On July 6, 2013 Brooklyn super-centenarian Susannah Mushatt Jones turned 114 years old. A few days later, on July 12th, there was a celebration for her at the Vandalia Senior Center in Brooklyn, New York. This extraordinary milestone was covered on television, in the New York Daily News and the New York Times. Ms. Mushatt Jones is the oldest resident of New York State, the second-oldest American and the third-oldest person in the world.
I watched a few of the interviews on television and I always smiled when various reporters asked her “What is your secret?” Or, “Tell us how you did it?” Please know that I am not belittling these questions, for I know they are asked with deep respect and sincerity. However, I also feel the answers could never fully capture the storms she has weathered during her life.
Recently, I was speaking with a friend and she said “Can you imagine what her eyes have seen?” While I do not know first-hand, I can use history as a guide; here is what I have come up with.
Susannah Mushatt Jones was born on July 6, 1899 in Lowndes County, Alabama; which 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-Americans of all hope of ever achieving the basic civil rights enjoyed by their white counterparts. At the same time, she has witnessed some amazing “firsts” in Civil Rights history.
Ms. Mushatt Jones migrated to New York City in 1923, when she was just 24 years old. Like the men and women who left the south before her, she dreamed of creating a new life, filled with hope and great expectations. I imagine there were times when her journey was also hard and demeaning. This was a period when segregation was woven into every facet of life in America.
Opportunities for economic and educational advancements were non-existent. Schools were separate and unequal. Many were forced to accept jobs as domestics or as field hands. 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. This was an era of privilege and entitlement for anyone but African-Americans.
The legal system also treated them most unjustly. 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.
In 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 she heard the news.
Surely she rejoiced when, in December 1995, Rosa Parks 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.
In 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? Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of this famous march and thousands are expected to recreate this history day.
One year later, in 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.
In 1965, all eyes would focus on her home state of Alabama for the Selma to Montgomery March. On March 25th, 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 am sure that Ms. Mushatt Jones was extremely proud of all that she, and her family, accomplished. She never had children but was a doting aunt to her nieces and nephews. She encouraged them to go to college, and provided financial support to help them along. Wouldn’t it be great if they recorded all that she shared with them?
I would love to know what her reaction was when, in 2009, 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. At this point she was 110 years old! What a celebration this was for her on so many levels. She lived through a century of firsts with years to spare.
As I wrote earlier, 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 you and I are the beneficiaries of.
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, “A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke.”
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 President Obama on the bus where Rosa Parks sat – via Pinterest, Mary Hartfield
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