The morning sun rose early last Friday and by noon it was hotter than a red Porsche in the projects.
Despite the broiling temperatures, there was a touch on revelry in the air on the campus of N.C. Central University. A small group of people dressed in their Sunday best had gathered at the Durham home of the university’s late founder James E. Shepard to witness the taking of an official photograph of the school’s oldest living graduate, Maggie Poole Bryant.
Bryant, who graduated in 1938, today lives less than a block from the school.
She will celebrate her 106th birthday on July 2.
The finely-turned-out group that had gathered to celebrate Bryant reminded this writer of an observation by the poet Ntozake Shange in her 1984 poem, “Madison Square Garden.”
We dress up, we dress up because we got good manners/We honor our guests even if it costs us all we got…It’s just, when you got an audience with the Pope you want to look your best. It’s just, when you see the Queen of England you polish your nails…It’s our way of saying, you’re getting the very best. We can’t do less.
And no doubt about it: Maggie Poole Bryant is NCCU royalty.
The diminutive woman stands barely five feet tall and weighs around 120 pounds. It was about 12:30 p.m. when she arrived at Shepard House on Fayetteville Street with Andre Vann, the school’s archivist and historian.
“The photograph will be shared on all of the university’s platforms on her birthday,” Vann said.
The gentle, bespectacled centenarian was impeccably dressed in the school’s colors. She wore a maroon button-down blouse with a ruffled front, matching earrings, and gray houndstooth trousers. Bryant spent the previous day with friend Cheryl Brown, who took her to a beauty salon to get her hair done into a swirling spray of silver-gray curls pulled back from her forehead and touching her shoulders.
Brown says that the day before the school took its official photo of Bryant, she picked her up around 10:45 a.m. and got her back home around four.
“She actually asked if she could get her nails done,” Brown said. “I said, ‘of course.’ It was her first time going to the salon since COVID, and things are getting back to normal.”
Bryant uses a cane to get around. She has a slight stoop and wore black, sensible, flat-bottomed shoes that spoke of the 43 years she worked as a high school English teacher and librarian before retiring in 1982.
Someone asked Bryant how she was doing as she leaned on the arm of Vann and ambled up the concrete driveway of the Shepard House.
“I’m trying to be good,” Bryant replied. “I feel good.”
Prior to taking her official photo, Bryant participated in an interview with Vann.
“I am Maggie Poole Bryant,” she said by way of introduction, “and I am the oldest alumna at North Carolina Central University. I have lived through World War I, the 1918 epidemic, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, 9-11, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In a word, Bryant said her long life was “unexpected;” her parents did not expect her to survive childbirth because she was born prematurely.
Bryant said the key to her longevity has been to “eat what your body needs, not what it wants, exercise, walk” and “use the body and the brain.”
“I read the Bible,” she added. “Like they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Notably absent from Bryant’s secret to longevity was any talk of marriage or children, both of which have worried a great many people to death, the world over.
According to the NCCU archives, Bryant was the oldest child and only daughter of four children born to Robert Kelley and Maggie Poole Bryant in Rocky Mount.
Although she was born in Rocky Mount, her roots in Durham ran deep even then. She was named after her mother and great-grandmother, Margaret “Maggie” Faucette, who founded the White Rock Baptist Church in 1866. The church still stands on Fayetteville Street.
Her eyes lit up with memory recalling the city’s Hayti district during its heyday.
“There were all these businesses and people enjoying their home life,” she said. “We had a lot of fun, and we had a lot of different stores. Believe it or not, they used to have a Kroger (grocery) in Hayti. What else? Cafes, a bakery, doctors, and pharmacists.”
In 1910, Shepard, a Raleigh native and pharmacist who attended Shaw University, founded the private National Religious Training School and Chautauqua in the Hayti District. Two of Bryant’s aunts were members of the inaugural class. One of those aunts lived 101 years.
The Great Depression was well underway by the time Bryant graduated from Rocky Mount’s Booker T. Washington High School in 1934. She earned a scholarship to NCCU, which was then called the North Carolina College for Negroes. She studied history and library science.
According to the school’s archive, Bryant’s class was the first to graduate from B.N. Duke Auditorium, which was completed in 1937 by the Public Works Administration as a project during FDR’s New Deal era. Bryant earned bachelor’s degrees in history and library science and, later, a master’s degree from the university.
She worked as an English teacher and librarian at G.C. Hawley High School—now a middle school—in Creedmoor and later at George Washington Carver High School in Kannapolis.
Maggie Bryant’s civic-minded younger brother, R. Kelly Bryant, worked with many of Durham’s most prominent Black companies and community organizations, including the N.C. Mutual Insurance Company, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
In 2010, the city of Durham dedicated the R. Kelly Bryant Bridge that frames the southern entrance into the city on Highway 147.
After sitting in a Victorian-style chair for her official photo, Maggie Bryant sat in front of an antique Gulbransen player piano. The mood shifted after her photograph was taken. Bryant’s friends and family asked her to play the piano.
“We are going to light up the world on your birthday, Ms. Bryant!” Vann told her.
“We are going to party like it’s 1999!” someone else chimed in.
“I wish I could play,” Bryant said before gamely picking out a few chords.
Undeterred and ever the optimist, Vann told her, “Ms. Bryant, you’ve been holding out!”
She smiled. A woman who lives in a community where young people are being violently cut down in the prime of their lives doesn’t live for more than 100 years by pretending to herself—or anyone else for that matter.
“No, I haven’t,” she quietly answered.
No, she certainly hasn’t been holding out. Maggie Bryant’s existence has been the essence of a life well-lived. She has given it her all. Happy birthday, Ms. Maggie!
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