The inspiring story of the ex-slave who learned to read at 116, becoming America’s oldest student

January 23, 2020 at 02:00 pm | History, Women

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

January 23, 2020 at 02:00 pm | History, Women

Mary Hardway Walker believed that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams.

Born into slavery and facing years of discrimination, hardships, and injustice, she was still able to achieve an incredible feat – learning to read at 116 years old.

Walker was born in Union Springs, Alabama, in 1848 to slave parents. By the age of 15 when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, she was freed.

Five years later, she got married and had her first child. She would later work several jobs, including cleaning, cooking, babysitting, and selling sandwiches to raise money for her church.

In 1917, 69-year-old Walker and her family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Sadly, her children and husband died while she was 114, but she continued to live.

Then the extraordinary happened. In 1963, she met a woman named Helen Kelly, a volunteer teacher for the Chattanooga Area Literacy Literacy Movement (CALM).

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The spotlight of the class was Walker. Photo: WRCB-TV

Along with about 20 other elderly folks in her community, Walker joined the movement, attending a 1-hour class, 2 nights a week for more than a year.

At the end of the day, 19 graduated from illiteracy to literacy but the spotlight of the class was Walker, according to most accounts. At the age of 117, she had learned to read, write, add and subtract.

“Her age, determination and attitude earned her the greatest recognition given to any poor person, black or white, in the city of Chattanooga, and perhaps the nation,” WRCB-TV reported.

Walker twice received Chattanooga’s Ambassador of Goodwill award and was declared the oldest student in the nation by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the report added.

Walker was widely celebrated by dignitaries across the country and Canada for her remarkable feat.

She further received recognition from two U.S presidents, and even enjoyed an airplane ride in 1966. When she passed away at the age of 121, the city of Chattanooga renamed her retirement home after her and erected a memorial to commemorate her life, according to Black Enterprise.

The inspiring story of Walker, believed to be the oldest living former African-American slave, is contained in a newly-published book titled The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read, written by Rita Lorraine Hubbard. 

The book is to get children abreast with history and to encourage young people in general to follow their dreams no matter the difficulties.

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