Share this article

print logo

Centenarians tell their stories

Margaret M. Richardson – Margie to her family and friends – is full of stories.

Then again, who wouldn’t have a lot of experiences to share after living a life that spans an entire century?

There was the time that her “daughter” Genise Hasan ran away from her own home as a youngster and went to Richardson’s house to get something to eat.

She can provide details about trips to California that she took by herself at least once a year to visit family up until about four years ago.

And when she speaks of her late husband, Sam, to whom she was married for 45 years, both her demeanor and voice soften. The two met in Baltimore, where they both worked for May Department Stores Co.

“He was a good man. He let me do whatever I wanted,” said Richardson, who turned 100 on Sunday.

Richardson shared her unique stories for a living history project – “The Centenarians: We Have a Story to Tell” – that recounts memories of 10 African-American women in the Buffalo Niagara region, all of whom have lived for at least 100 years.

The other centenarians who participated – the last of whom will have reached the age of 100 on Aug. 2 – are Irene Breckenridge, Artie Bell Brown, Thelma Onelia Arrington Hickmon, Amanda Pugh Jackson, Mamie Lang Kirkland, Pearl Lewis, Mary Lee Jones Reid, Brunette Washington and Lottie Bell Williams.

A vignette on each woman was compiled in a book and a video for the living history project.

In addition to a long life, the women had other things in common.

All were born in the South.

All were married at least once.

They all still live in their own residences – most of them independently, some with caregivers.

And they all cited their faith as key to their longevity, said the project’s co-chairwoman, Fern E. Beavers, a member of the Erie County Chapter of The Links Inc.

“Faith is very important, and what was really striking to me was the support of the family for each of the individuals,” Beavers said.

The collection of memories is a celebration of the women’s longevity, legacy, inner strength and wisdom.

A book-signing of “The Centenarians: We Have a Story to Tell” is planned for next month at the Nash House Museum.

A video produced by Beavers and genealogist Sharon R. Amos, president of the Buffalo Genealogical Society of the African Diaspora, was presented last month during the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier’s annual history dinner. And in March, the centenarians and their families were honored at The Links’ Women’s History Month Program where they received proclamations from local government officials.

Eventually, Beavers will ask all Links chapters to join the project with Buffalo as the primary site for a national database of centenarians.

“This started out as a real simple project,” said Beavers, who completed face-to-face interviews with most of the participants in the project along with Amos. For those who were not available for health, travel or other reasons, information for the project was provided by family members and friends.

Of the seven women who were interviewed in person, there was something about each woman’s story that left a lasting impression on Amos. “Some stories I could definitely connect with. Others were revelations to me,” she said.

For instance, Richardson – who did not have children of her own – didn’t learn to drive until she was 50.

A sharp wit is what Amos remembers most about 102-year-old Breckenridge.

“She was hilarious,” Amos said.

At 107, Kirkland still sells Avon.

And in the 1930s and ’40s, Washington – another who is 102 – went door-to-door selling women’s girdles, corsets and other undergarments. She would measure the client, send in the orders and deliver it to the women once they arrived.

“Who ever heard of that? To have someone come to your house and sell you undergarments,” Amos joked.

Now 101, Brown turned her love of sewing into a business – Fancy Frocks.

“She would make a dress or outfit for herself and model it for her friends,” Amos said. “And her friends would place orders.”

And whoever heard of getting married at a fair? The 102-year-old Williams did, and it was her late husband’s idea, according to Amos.

“He came and asked her if she wanted to go to the fair, and so they went to the fair. He asked her that day, ‘You want to get married?’ So they did. That doesn’t happen every day,” Amos said. “I’m not sure who had the credentials to perform the ceremony.”

Jackson, also 102, got a nursing degree that proved to be very useful when her husband, the Rev. Albert Jackson – composer of the popular Baptist hymn “He’s Sweet, I Know” – became ill with kidney disease.

“She had to put him on the kidney machine and take him off the machine on a daily basis for years, and she said that nurse training came in handy,” Amos said, adding that working on the project “was a lot of fun.”

“All of the women are just so different,” she said. “And one thing they had in common is they all still have their sense of humor.”