BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — A lady always knows when to take her leave.
Susannah Mushatt Jones—known to her family as “Tee” and to others as “Miss Susie”—stayed longer than most. One hundred sixteen years, three hundred and eleven days, to be exact. This granddaughter of former slaves and daughter of sharecroppers was the last living American born in the 19th century. She lived long enough to see women vote, the first black family move into the White House and her relative Helenor T. Bell become Hayneville, Alabama’s first African-American mayor.
Much has been written about Miss Susie, who had no biological children of her own but nurtured those of her siblings, raised more than a few as a nanny up north, and claimed over 50 godchildren. It might be tempting to reduce her story to a few lines about her taste for bacon or affinity for fine underpinnings. The widespread attention and accolades she received for longevity were also a well-deserved crown.
But Miss Susie—who was born July 6, 1899, and died May 12—didn’t just exist. According to Reverend Al Sharpton, “her quiet activism and fighting spirit summarize her legacy best.”
A strong will got her out of Hayneville’s fields and persuaded her parents to send her to The Calhoun School, a boarding school for African-American women—when education for her race and gender was a rare privilege. When the prospect of studying at Tuskegee Institute proved too expensive, Miss Susie headed north during the Great Migration in search of better opportunities. She sent money home to her family and church and founded the Calhoun Club, which provided scholarships that made it possible for other students to attend college.
Toward the end of her life, after having lived in New Jersey and then in New York for decades, she simply wanted to go home. An airline offered to fly her there, niece Lois Mushatt Judge said, but by then Miss Susie was too frail to travel.
But when she died they brought her back to the Black Belt, for a final drive in a fine, white Cadillac coach. As it made its way slowly down Highway 21 South on Saturday, neighbors not only slowed down, they pulled off the road to let the funeral procession pass.
They drove past the grand courthouse in the town square. Past the deserted farmers’ market and Rebel Field, over four bridges and beyond the swamplands, pastures and mossy trees lining County Road 33. Past the road renamed in Miss Susie’s memory—the road that leads to family land and The Calhoun School (now a modern high school).
They brought her over the red clay and gravel lane lined with lavender and yellow wildflowers to Greater Mount Olive A.M.E. Zion Church. They came from New York, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Florida, California, and beyond—to bear witness to her life, to share how she touched them, to thank her for urging them to better themselves through education, and for helping them to do so with her own hard-earned money. They gathered to remember how their beloved Tee commanded the attention of the world, just by continuing to breathe.
It was a celebration fit for a queen.
The church’s cut glass chandeliers and scarlet-paned windows cast a warm glow as the Mushatt family was seated and the hymn “When Peace, Like a River” soared from the choir.
Under a blanket of pink roses and lilies, a closed, pink casket with rose-gold accents rested, flanked by the American and Christian flags.
Miss Susie was finally home.
“Some things you just don’t rush through,” remarked Reverend Ezekiel Washington, to a chorus of amens.
“A whole century,” he said, “and we are honored to be here as a witness.”
Beneath a kneeling, stained glass Jesus, the choir’s harmony lifted skyward as they began “It Is Well with My Soul” without musical accompaniment. But this was no somber occasion. Their voices soon shook the sanctuary with tambourine and syncopated hand clapping as the pews rocked and hands flung up to God.
“I want to be reeeeeady, when Jesus comes,” the soloist intoned.
“Will you be ready?” Reverend Washington asked, solemn in his black robe. “No man knows the day or the hour,” he continued. “Don’t let Him catch you with your work undone.
“We must live as Susannah lived,” he said. “We must love as she loved.”
That love was evident, from tributes that followed from her loved ones. In another time, Miss Susie might have been a teacher. Instead she taught by example, through the dignity and resolve of hard work and her desire to ensure that anyone who wanted to go to school, could.
“She believed you would not make it without an education,” niece Dr. Lavilla Mushatt Watson said. “These women and men came out of the fields and they knew education was the answer.
“That is still true today,” she added. “At the end of the 20th century, the Calhoun Club she and her classmates founded to raise scholarship money had 200 chapters still in existence all over the country.”
Other relatives recalled Miss Susie’s feisty spirit. To a person they recalled a strong, determined woman of faith who spoiled them with care packages, always sent Christmas presents and passed them birthday money in pill boxes.
The Andrews sisters—three of five children who were cared for by Miss Susie in New York—wept as they remembered the love she showed them and her abrupt removal from their lives.
“When Susie left us, my twin Jane and I were 8. I remember I felt so bereft,” Joan Andrews said.
Andrews searched for Mushatt Jones and found her working a short distance away and begged her to return.
“She never told me why she left. She wouldn’t do that to our mother,” Andrews said. “Sixty years later I found out my mother let her go because she was so close to our brother.
“Susie used to say the color of your skin is only skin deep. We never knew prejudice,” Andrews, who is white, said, her voice brimming with emotion.
“Spiritually, she was the mother of many children. She gave without consideration for race, color or creed,” said Pastor Timothy Silmon of Big Union Christian Church. “She sent children to college because of God’s love.
“Can you imagine: all your siblings gone, all your friends gone, and the people you grew up with, gone?” he asked. “When all else fails all you have is family. Thank God they didn’t forsake her.”
The service lasted two hours. Miss Susie’s remains were carried to their final resting place at Big Union Christian Church’s cemetery, and placed several yards from where her parents were buried.
“She was surprised at how long she lived,” said niece Lois Mushatt Judge. “She’d ask, ‘Why am I still living?’
“‘You still have a story to tell,’ we said.”
Just outside the green tent shielding the family from the Alabama sun, grandnephew Russell Watson said he hopes his baby daughter—Miss Susie’s namesake—has inherited their aunt’s compassion and strength.
“Every time I’d see her she said she wanted to go home,” he said.
“Tee, you’re home.”