By Linda Emley
If I lived to be 100 years old, what would I want to do on my 100th birthday? I could think of lots of fun things to do to celebrate a birthday, but if I make it to the century mark, I would be happy to just be able to remember the first 100 years.
This is a story about a man that lived in Henrietta and what he did to mark his 100th year on earth.
Here’s a passage from the Richmond Missourian, from Thursday, Nov. 18, 1926: “Reached Century Mark Yesterday. ‘Uncle Henry’ Williams, Colored, is 100 years old. IS REMARKABLY ACTIVE. Aged Negro Appears As a Man of 75 in his 100th Birthday Celebration.
“ ‘I’m starting today my second hundred years.’ Thus did Uncle Henry Williams, colored, of Henrietta, announce his reaching of that mark which few men, regardless of the color of their skin, attain.
Uncle Henry sat by the fire at the grocery store in Henrietta yesterday. He was celebrating his 100th birthday by visiting every store in town. And he found nothing difficult in that. He is remarkably active for a centurian. Bright of eye, smooth of skin, possessed of every faculty, he did not appear to be more than 75 or 80 years of age. His mind functions perfectly, and his memory never fails him as he recalls incident after incident, all of which happened 40 to 90 years ago.
“ ‘Yes, I’m in pretty good health,’ said Uncle Henry, ‘except here.’ And he patted his knees. ‘I’m bothered with the rheumatism there. But outside of that I can’t complain. I’m getting old, I guess, but I have a right to. I can’t remember things like I used to.’
“But his following remarks belied the last statement. For he told of being sold at 8 years of age. He was sold many times after that, he says, naming his different owners without the slightest hesitation. After the Civil War he came to Ray County and has lived here practically all the time since then. Two years ago, Uncle Henry planted and tended to 20 acres of corn all by himself. ‘But I can’t make a full hand now,’ he said. ‘Four or five years ago I quit hiring out because I wasn’t able to do quite a full day’s work. Yesterday I cut up a little wood for the winter, but I can’t handle an ax like I used to.’
“Uncle Henry prefers long green tobacco for smoking purposes. In fact he will use no other. He says other tobaccos are too mild.
“The centurian has his own idea as to how people are conducting themselves these days. ‘You all won’t take time to do things right,’ he said. ‘I’ll bet there’s not a one in this store that could put up a tobacco crop right.’ There wasn‘t.
“ ‘It’s that way with most everything these days,’ he continued. ‘But I’m thankful for everything. All I want is all the friends that I can get, and plenty to eat and wear.’
“Uncle Henry has never heard a radio, and appeared little interested in it. He expressed his belief in his inability to handle an automobile.”
I ran across this article while looking for something else in the newspaper. I was so excited when I found it and wanted to know more about Uncle Henry.
In 1880, he was living in Ray County with his wife and three children. The next time I found him, he was farming in Hardin in 1900 with Mary, his wife of 30 years and four more children. They had 10 children, but only five were still living.
Ten years later in 1910, Henry was living in Henrietta with a different wife named Carolina that was 20 years younger than he was. Two of his children were living with them, Stella, 15, and Jobe, 12.
The 1920 and 1930 Census shows Henry living alone on Second Street in Henrietta. He is listed as a widower, so he outlived his wife Carolina.
I could not find where or when Uncle Henry Williams died, so I’m hoping that someone can help me finish this story. I do know that he made it to be at least 103 years old.
The 1930 Census had a special category that asked if you owned a radio. I checked and Henry did not show one listed, so it looks like he stuck to the previous statement that he made on his 100th birthday in 1926 that he had no interest in hearing a radio.
Henry traveled a long and winding road from his early days in Virginia to his final days in Ray County. I find it amazing that a small boy born in to slavery in 1826 Virginia lived such a quiet and peaceful life in his later years.
I would love to know how he chose Ray County and if anyone came here with him. I will keep searching for more stories about Uncle Henry, but since Henry did not read or write, many of his tales might be lost in time. I truly hope that someone took the time to record the life and times of Uncle Henry Williams.
If you have information for Linda or would like to contact her about something else, her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. She can also be seen in person at Ray County Museum during business hours Wednesday through Saturday.