By Darlene Donloe
LOS ANGELES — In 1915, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected a proposal to give women the right to vote, the controversial film, “The Birth of A Nation” premiered in Los Angeles, the first stone of the Lincoln Memorial was put into place and on Feb. 6, Missouri Billingslea was born.
Billingslea, a Los Angeles resident, recently celebrated her 106th birthday with a Zoom celebration attended by her huge family and close friends.
In a century worth of living, she has seen her share of history, including the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States and Kamala Harris as the first Black/South Indian female vice president. She voted for both.
“She couldn’t have imagined a Black president and a Black VP,” said her granddaughter Cynthia Billingslea.
Billingslea still has a lot of living to do. And if you ask her how she’s doing, she’ll tell you without hesitation, “I’m doing pretty good, pretty good.”
In recent years, Billingslea has become a bit of a Facebook sensation with 2,000 followers. She also has an impressive following on TikTok.
Before COVID, she would get her hair and nails done regularly. She is known for cooking yummy Southern food and enjoys sewing, the Lakers, peppermint, listening to gospel music, her family and watching the game show “The Price Is Right.”
These days she gets around in a wheelchair after having a leg amputated at the age of 94, following a freak accident in which a bed rail fell on her leg, which led to a loss of circulation. The leg developed gangrene and she was given a choice of amputation or death. She chose “to live.”
Today, she lives with her granddaughter, Cynthia, who she raised ever since she was a toddler.
“It’s a blessing to take care of her,” Cynthia Billingslea said. “It’s super amazing. This is my father’s mother and I’m blessed to be of service to her.
“When my mother died, he decided it was best for me to live with his parents. She raised me since I was 3 years old. Now it’s my time to fill in for her. When she got her leg amputated, I became her caretaker 12 years ago. She was living in her own house. Now she’s living with me.”
Statistics show that only 12 of every 100 centenarians are of African-American descent and eight of the 12 are women. A review of 2010 census data showed 82.8% of America’s centenarians were female.
In 2016, there were 9,476 African Americans age 100 or older (1,783 men and 7,693 women) comprising 12% of all centenarians.
Billingslea has outlived her husband and two of her three children. She has one son living in Mississippi who she hasn’t seen in 40 years because neither likes to travel. The two were supposed to get together in 2020, but COVID thwarted those plans. Her siblings, two sisters, and two brothers, have all died.
Cynthia Billingslea said there are still plans to surprise her grandmother with a trip to Mississippi to see her son.
“We’re going to try our best to make that happen,” she said.
The centenarian has no explanation for her blessed longevity. She, for sure, takes no credit.
“I couldn’t tell you,” she said in a soft voice. “Only God knows.”
While her age and physical health may have slowed her a little, Billingslea, a great-great-great-grandmother, still has a fire inside of her, something she’s had since growing up in Canton, Mississippi, where she and her parents were sharecroppers. She has stories of picking cotton for pennies.
As the oldest child, she cooked and cleaned “a lot” and helped her younger siblings before migrating to Southern California in the 1940s with her spouse.
Once in Los Angeles, she found work as a housekeeper at the Hilton Hotel until she retired after almost 20 years.
Billingslea has five grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, 24 great-great-grandchildren, and one great-great-great grandchild.
A godly woman that her granddaughter calls “a walking Bible,” Billingslea said the most important thing she learned about living this long is that “God let her live.”
Asked if she lived a happy life, she replied, “Yes, God made it happy.”
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.