nine – images via Yahoo.com
Photo of James Meredith – Wikipedia.org
Photo of Richard and Mildred Loving – Time.com
Photo of Jackie Robinson – via Pinterest, Mary Kay Ward
Photo of Justice Thurgood Marshall – images via Yahoo.com
Photo of The March on Washington – via Googleimages.com
Photo of Rev. Dr. King and President Johnson – via img.dooyoo.co.uk
Background information – Wikipedia and Google.com
Rosa Parks on the bus in Alabama – via Pinterest, Linda Wallace