IN APRIL, MY great-aunt, Ethel Simons Meeds, celebrated her 100th birthday. A woman with a spare frame and a lined face, she moves slowly, sometimes with a cane, but as often as not declining offers of help. That she is not as agile as she once was in no way disguises that she is still alert, alive to possibilities and deeply interested in what goes on around her.
The week of her birthday, Aunt Ethel's sons, daughters, a sister, her nieces and great-nieces, nephews and great-nephews and friends gathered in Los Angeles to help her celebrate a century of living. Perhaps it was the occasion that dictated the things they spoke of -- as if all who had come were mindful (though it went unvoiced) of another meaning to Aunt Ethel's presence among us as a living treasure, a meaning having to do with the significance of the movement between the then and now that her life encompasses.
That she has lived a century is astonishing, the sum of her years barely comprehensible to someone who has lived only a little more than a third of a century himself. It is only a little easier for me to comprehend how long Aunt Ethel has lived when I think of the events that have occurred during her lifetime, and the things that she has seen come to pass. When she was born, for example, the population of the United States was about 59 million and there were only 38 states. She has lived through the Spanish-American War, both world wars and the Great Depression, the war in Korea and the war in Vietnam.
These are useful markers for trying to understand the span of her life, but the changes Aunt Ethel has witnessed in the lives of black people are even more telling. She was not yet 10 years old in 1896 when the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the legality of segregation. Growing up in South Carolina, she attended segregated schools. If she wanted to go to the theater, she had to sit in the "Buzzard Roost," an upstairs balcony reserved for blacks and the only place they could sit. After high school, she went to Benedict College, a school for blacks in her hometown of Columbia, S.C., earning bachelors and masters degrees in 1909 and 1910 -- an unusual accomplishment, given the time, for someone who was both black and a woman.
But Aunt Ethel lived long enough to see -- midway through the 20th century -- the court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the beginning of the civil rights movement. She lived to see the movement flower, and the resultant dismantling (in law, if not always in fact) of the systems that had denied blacks full participation in American life.
All of us who came to Los Angeles to celebrate Aunt Ethel's birthday must have been aware of this. Why else would so much of the talk be of the past? Talk of Negro regiments and the Tuskegee Airmen, of black soldiers who sought to prove their worthiness for full citizenship by fighting (and dying) in segregated regiments. Relatives and friends recalled a boy they had known, scarred emotionally forever from a year at the U.S. Naval Academy as the only black plebe. They spoke of a time when even becoming a police officer or fireman was a vain hope; these jobs were reserved for whites. It was, they said matter-of-factly, a time when black men who aspired to leadership had only two choices -- becoming preachers or teachers. Only those who possessed both luck and an undeniable amount of determination became doctors or lawyers.
There was often a wry amusement in the voices of these relatives and friends, but I cannot truly say they sounded bitter. Things have changed. And that they have can be seen as a fruition, a fulfillment of the faith that has been the hallmark of black (and indeed all) Americans -- with discipline, purpose and education, you can make things better for yourself and for those who come after you. The proof of it was that although the family over which Aunt Ethel presides as oldest living member includes its share of teachers, it also has its dentists, doctors, engineers, an architect and a lawyer or two. And, in this generation, yes, even a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
What made this possible, I think, was Aunt Ethel's (and, indeed, the rest of those who were there in Los Angeles) refusal to accept others' restricting definitions, and her determination to excel despite the limits that had been placed on her. When I compare the achievements of the generations that came before with those of my own, I find us lacking. We have not been tested. We have not been forged in the same ways. And where they felt a call to service, too many of us are too concerned with careers, salaries and individual accomplishment.
For some time in the Teens and '20s, after finishing her masters degree and before getting married, Aunt Ethel taught with Mary McLeod Bethune on the staff of what would become Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. She tells a story of how Bethune would walk the resort area, asking the rich white Northerners who had come to Daytona Beach for contributions to her school. One day, a man responded by giving her 25 cents, for which, Aunt Ethel said, Bethune thanked him as sincerely as if it had been $2,500.
"A year later," Aunt Ethel said, "Mrs. Bethune was again soliciting contributions, when she met the same man. He jokingly asked if she had been able to use the quarter he had given her. Mrs. Bethune said yes, and asked if he wanted to see what use she had made of it. He did, and so she took him to the college and showed him the windows in a new building.
" 'That pane of glass,' Mrs. Bethune said. 'That is what I bought with your quarter.' "
The first time that Aunt Ethel told me that story, I felt myself grow hot with anger at the anonymous "benefactor's" arrogance and at Bethune's seemingly meek acceptance of it. Over time, however, I have come to see Bethune's as a truly superior response. Motivated by the desire to build a school for the betterment of her people, she had no time for anger or self-pity.
One of the last things Aunt Ethel did before I left Los Angeles was to repeat her belief that education was central to accomplishment. At 100, she said, she didn't need money. So instead of birthday gifts, she had asked that donations be made to a scholarship fund at her "beloved institution," Benedict College.
I would guess that most of my peers, vouchsafed admission in the '60s to Harvard, Yale or one of the great state universities of the Midwest, would not admit feeling the same kind of affection for the schools they attended. The reason is simple: We don't have the same pride of participation and "ownership" that Aunt Ethel had at Benedict. And paradoxically, although the end of a segregated society has meant we have had opportunities Aunt Ethel could only dream of, our lives have not, I think, necessarily been richer.
David Nicholson is an editor of The Washington Post's Book World section.