The lady they call “Miss Susie” doesn’t say much any more. At 115, that’s right, 115, as of July 6, and hard of hearing, totally blind and requiring 24-hour care, she doesn’t have to. You can learn her favorite foods—she eats bacon pretty much every day—easily enough.
But if you want to learn more about this amazing supercentenarian, her 10 doting nieces are more than willing to tell you the story of an exemplary American life.
They celebrated her birthday a few days late at the Vandalia Senior Center where she lives in the East New York section of Brooklyn July 10. Amazingly, Miss Susie (that’s what they call her in the building) still resides in her own apartment. She receives 24-hour assistance from a team of health-care professionals provided by ArchCare, the continuing care service of the Archdiocese of New York.
ArchCare, which also serves Westchester, recently began offering home care in all five boroughs when it assumed the operations of Visiting Nurse Regional Health Care System, including the 126-year-old Visiting Nurse Association of Brooklyn. The transition, which has taken place over the last two years, was officially finalized May 1.
Susannah Mushatt Jones was born in the Jim Crow South in Lowndes County, Ala., the third oldest of 11 children in a sharecropper’s family in 1899. She has lived through 20 presidencies, two World Wars, the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement as well as the invention of the first heavier than air flying machine in 1903 and the landing of the first man on the moon in 1969. She has lived long enough to see the first African American elected president of the United States, something she has said she never expected to see.
But her personal history is no less compelling. She is the oldest New Yorker and, according to Gerontology Research Group, the third-oldest American.
“She has had a wonderful life,” said Dr. Lavilla Mushatt Watson, now 82, her eldest niece. If it weren’t for the woman she lovingly calls “Aunt Tee,” it is unlikely Lavilla would have gone to college. In fact Susannah pretty much ensured all her nieces were able to go to college and she did it while working more than 40 years as a domestic housekeeper and child care worker for well-to-do white families. Her starting salary for her first job in 1922 was $7 per week.
“She cared so much for her family. That’s why we’re so devoted to her now,” Dr. Watson added. “She had a long, hard-working life but she always says she wouldn’t change a thing.”
Growing up in rural Alabama in the early 1900s, Susannah knew one thing. She didn’t want to work in the fields. She wanted to teach. Seeing her ambition, her family scrimped and saved and was able to send their precocious daughter to boarding school, the Calhoun Colored School, the only high school for “colored” children at that time in that part of Alabama. Booker T. Washington founded the school.
Susannah was the first in her family to graduate high school. Her commencement photo, class of 1922, still in remarkably good condition, is on proud display in her apartment. But, despite having received a letter from Tuskegee University telling her she had been accepted, she realized her formal education would likely end with high school.
“I knew that my parents didn’t have the money to even send me to high school, never mind college,” Susannah explained in a short biography written by her niece. “But I had faith and I prayed for God to help me find a way to fulfill my dreams so that I could help my family and educate children. I was filled with pride and joy to finally do something for my family.”
Shortly after she graduated Susannah boarded a segregated train and headed for Newark, N.J., on a ticket purchased for her by her prospective employer. She was expected to pay the fare back from her meager salary. Denied entrance to the dining car she brought along enough home cooked food to sustain her for the trip north. Eventually she would find her way to Harlem at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.
By all accounts, Susannah was a hard-working conscientious employee who had amazing skills dealing with children. She carried herself with dignity and demanded respect from her young charges. She had been briefly married to a man, Henry Jones, but didn’t have any children of her own. So the children she cared for became hers, in a way. Some families she worked for remained in contact and pictures of the children, now grown with their own families, adorn her small apartment.
But she never forgot her own family, her friends or her alma mater. During the Depression she learned that her old school was in financial difficulty. At a meeting in her Harlem apartment with school friends who had followed her north during the “great migration” they established the Calhoun Club to raise funds to save their school. Eventually the club became the Calhoun School National Alumni Association, and by the 1960s it had more than 200 members nationwide providing loans and scholarships to worthy students who might otherwise have been denied the opportunity to go to college. Susannah served as president and treasurer.
Each Christmas Aunt Tee would purchase clothes and toys and send the neatly wrapped presents to her nephews and nieces back home. “It gave me great joy anticipating how the children would react when they opened their individually wrapped gifts at Christmastime,” she said.
Now the time has come to pay Aunt Tee back. There are relatives at the small apartment virtually every weekend, though most of them are getting on now in years themselves. Nothing is too much for her, even when she gets a little cranky and uncooperative.
“She’s a wonderful, beautiful person. Sometimes she can get out of hand,” acknowledged another niece, Doris Leonard, now 80 herself. “But she can do anything she wants because she’s 115 and we love her dearly.”
Citations and proclamations from civic, state and national leaders, including framed letters from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, adorn the walls of her neat studio apartment. Pictures of her graduation, trips and family get-togethers are displayed on a coffee table.
For her party there was a birthday cake and balloons. Her ArchCare caregivers were there. One of them, Cicely Fraser, brought her 8-year-old granddaughter Rheanna for a visit. They too are part of the Aunt Tee’s family now.
Aunt Tee, her head dressed in a bright amber scarf and her body wrapped in a warm purple blanket, rested her head on a pillow surrounded by love.