If you search for articles on “ex-slave centenarians” you will discover many claims of formerly enslaved people who lived not only to 100, but much longer. In 1981, William Pinckey of Prince George’s County, Maryland, claimed to be 118, and had been born a slave. Not to be outdone, Philadelphia’s Mary McDonla claimed to be 135 when she died in 1906. McDonald was able to tell stories about seeing soldiers in the American Revolution.
Naturally, such super ages are a source of pride for the person, but also for the family and the community. They are also quite suspect, but historians have been reticent to debunk such claims.
What percent of formerly enslaved persons in American history should we expect to have lived to 100? And, accordingly, how many total former enslaved persons would this have been? If we can establish a reasonable rate of people who attained such ages, and therefore a reasonable estimate of the total number of true centenarians, we will have a better since of how many ex-slave centenarian claims might be true.
One estimate is that 0.0173 percent of Americans today will live to 100. For the year 1950, however, the source gives 0.0015%. In other words, even today, only one out of 5,780 Americans live to 100, but in 1950, one out of 66,666 made it to 100. I have been unable to find rates of centenarians for 19th century America, but it was most certainly quite low. Even if the average from 1950 held in the 19th century, and we apply it to the roughly 4 million freed slaves of the 1860s, we would expect only 60 former slaves would make it to 100 years of age. This, however, probably undershoots the number of claims for centenarian ex-slaves by an order of magnitude. For context, the U.S. mortality data from 1916 gives 649 centenarians of whom more were black (322) than white (317). (Raymond Pearl, The Biology of Death, 1922). Today, the rates of black and white Americans who survive to the age of 100 are fairly equal, indicating that race probably doesn’t play a great role in survival to extreme age. This also indicates that the 1916 data is anomalous.
What could account for this high rate of black centenarians? Could the life of an enslaved person somehow contribute to their longevity? At first glance, the opposite appears to be the case. If one’s life was full of toil and drudgery, one would be expected to die earlier than a person who lived a life of comfort and ease. Or, could it be that the sufferings and privations of the enslaved life somehow influenced formerly enslaved persons to live a a type of lifestyle that would encourage longevity? There are plenty of reasons to think that former slaves would not, in general, have exceptionally long lifespans. One reason in particular is that life expectancy declines when people are deprived of protein, and although there is quite a debate among historians about the average slave diet, it is unlikely that slaves ate more protein on average that free whites. (James R. Carey, Dietary Effects (Princeton Univ. Press, 2003).
Claims of super-centenarians (that is persons who reach 110 years of age) are even more suspect. Today, The Gerontology Research Group validates climes of super-centenarians. The oldest person they have ever validated was Sarah Knauss, aged 119 years and 97 days. There are six more people who reached the age of 116. Suffice to say, any claims of age over 110 years should be extremely suspect. In fact, claims of age over 110 are so rare that only 782 Americans ever have been documented in this category.
There are a few common threads among claims of extreme age about former enslaved persons that lead to the conclusion that many claims were false. These common threads include:
(1) Suspect paper documents offered as proof.
(2) Stories of having been present at well-known historical events.
(3) Demonstrated desire to seek fame or respect.
(4) Audiences who were motivated to believe the claims.
(5) Criticisms not published.
An important point here, however, is that claims of great age were not always rooted in dishonesty, but often arose from misunderstandings. It was common for slaves not to know what year they were born, and for people to later exaggerate their age to gain status. Demographers are also familiar with “statistical heaping” in which there are always more people who report the age of 90 than 89 or 91. This is because people rounded their age, or estimated, to the nearest decade. Aged former slaves often had their age rounded to 100, when their real age wasn’t known.
As an example, Judy (Julia) LeFevre Jackson was born between 1809 and 1812, but some later sources, recorded as having been born in 1800. In the 1850 census for Plattekill she was 38 years of age. But her obituary of 1898 said that she was “about 98” years old. Judy been a slave of Andries LeFevre in New Paltz. In fact, she had been born in a time when could not have been a slave per se, but, according to New York’s slave abolition laws, a child of a slave bound to service. She didn’t necessarily gain her freedom in 1827, but might have been required to give service to LeFebre until she was 25 years of age. In 1898, Judy herself had told others that she was about 98 years of age. This may been because she did not know, or had forgotten her real birth year. However, it is likely that she inflated her age to gain attention and prestige. She even told stories of meeting soldiers and Indians during the war of 1812.
Age is wisdom and an ability to see into the remote past. Many of these claims superannutated African Americans were said to have seen particularly distant events, such as witnessing first hand the War of 1812, the Revolution, George Washington passing by, or New York City before it became the metropole. A history of Gardiner’s Island, New York, write about “Old Privateer Jack, a Negro” who “live and died here nearly of quite 100 years old.” A local resident had “heard him say he lived in New York when the Dutch owned it.” In 1879, the Sag Harbor Express newspaper noted that “an old Negro named Harry” who died at 123 years of age, and “another old Dutch Negro in Smithtown” who “live to one hundred and forty, who could remember when there were only three houses in New Amsterdam, now New York.” (Sag-Harbor Express, March 21, 1878)
Why were claims of superannutated former slaves so common? Largely because they were useful.
I think the fascination with age of former slaves was born partly out of curiosity, partly out of sympathy and concern, and partly out of attempts to gain status. Some of the claims were legitimate, but most could not have been. Crucially, this was not always an effort by African Americans themselves to overestimate their age to gain status. Instead, it was sometimes driven by white persons, particularly by former slaveholding families. In the North, particularly in New York, claims of excessive ages of former slaves were used as indications that conditions for blacks were not as bad there as in the South.
In the 1840 New York census, there were 56 total whites over 100 years of age, but 39 free blacks who had attained that age. A history of New Paltz, New York, tells of a “an old negro man named Frank, who lived to be about 100 years of age” who was part of the large family of Hendricus DuBois. Saura Munn, formerly a slave of New York’s Col. Hendrick Frey, lived to 116. A book called “Historic Old Rhinebeck” was typical of latter-day New York histories of slavery that noted “slavery in “ye old town” was devoid of its most objectionable features” and this played a role in the Lydia, a former slave, reaching the century mark. A history of Chenango County, New York, says that there were only four formerly enslaved persons in the county in 1830, but three of them were over 100 years of age!
Newspaper editors had no issue with printing the most absurd claims. The New York Daily Advertiser of March 1, 1819, reported on the death of Flora Ferguson, aged 130 years, who was kidnapped from Africa when she was 60 years old, and who had lived in American for another 70 years.
A claim for a 117-year old recently appeared in a session of the New York Senate. The text reads: Now, why is Sylvia Richardson Holder important to me? Well, Sylvia Richardson Holder was the mother of Cora Holder Bailey, the mother of U.T. Bailey, who was the father of J.T. Bailey, who was the father of Stanley Bailey, who was my father. My great-great-great-grandmother was a slave — 117 years old, born in 1835, passing away in 1952, a year before my father was born. Now, I illustrate that brief family history not just to say that the Vick Company probably owes us a little bit of money because my great-great-great-grandmother came up with VapoRub,,,”
Modern claims of former slaves who reached such extreme ages are also common and are, I think, a way to both honor them and speak to their resilience. Honor and respect are due, but so is historical accuracy, and its important that historians remain skeptical about such claims of extreme old age.