107th marked with grace

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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She knew freed slaves who still had fresh memories of plantation life.

She remembers a time when Leonardo DiCaprio had no role in the sinking of the Titanic.

She is old enough to be Ronald Reagan’s mother.

And when Estella Henry turned 107 last week – surprisingly spry, with only a little hearing loss to show the wear of nearly 11 decades – she showed she still has Southern grace.

“Oh, I sure enjoy this,” she said to her visitors at Mariner Health of Toledo, where she lives. “You all come back and see me anytime.”

She was born in Campti, La., a tiny cluster of buildings in the north of the state. Emancipation was not yet 30 years old, and her parents had seen slavery, Reconstruction, and – in their 10 children, Estella the ninth – the promise of a future.

She married Will Henry in 1916, with war raging in Europe. He worked for a rubber company until he died 21 years later, after moving the family to Los Angeles. But the young widow’s story was still young, and she became a nanny for three families. Her only daughter, Hazel, married a movie star, Mantan Moreland, most famous for playing Birmingham Brown, the stereotyped black chauffeur in the Charlie Chan movies. And she kept working until 1968 when, at 77, she retired.

(That’s right – when the Beatles looked ahead to “when I’m 64,” she had to look back.)

She bounced around the country until just over two years ago, when relatives invited her to Toledo. Hazel was already in Mariner, and she agreed to move.

“It’s a surprise,” she admitted, to make it this far and still be in good health.

She was reluctant to provide any hints about how to reach her age – “And here I am, supposed to be telling people what to do” – but she wished people could learn to be nicer.

“Be friendly, be good to each other,” she offered. “There’s a lot of little devils out there, and you’ve got to watch them.”

She seems to have successfully avoided most of them. When a friend offered Estella a bouquet, her response was a wide smile and: “I wish y’all would have let me know. I would have got something for y’all. And the flowers are so pretty!”

So when she stood tall and blew out the candles on her birthday cake – only three of them, thankfully not 107 – it was easy to forget about the thick glasses, and the hearing problems, and see the years of life lived fully.

She can talk about when she left the South between the World Wars and headed for the promise of California. She can remember meeting Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. She can truthfully say she has a great, great, great, great, grandchild.

How does it feel to have that much life behind her?

“Good. It feels good. Yes, indeed.”