Oldest African American, and one of my church ladies, carried no anger, no stress

January 18, 2011

Mississippi Winn usually sat in the pew in front of my parents, my two sisters and me at the Avenue Baptist Church in my home town, Shreveport, La. If I had known that she'd become the oldest living African American in the country, I might have at least spoken to her more often, not just nod and smile in that perfunctory way we do to old folk.

Now she's gone, died last week of natural causes at age 113. Yet another reminder not to take your elders for granted.

"When I asked her how old she was, she knew she was 113 but thought she was young," Mary C. Hollins, Winn's great-niece, said in an Associated Press article. "She always thought there would be a next year."

Don't we all?

How easy to forget that life is a terminal condition, no exemptions, and that every moment counts. If you need to call a parent, visit a friend, make amends - do it sooner rather than later. No matter how long we live, it won't be forever.

Winn had become a member of our church in 1927, when she was 29. I wouldn't be born for another 24 years. She'd worked nearly all her life as a domestic. But to me, she was just one of those ever-present church ladies, someone you expected to see every Sunday.

Her friends called her "Sweetie," and her skin was so smooth, almost wrinkle-free, that she never looked a day older than the last time I saw her. Easier to make myself believe that I wasn't getting older, either.

Of course, you know that someday, if we live long enough, we'll be elders, too. Still, it's startling to look in the mirror and realize that someday has arrived. "Aging baby boomers" - that's what my generation is now being called. But the truth is, you can drop the baby part.

According to the Gerontology Research Group, Winn had been one of two known people left in the United States whose parents were almost certainly born into slavery. It's as if a living history book has vanished.

And, yet, just her presence spoke volumes: A contemporary woman, born in 1898, only one generation removed from the Civil War and the "peculiar institution" that started it.

Sort of makes you wonder how anyone could believe that the effects of 300 years of slavery, along with another century of Jim Crow racial oppression, could disappear in such a short time.

The latest Washington Post-ABC poll on race relations, for instance, found that almost half of whites believe that blacks have achieved racial parity. Only 19 percent of blacks feel that way. Moreover, about half of blacks say racial equality either won't be achieved in their lifetimes or never will be.

Amazingly, Winn did not appear troubled by any of the issues that cause us such consternation these days. In fact, she was known to be downright cheerful.

"One of the reasons for her longevity was that she just kind of took things as they'd come, everyday life and living," Hollins said in the AP article. "She didn't let anything upset her and get all hyped up by some of the things as we do."

That's something worth pondering. If a black woman who grew up in Louisiana during the post-Reconstruction era could live without anger and resentment, perhaps those of us whose lives hadn't been nearly as rough could also do without those poisonous emotions.

"It seems to me that one of the things that contributed to her long life and good health was the fact that she had found a place of protection and peace in her God," Clarence Hicks, the pastor at Avenue Baptist Church who'll preside over Winn's funeral Saturday, told me. "I believe that if you have peace, you won't have the kinds of stresses and strains that eat at you emotionally and physically. I never saw Mississippi Winn disturbed by anything or anybody."

Then again, Winn never married; no husband to get on her last nerve. And she didn't drive a car. No raging in traffic.

"She didn't get involved in a lot of church activities," Hicks said. That must have cut down on a headache or two.

"She was living on her own until she was 103," Hollins said in the article. "She was able to cook for herself and take walks until just a few years ago."

Who knows how many of us will live as long as Winn? But we can all hope to live as well.

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