For nearly 80 years, Catherine Spearman Ferrell has lived on a historic street in the shadow of the downtown district, surrounded by institutions.
Now she is an institution.
Earlier this month, on Monday, October 10, Ferrell celebrated her 110th birthday.
To say the sweet-spirited, unfailingly gracious, devout, and bespectacled lady is living in rarefied air is an understatement. According to the Gerontology Wiki, there are about 60 living “supercentenarians” in the United States, and only three have been validated.
Ferrell, who moved to Durham’s Fayetteville Street in 1945, grew up in a two-room house with a fireplace in Warsaw, a Duplin County hamlet about 95 miles south of Durham. She was born in 1912, six months after the “unsinkable” Titanic’s fateful voyage. She is the oldest of two sisters.
The tiny dwelling did not have indoor plumbing or lights, and Ferrell still has the oil lamps her parents used to light their home.
“That’s what we had to study by,” Ferrell says.
Ferrell still has the pots and pans her mother would use to prepare family meals.
“Sometimes, we were so poor, when the stove failed, we had to cook over the fireplace,” she says. “We lived kind of tough. My momma would take in washing and ironing, and people paid her what they wanted to.”
Ferrell told the INDY that when she was a child she “mostly played by myself.”
“Hopscotch, and I loved to play marbles,” she adds.
Among the birthday well-wishers were President Joe Biden and Gov. Roy Cooper.
“Your strength and perseverance have helped shape this Nation into what it is today and define what it means to be a member of the Greatest Generation,” Biden wrote. “This milestone serves as an inspiration to your fellow Americans.”
“The strong men and women of your generation invested decades of aspiration, diligence and devotion in making a better state and country, and we are deeply grateful,” Cooper wrote.
Attendees at a brisk late Sunday morning birthday party for Ferrell at Durham’s Central Park, hosted by her fellow members of Mt. Gilead Baptist Church, included state lawmakers Mike Woodard, Marcia Morey, and Natalie Murdock and a representative from the office of Vernetta Alston.
Woodard noted that during Ferrell’s lifetime, there have been 20 U.S. presidents, 23 North Carolina governors, and 21 Durham mayors.
“We haven’t seen a woman elected president yet, but you hang in there and I think we might get there,” Woodard told Ferrell, who was seated beside a portable heater to knock the cold out of her bones.
A little later during the worship service and birthday celebration, Durham sheriff Clarence Birkhead deputized Ferrell, asking her to stand, raise her hand, and take the oath of office, before calling her “the oldest living Durham County deputy in history.”
Even with the heartbreaking announcement this month about the closing of the NC Mutual Life Insurance Company, the generator of Black wealth in the community since its founding in 1898, the Fayetteville Street corridor where Ferrell has lived since the end of World War II is still chock-full of historic institutions like NC Central University, the Stanford L. Warren Library, the Pearson School, the Lincoln Community Health Center, the Hayti Heritage Center, the White Rock and St. Joseph’s churches, the W.D. Hill Recreation Center, Hillside High School, and Hillside Park.
Now, with a life that has straddled two centuries, Ferrell has lived long enough to survive two pandemics and two world wars, while enduring Jim Crow and white mob violence, experiencing the invention of television, the mass manufacture of the first American-made car, laws prohibiting women from voting, the civil rights movement, and the election of a Black president. She was a teenager playing on her school basketball team when the stock market crashed, graduated class valedictorian, and is older than seven of the world’s 10 oldest airports.
One day after the church’s birthday party, Ferrell invited this writer to her home. Entering her home on her birthday was like walking into a history museum.
Among the hundreds of photos lining the home’s living room walls and shelves are sepia-toned photos of her parents, children, and in-laws dating back to the early 1900s and before.
“See how they dressed in the old times?” she asks. “Now these folks go out here half-naked.”
A 2017 edition of the old Carolina Times chronicled Ferrell’s 105th birthday. There’s a picture of her first child, Margaret, taken during the 1920s, an autographed photo of NBA Hall of Famer Nate “Tiny” Archibald, a cornucopia of photos showing smiling children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren, along with dozens of plaques and certificates, including one from the Durham chapter of the National Council of Negro Women that was founded in 1935 by civil rights giant Mary McLeod Bethune.
