Originally created 01/19/99

Centenarians have seen it all

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Ann Drake reaches back -- to a time before airplanes traversed the skies or automobiles crowded the roads, to a time before penicillin or communism or plastic toys.

Sometimes, it is a struggle to remember. She had what she calls "a little stroke" a few months ago, and sometimes when she tries to retrieve a memory it isn't there.

She is 103 ("and a half," she will remind you), and the granddaughter of slaves. She remembers the milestones of the 20th century -- the triumphs and the fiascoes, the great and grotesque men and women who made history.

But she also remembers Miss Lottie Brooks, who taught her the ABCs about the same time the Wright brothers were learning to fly. The first cars, and how they bewildered the horses. And a day when the century was not 10 years old, and she wanted to go skating.

Her family lived in Orangeburg, S.C. Her father was a Methodist minister and there was little money, so her skates were borrowed and worn.

"These little white girls were laughing at me, talking about it," she recalls now.

Ninety years later, the memory still burns.

There are, today, more than 135,000 people like Mrs. Drake -- people who have lived every day of this remarkable century, capable of offering an eyewitness tour of the decades.


The first tragedy of Lee Owens' life occurred when he was 2 years old, in 1898. In a single week, his father and his 9-year-old sister died.

His mother moved Mr. Owens and his three brothers to southern Missouri. He started school there, but quit to pull weeds at farms for 25 cents a day: "I just got as far in the first reader as the ants was laying in food for the winter."

There was no running water, no telephone, no electricity. Power would not make its way to the farm until the 1930s.

In the first 21 years of his life, he traveled not 100 miles from his birthplace. Suddenly, all that changed.

"It was 1918, February the 25th. I'll never forget that," he says. "Yeah, I was drafted."

He crossed the Atlantic, and reached the front in June, with the 340th Artillery. Six horses pulled each French gun, and Mr. Owens drove the middle team. "I was a farmer. ... I knew how to handle horses."

-- -- --

When Leah Mahlangu was young, she lived in a round house with a floor made of mud and cow dung. She was born in 1899, a black infant in white-ruled South Africa; her parents worked for food and a place to live on a white-owned farm north of Pretoria.

She does not remember the year she was married, but, "My husband paid lobola (bride price) of 16 cows. I was worth it at the time."

She does remember a long life of hard work, and beatings at the hands of whites.

"They hurt me so much I don't want to talk about them," she says.

Her strength and her weakness was her feisty spirit. She would go work at a farm and would rebel and would be fired.

"When I worked for a white lady, I worked doing her washing. I scrubbed and scrubbed. And the lady complained. I felt I had done my best. And I went to strangle her, I put my hands around her throat," she says, her hands performing a pantomime.

"So I lost my job and had to go to the next farm."

Her employers would send her along with a letter. She never learned to read, so she did not know that "in that letter was the message to the next farmer to beat me up."

"They would take a stick and soak it in salt water and beat me over the hands, between my fingers, very hard," she says.

A world away, Ann Drake was never lashed. But she, too, felt the sting of racism.

A teacher of languages with a master's degree from Cornell, she married Joseph F. Drake, who became president of Alabama A&M University at Normal. In 1931 -- 40 miles away, in Scottsboro -- nine young blacks were unjustly charged with raping two white women.

Thirty years later, the civil rights movement was blooming, and students at A&M, a black school, joined the protests.

"The governor and the folks didn't like it ... ," Mrs. Drake says. They fired President Drake.

"After 35 years, he was kicked out," she says, her voice shaking.

-- -- --

The days -- 36,525 in the course of 100 years -- take their toll.

Lee Owens' eyes are bright but dimmed, and he can no longer make turkey calls, as he did for so many years.

Blind for nearly two decades, Ann Drake plays the piano every day and crochets. She can recite long passages from literature, and as she beholds the 21st century, she reaches back to quote from Robert Browning, a 19th century poet who died just six years before she was born:

"Grow old along with me!" she says. "The best is yet to be."


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