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Event honors oldest black residents

YOUNGSTOWN — A world of changes has passed before the eyes of Valentina Williams.

She’s lived through two world wars, seen the development of the automobile industry and the space program. She’s seen world leaders rise and fall, and she’s lived through the administrations of nearly 20 U.S. presidents.

Williams, a mother of six, will turn 110 years old Aug. 26, and is believed to be the oldest living resident of Youngstown. She was one of nine people honored Aug. 11 during a ceremony at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Tyler Historical Center downtown.

Like Williams, some are thought to be among the oldest living black Mahoning Valley natives, honored for their longevity and their contributions to making life better for generations that followed. Others were leaders in the business and civic communities.

The event was hosted by the Mahoning Valley Commemoration Committee, and was part of a national commemoration of the first African slaves being brought to Virginia in 1619. Several organizers and attendees wore black T-shirts that said, “1619: Our Ancestors” across the front.

“We are honoring not just pioneers and trailblazers, but our mothers and fathers whose shoulders we stood on,” one speaker said. “We are honoring our older generations who came before us and opened doors for the next generations.”

Williams was born Aug. 23, 1909, in Cuba, according to her daughter, Carmelita Douglas of Youngstown. Williams attended an Aug. 11 event but was not in good enough health to speak. Douglas said there’d been an earlier family reunion where Williams’ looming 110th birthday was celebrated.

“She’s had a rough couple of days,” Douglas told the crowd. “We wish we could stay longer, but she’s ready to go to bed.”

Douglas said her mother had planned to attend college in Cuba after her graduation from high school, but ended up moving to Youngstown in 1928 to attend what was then Youngstown College. She stayed in the community, met and married her husband, raised their family, and became active in the community.

She was proud of the fact all of her children graduated college and went on to have professional careers.

Besides her six children, Williams has 17 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. Even at her age, Williams enjoys reading and keeping up with current events, Douglas said. She said her mother credits her longevity to healthy eating, surrounding herself with younger people, being adaptable, and putting things in God’s hands.

“She’s seen everything in her lifetime,” Douglas said. “Like electricity. She still remembers the lamp-lighters.”

The invention of the washing machine was something that Williams told her family was huge, Douglas said.

“She remembers doing laundry by hand with the old washboards,” Douglas said. “So with six kids, the washing machine was a miracle.”

But Douglas didn’t hesitate when asked what her mother thought was the greatest thing she’s seen in her lifetime.

“(Barack) Obama’s election,” she said. “That was it. She never thought she would see a black president in her lifetime, so she was thrilled. That meant a lot to her.”

Others who were honored were McCullough “Mac” Williams, Arlette Gatewood, the Rev. Lonnie Simon, Hugh Frost, William Wolf, Ora Barrett and doo-wop group The Edsels, which was known for its hit song, “Rama Lama Ding Dong.” Jimmy Reynolds, the last surviving member of the group, attended the ceremony.

The ceremony also included libations, which is an African tradition of older generations essentially passing the torch to someone younger to carry on. Each person who spoke, whether it was the honoree or a member of his or her family, finished up by calling forward a younger person and handing off a ceremonial candle.

This story and photo originally appeared in The (Youngstown) Vindicator.

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