Thursday, February 17, 2011

Black History Month: Philadelphia's Extraordinary Resident, 135-year-old Mary McDonald

Though many centenarians have passed away in the City of Brotherly Love, none have surpassed the forgotten, but truly remarkable, African-American woman named Mary McDonald. McDonald died on January 5, 1906, at the ripe old age of 135!

Many may scoff at the above declaration, but Mary's official death certificate in Philadelphia declares her to have been born in Pennsylvania on November 14, 1770, and died at the age of "135 years, 1 month & 21 days." Also, the 1900 Federal Census returns for Philadelphia's Ward 34 shows Mary as being born in 1770 in Pennsylvania.
In 1887 at age 117, Mary McDonald (occasionally referred to as McDonnell) moved to the Home for Aged & Infirm Colored Persons, located on the southwest corner of Girard and Belmont Avenues. The home had been founded in 1864 during the Civil War by Stephen and Harriet Smith, also of African ancestry.

The Annual Reports of the Board of Managers of the Home of Aged and Infirm Colored Persons provide a biographical sketch of Mary, noting in 1902 that Mary was "familiarly known in the house and without as 'grandmother.'" According the records of the Home, Mary was born in Frogtown near Valley Forge. Mary related how "at the age of four years she was placed in the family of Reese Howell" and "remembers the years 1777 and '78, when the Revolutionary forces were camped near Valley Forge."

The Daughters of the American Revolution organization verified Mary's reminiscences, and agreed that in 1899 "the old woman must be over one hundred and twenty-eight years of age." Mary McDonald reminisced about the Revolution, giving details of the skirmishing of the Continental Army "in the neighborhood of Philadelphia," and how "the soldiers were always going up and down the road. They were dressed in all buttons." She remarked how "the soldiers came around twice a week to collect the provisions prepared for them. All the women in the neighborhood gave food to the patriots."

Mary McDonald remembered those who resided in the Valley Forge area, such as Isaac Walker and his family. During an interview, Mary reportedly asked "if the Walkers were still there" and if Isaac was still living. The interviewer told her that Isaac's grandchildren and great-grandchildren now lived here, and Mary "became greatly excited & praised the Lord."

Mary McDonald was buried at Olive Cemetery, a graveyard reserved for Black individuals, which was originally located at Girard and Belmont Avenues in Philadelphia. She was moved to Eden and Mt. Zion in 1923.

Another centenarian, Edith Gilliam, an ex-slave from Sussex County, Virginia, was also buried in Olive Cemetery. Gilliam, who was the mother of 21 children, passed away in Philadelphia at the age of 115 on February 18, 1880. There is also an account of a woman named Alice, who reportedly died at age 116 in 1802. John Fanning Watson, the famed Philadelphia antiquarian of the 19th century printed a brief biographical account of Alice, who was born as a slave in Philadelphia, in his multi-volume compilation Annals of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania.


Anonymous said...

This is very interesting. Is there not sufficient evidence to have her verified as the oldest woman who ever lived?

Hugh said...

If this article refers to Isaac Walker of Radnor Township, he had one son Isaac Roberts Walker, M.D. Dr. Walker had one child (Gertrude) who died at a year and half. There were no great grandchildren. He did have a number of step-children from his wife's previous marriage who do have descendants (including my wife.)

Joe Becton said...

Thank you I live On the Grounds of the Olive and Stephen Smith Cemeteries. The areas stories and theme's include: the Underground Railroad, Slavery, The Northern migration, Civil War and WWI.
I am especially interested in Civil War, World War One and Buffalo Soldiers veterans who were buried there and later removed.

Joseph Magyar said...

This story is absurd and should not be posted as factual. There is NO evidence to support this woman being born in 1770 except what someone who would have no idea supplied on a death certificate. Where is she in the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 or 1900 census?

Surely you are not that gullible.

Reginald H. Pitts said...

1900 Federal Census for the 34th Ward of the City and County of Philadelphia (Philadelphia County Enumeration District 879, Sheet 9, Line 70--"House for aged and Infirm Colored People"--later the Stephen Smith Home) lists "McDonald, Mary", aged 130 (circled), born Pennsylvania, with parents both born Pennsylvania; she couldn't read or write. And if anyone was gullible, it was those folks who listened to her and believed her--the folks who ran the Home, the census enumerator, the newspaper reporter, and the members of the local DAR chapter.