“I went to visit Mary McLeod Bethune’s office one time,” Ferrell says.
A picture of former president Barack Obama presides over one living room wall.
“I didn’t know if we would ever have one,” Ferrell says about Obama’s historic election as the nation’s first Black president.
Obama’s photo sits next to a picture of Ferrell posing with Hillary Clinton. There are also photos commemorating Ferrell’s trip to Israel to celebrate her 100th birthday. More than a decade later she remembers seeing the places she visited whenever she reads her Bible. She jokes that the flight was her first and last time on an airplane.
“I won’t go up there anymore,” she says while smiling.
Still, Ferrell says her pilgrimage to the Holy Land was “just amazing.”
“I can’t remember all of the places I visited,” she says. “When I read the Bible they come to me: the Jordan River, Mt. Sinai, and where Jesus was buried.”
Ferrell says she didn’t hear about the stock market crash or the 1918 flu pandemic that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killed about 50 million people across the globe.
Ferrell explains that radios, the available means of mass communication about important events—even battery-operated devices—weren’t readily available in her community.
“If we didn’t hear about it through school, we didn’t know about it,” she says.
Ferrell says she rode on the back of a horse-drawn wagon to school up until the fifth grade, and enrolled at Frederick Douglass High School, where she completed her studies in the 11th grade.
She reckons it was a year or two out of high school when she met Walter Williams, her future husband, at church.
Someone, she explains, “set me and him up.”
“He picked me up at my house and we started going out together,” she says. “Then we got married.”
Of course, “picking up a date” in rural, hardscrabble North Carolina during the 1920s didn’t involve the luxury of a car.
“We walked everywhere we went,” she says. “We would go to the movies. Most of the time we would just sit at my house and talk.”
Ferrell does not recall acrimonious relations between the races while coming of age in Warsaw. After high school she worked as a domestic for a white family that “helped you out all they could.”
“Everyone,” she adds, “worked for white folks, mostly in the [farm] fields. I had the right idea. I worked in the shade.”
Still, not even life in the rural backwoods of an eastern North Carolina hamlet could shield her from the realities of Jim Crow.
“You couldn’t drink out of the [white] spigots,” she recalls with a bemused twinkle in her eyes. “They thought water was colored. You couldn’t go to the same bathrooms. Uptown at the stores, it was segregated.”
Ferrell says she didn’t march during the civil rights movement, but her daughter and pastor attended the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech.
After her first marriage ended she moved to Durham in 1945, looking for work. Ferrell eventually joined Mt. Gilead Baptist Church and remarried Maynard Ferrell, who was a delivery man. They first settled into a home in East Durham, then lived for a spell on Elizabeth Street while saving part of their earnings to purchase the home where she currently lives.
Ferrell, who lived in the Hayti District during its peak years, says “she liked it very well,” although a long life offers up a unique bittersweetness.
“Everybody that I knew when I moved here is deceased,” she explains. “Everyone was neighborly. We talked with one another. I can still recall our neighbors. It was not like it is now.”
Ferrell had two more children, David and Shirley Ferrell. It was a fruitful time. In addition to joining the National Council of Negro Women, she became a member of the Elks and stayed busy in church, where she taught Sunday school and drove a church van.
Her dad died “early,” she says, but her mother lived until the age of 95. She remembers her great-aunt, who doted on her and slept with her in the kitchen of the two-room home in Warsaw until her sister was born.
“One night I told her I was hungry and she got up to fix me something to eat,” Ferrell says. “Then she sat down at the kitchen table and died. I was three.”
Indeed, in her 110 years, Ferrell has not been immune from crushing heartbreak.
“My son and my grandson got killed,” she says. “People just shot them down.”
Still, the wisdom that comes with over a 100 years of living sustains her and makes her all the more appreciative of the rhythms of life.
“My son is gone, and his son just had a son that looks like [my slain son] spit him out,” she says.
Then Ferrell ladles out a heaping helping of wisdom we can all live by, at age 10 or age 110.
“Learn to love one another,” she counsels. “You don’t have to live with everybody, but you can love and respect other people. The Lord brought us here, and He is going to take us away, and we ought to learn to live and love together.”
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