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Hester Ford, Oldest Living American, Dies At The Age Of 115

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, America lost its oldest citizen. Hester Ford was at least 115 years old, although some records indicate she was possibly 116 when she passed away in her home in Charlotte, N.C. Mrs. Ford lived through sharecropping, the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression, two world wars, Jim Crow laws, civil rights movements, the elections of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. Tanisha Patterson-Powe is Hester Ford's great-granddaughter, and she joins us now from Charlotte. Thank you so much for being with us.

TANISHA PATTERSON-POWE: Thank you so much, Scott, for allowing me to be here today.

SIMON: So sorry for your family's loss. And forgive me for beginning this way, but I got to ask. What was her secret (laughter)?

PATTERSON-POWE: Yeah. That's the question that so many people ask. And I don't know if there is necessarily a secret to her longevity. But I have to say that she was very disciplined in her faith. So she prayed not only every day, but she had certain times of the day that she would stop what she was doing to pray.

SIMON: I have a list before me. She had 12 children, four of whom are still with us, 68 grandchildren, 125 great-grandchildren and at least 120 great-great-grandchildren.

PATTERSON-POWE: Absolutely. She grew up on a farm. And at 14, she got married to my great-grandfather. They went off, they purchased a farm and they started raising a family together. During that time, survival was a priority for Black families, especially those that were independent Black farmers. You know, they were down in Lancaster, S.C. And the family was met with some challenges that took place in Lancaster. And it was my grandmother, who was my father's mother - her husband was brutally murdered at the time for 50 cents.

SIMON: That's more than a challenge. That's a crime. I mean, that's...

PATTERSON-POWE: Oh, yeah. Lynchings were prevalent. There was a lot of fear of what could happen next. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother Hester made a decision that it was time to leave Lancaster, S.C., and they made Charlotte their living headquarters. They stayed there for a couple of years and decided that it was time for them to purchase a home in Charlotte. And it was the early '60s. And if you can imagine a Black family being able to purchase a home during that time - what a significant accomplishment if you really process that. That's the home that my great-grandmother peacefully passed in last Saturday.

SIMON: Mrs. Ford saw 21 people become president of the United States. What was it like for her to see Barack Obama inaugurated?

PATTERSON-POWE: That was a special moment for her. She never thought she would see a Black man elected as president. Several years back, during his term, she got a letter in the mail from President Obama and Michelle Obama, and it was telling her happy 111th birthday. And he went on to write, your story is an integral part of the American narrative, and you have witnessed the best of what our nation can accomplish when we work together in pursuit of a brighter tomorrow.

She took a lot of pride in that. She knew how important it was to get out and vote because there was a time where she couldn't - where Blacks couldn't vote. And so last year, she made it a point. She got fully dressed. She - you would have thought she was going to church. But she had on her tan dress that was trimmed in white, and it had some sequin on it. And she had on her hat and her white sneakers. And she voted. And she had a sticker on it that she voted. And she came back home. She did her job.

SIMON: What do you take into your life in the years ahead from your great-grandmother Hester Ford?

PATTERSON-POWE: Being resilient. I'm hoping I can be half of the strong woman that she was and believe the way she believed and grab hold of what's happening in the moment.

SIMON: Tanisha Patterson-Powe is the great-granddaughter of Hester Ford, the oldest living American, who left us this week. Thank you so much for being with us, and our best to your family.

PATTERSON-POWE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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