The year is 1923. A new medicine—insulin—has been introduced to treat diabetes. The New York Yankees win their first World Series title. Walt Disney founds his namesake cartoon company.
A lot’s changed since then. Who better to ask than one Emma Jean Taylor. The Mississippi native and current Harvey resident rang in her 100th birthday earlier this month.
“ It feels like I’m 15, ” Taylor mused. “I really feel good.”
“Were you there?” she asked the HWH about her party the week prior. The birthday extravaganza, attended by Mayor Christopher J. Clark, who gave Taylor a proclamation declaring March 10 “Emma J. Taylor Day” along with a pink cake, included a police parade.
Our staff very well could have been, joining nearly 200 people, according to Taylor, who crowded into the comely post-World War II ranch home. “When I speak, I smile. And I didn’t know it went a long ways like that. I just love people, and I love children,” she said.
For our interview, she wears a crown that says “100.” Her accompanying sash, which reads “100 & FABULOUS,” drapes across her frame. A five-foot tall birthday card sits in the corner.
Taylor’s story, one of seeking better economic opportunities, of hard work, and of sewing the ties that behind whole generations, began in the rural South. “Mississippi was something else,” she began. “There wasn’t no toilet, wasn’t no running water, wasn’t no lights,” she added.
That was before gas stoves. Her family would go down to the woods, cut down trees, and bring it home for the fireplace, she said. They drank water out of branches and hung clothes to dry on white fences, she reflected. “It’s so much different,” she said about society today.
With millions others, Taylor migrated north to Chicago’s South Side—eventually settling on the West Side—in 1954, during the second wave of the Great Migration. She worked various jobs, living with family members who had already migrated until they could find their own housing.
Within two months she had a boyfriend. Having met down south in school and reconnected in the Windy City, they were married within three months.
Married for 54 years until his death in 2008, they would have nine kids, 20 grandkids, and so many great-grandchildren that Taylor “ ain’t thought about the great-grandkids,” she joked. “I got too many.” The secret to a long marriage is making sure you’re abreast of where the money goes. “Let him give you the check and you pay the bills,” she quipped. That’s “the best way to get along.”
Regular worship, the centenarian told the HWH, is that which grounds her; it’s the secret to her long life. She went to church regularly until she couldn’t, her legs too weak. Psalm 23, a well-known scripture that contends God is a projector and provider, is her favorite Bible verse.
“The Lord is my Shepherd,” she quickly began reciting when the HWH asked about her favorite scripture, “I shall not want.”
“He laid me down in green pastures,” she goes on.
But the pictures throughout the living room of her great-granddaughter’s home reflect another important value: family.
Multiple generations of faces—graduation pictures, after-church poses, and group portraits sit speckled across the room.
Taylor herself the oldest—and only living—of ten siblings, emphasized selflessness to her kids growing up. “I’m proud the Lord kept me all these years to see my kids raised up and help people.”
In the 1980s, she returned home to Mississippi and still maintains a home there. She also owns a home and property on the West Side. Over the years, children and grandchildren have taken turns caring for her as she’s aged.
The house is abuzz with children and grandchildren who gather around for Taylor’s interview. As she speaks, a chorus of laughter erupts from couches that have likely played friend, confidante, and ear since Taylor’s lived there.
She boasts a hearty diet of “peas, bread, and sweet potatoes,” she said. Don’t be surprised if you catch her eating seafood, a crab leg connoisseur.
The HWH staff couldn’t make Taylor’s 100th celebration, for which we apologized. But we promised Taylor we’d be there for her 101st.
Treat yourself to string beans, boiled white potatoes, and a sweet potato pie today and everyday in celebration of the fabulous Emma J. Taylor.