While the average life expectancy for Washington D.C’s Black residents falls in the mid-70’s, a local resident has lived three decades longer than her peers. The fact that this resident is also a cancer survivor makes this birthday a momentous occasion to celebrate. Mary E. Cooper is celebrating a century of living that spans many events were pivotal for African Americans throughout the nation.

“I don’t have any secrets, honey,” Cooper said when asked the secret of her longevity. She attributes her long life to stress-free living without grudges and bickering.

Cooper is a country-turned-city girl born on Aug. 9, 1911 in Saint Paul, S.C. to a homemaker and famer. She was the eldest of six siblings, five sisters and one brother. Cooper recalls a childhood spent playing and working on her father’s 87-acre farm. “On the farm, we had everything “Cooper said. “We had horses, cows, sheep, dogs, hogs, you name it.” Her earliest schooling took place in a two room schoolhouse that she remembers with a painting of a schoolhouse hung in her home.

When she was 9 years old, Cooper and her family moved to D.C, at a time when gas lights lined the streets and ‘Tin Lizzie’ Fords ruled the roads. Although she lived through several major wars and the Great Depression, some memories of that event were fleeting. “To tell you the truth, that was so long ago I have forgotten about the Depression” she said, chuckling.

Cooper was able to recall events that from her 80 years in the District, like when U Street was the only street Blacks could go on for shopping and entertainment, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the reflection pool and the U street riots that ensued after his assassination. She regards President Obama’s election to office as one of the best moments of her life.

“I thank God for letting me live to see a Black President, ‘cause I never thought I’d ever,” she said. Some of her most vivid memories include times spent in the company of iconic Black entertainers like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, who she met through her brother-in-law, musician Sly Harris.

Although Cooper has no children, she is considered the mother of the family, with several generations of nieces and nephews. “I don’t think Aunt Mary has ever missed a birthday party, a graduation, a wedding” said Leslie Duff-Canada, Cooper’s great niece. “She’s never missed any special occasion that has happened in my life.”

“She’s like the glue that keeps this family together,” said Natasha Baker.

Cooper has become a well-regarded figured in her community as well, warranting hugs and praise from all who learn of her age and legacy. After leading a life of travel and over three decades of work with the government, she now leads a slower-pace life. Some of her days are spent at the local senior recreational center, where she enjoys her favorite card games like bid whist and pinochle. Cooper is a member of Calvary Episcopal Church, where she serves on the Saint Monica’s Guild and the senior group. But don’t let her age deceive you, she still drives and dons a pair of stilettos occasionally. She can even be spotted on the dance floor at family events from time to time.

With life comes wisdom and Ms. Cooper has a century’s worth! She leaves this parting advice for today’s youth: “Honor your parents, stop the killing, and stop the drugs!”


Courtney Bonaparte

Special to the AFRO