Mississippi woman turns 100, has lived whole life in state

Published 6:37 am Sunday, April 11, 2021

With a gravelly voice that crackles through the phone, Arcola Denson-Reid says she doesn’t want to talk about the past.

She holds her stories close. They’re the ones that have taken her to her 100th birthday today.

Friday, there was a big birthday parade planned where family members from all over the country were expected to stop by, wish her well and give gifts. Denson-Reid planned to lounge in the front yard of her Delta home shaded by an umbrella during the celebration.

It’s her family who is quick to tell the stories of her 100-year resilience when she is quiet or the memories become too hard for her to talk about.

There are memories of a girlhood on Mississippi plantations. Or battles with cancer and lung disease. Then, memories with her two children, nieces and nephews gathered for breakfast, eating freshly laid eggs and fruit off the trees on their Silver City farm. Or the time she boarded her first flight at 98 for a family reunion.

What’s her secret to a long life?

“You may not want to hear her answer,” her daughter, Goldie Reid-Jackson, said.

Reid-Jackson pauses and laughs. “She said: ‘I only had one man. I treated myself well and my husband was the only man I knew.’”

In essence, settling down keeps people out of trouble.

IT WASN’T THE ROARING TWENTIES

A gallon of gas was less than a quarter in 1921. Amelia Earhart took her first flying lesson. Baseball prodigy Babe Ruth led the New York Yankees to their first World Series.

But the Roaring Twenties didn’t look the same for a small Denson-Reid.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” Denson-Reid said.

“But you talk about it constantly with me,” her daughter replied.

“Mhmm,” Denson-Reid says.

Denson-Reid was shuffled around Mississippi plantations, Reid-Jackson begins. Chronic asthma rattled her lungs. She’d walk miles to school without shoes, the soles of her feet burning on the hot Delta land. Stitched-together flour sacks were used for clothes. When she didn’t have a toothbrush, she’d pull a peach from the tree, remove the stem and rub baking soda on it to clean her teeth.

Movie theaters segregated her to the second-floor section. She was barred from seeing white doctors and using white-only water fountains. Her life has been riddled with injustice.

“She grew up loving,” Reid-Jackson said. “It didn’t make her bitter.”

It wasn’t until 1946 when she married her husband, the Rev. J.C. Reid Sr., that she felt her life began.

‘IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL CHILDHOOD’

“But I can’t do it,” then 4-year-old Isiah Culver would tell his Aunt Arcola when she told him he was too old for her to keep tying his sneakers.

She would, in her soft tone, encourage him that he could make the right loops and knots.

That’s just how his Aunt Arcola is, Culver says almost six decades later. “If she could help you, she would always help you.”

Culver, who lives in Detroit, was born on the farm and then raised by Denson-Reid since before he could talk. With his Aunt Arcola, structure, hard work and respect were the foundations of the home.

Love was always there.

It was in heart-shaped boxes of chocolate each Valentine’s Day. It was in homemade biscuits, fried chicken and pinto beans. It was beneath Denson-Reid’s feet when she ran to her parent’s home just a plot away when she heard they needed help.

In the few years Regina Ruffin lived with her aunt, she said she remembers when the house full of kids would rush out to the cotton field, begging to help until the sun got too hot.

“She’d always say, ‘If you go this time, you’re going to have to stay until we’re done,’” Ruffin said. “But each and every time, she’d take us back to the house.”

Inside the home on the Silver City farm, even after a long day out in the field, Denson-Reid was always smiling over the stove. She fed everyone, Culver said, and made enough food to feed an army.

But the Reids didn’t have money. They lived off the land. Got water from the pump. Huddled around the living room heater when temperatures dropped. When Reid-Jackson saved her lunch money to buy fabric, her mother showed her how to put needle to thread.

‘HER DISPOSITION IS STRENGTH’

Denson-Reid doesn’t smoke. She doesn’t drink. Her worst habit is reading into the night.

She’s a God-fearing woman, her family says. She never stops smiling, showing off her teeth and high cheekbones. And she’s always unfettered.

Her granddaughter, Kenyatta Dent, shares her same sense of calm. The two often perched on a blanket under the pine trees letting the redeeming Delta breeze blow around them, Dent said. It was her grandmother —she lovingly calls Medear — who taught her how a woman was supposed to live.

“Her disposition is strength,” Dent said. “I’ve never heard her complain, I’ve never heard her get loud.”

As a young girl, Reid-Jackson would hear her mother say, “I trust you, because I trust me and you’re part of me.” It’s something she passed onto her own children.

There’s a lot Denson-Reid’s family members want to say during her Friday birthday parade. It’s her laugh Ruffin, the niece, looks forward to hearing, almost a giggle that comes from the back of her throat.

Even though Denson-Reid said very little on the phone Wednesday, her laughter could still be heard crackling through the phone.

It’s contagious.