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Mary Walker: A formerly enslaved woman who learned to read at 116

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

Mary Walker was born enslaved in Alabama in 1848. Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, Mary married, had children, and earned a living cooking, cleaning and sharecropping. As it was for many uneducated women trying to support a family, she no doubt struggled as she endured life under Jim Crow laws.


Without an education, Mary toiled at menial, physically demanding jobs for most of her life.

The work week was six and half days long, with only a half day off. When working as a housekeeper, she wasn’t permitted to use her employer’s outhouse or bathroom and could only find relief once she had returned home. An evangelical missionary had given Mary a family Bible, which Mary didn’t know how to read. When her three children were born, a friend documented the births in that Bible, and Mary signed her name with an “x” next to the entry, as she didn’t know how to read or write her own name.


At the age of sixty-nine, Mary moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was 1917, the year of the city’s Great Flood. Although the newspapers were filled with stories of the devastation, Mary couldn’t read them. In her years of long work days and raising a family, she had never had the time to learn how to read or write.


In her nineties, her second husband and her two youngest sons died. At the age of one hundred and five, Mary also outlived her oldest son, who died at the age of ninety-four. Then, in 1963, a year before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and two years before the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Mary Walker met Helen Kelly, a teacher who volunteered with the Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement (CALM). CALM was holding classes in the nursing home where Mary lived. Along with nineteen other elderly students, Mary attended a one-hour class, two days a week, for a year. Upon graduation, Mary could read, write, add, and subtract.


At the age of one hundred and seventeen, she was declared the oldest student in the nation by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She twice received Chattanooga’s Ambassador of Goodwill award and was recognized for her efforts by two U.S. Presidents. When Mary died at the age of one hundred and twenty-one, the city renamed the retirement home after her.


Though her life was like that of many other people of color who had been denied an education and economic opportunities, Mary Walker inspires us to never give up our dreams, no matter how much time has passed or how many of life’s unexpected turns steer us off our path. It’s never too late to claim what’s rightfully yours.


To learn more about Mary Walker, we recommend The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard – a narration of the book can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4FbgX2-Uck and a detailed article here: Meet the Former Slave Who Learned to Read At 116

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