More commonly referred to as “Miss Susie,” Jones was the last American born in the 19th century. She would have turned 117 on July 6.
To honor her life, elected and city officials, community members and members of Jones’s family helped plant a tree by the Vandalia Senior Center, where Jones spent the last three decades of her life. Although she had no children, Jones is survived by more than 100 nieces, nephews and godchildren.
Simone Dundas, the director of the East New York senior center, kicked off the ceremony by noting that celebrating Miss Susie’s life was a bittersweet act.
“Even though we lost Miss Susie, she left a legacy for all of us, a legacy that we will continue to remember her fondly for,” Dundas said. “It’s all about the legacy that we leave when we leave this earth. It’s about the lives that we touch. I know for a fact that Miss Susie did that.”
Born in Lowndes County, Alabama, on July 6, 1899, Jones was the third child and oldest daughter of 11 children. Her parents were sharecroppers who farmed on the same land as her grandparents, who were slaves.
Determined to escape a life of sharecropping, Jones was accepted to the Tuskegee Institute’s Teacher’s Program, but couldn’t afford to attend. After briefly working with her family picking crops, Miss Susie moved north, and eventually settled into New York City in 1923.
She worked for wealthy families as a nanny and housekeeper, taking care of children. According to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), Jones reportedly earned $7 a week, and helped other relatives relocate to New York. She moved into the Vandalia Avenue Houses in 1983, and lived there until her passing on May 12.
Shola Olatoye, the CEO and Chair of NYCHA, said although she never met Miss Susie, she heard great things about the 116-year-old woman. She said Jones led a life that others should aspire to live.
“We’re here to remember a life well lived and a life lived in service of others,” Olatoye said. “She was a kind, generous and tenacious woman who gave herself to others as a caregiver, a benefactor, a neighborhood watch volunteer, a sister, an aunt and a friend.”
According to the NYCHA chair, Jones used her salary to create and fund The Calhoun Club, a college scholarship for African American students. Retired in 1965, Jones helped send many of her nieces to college, something she couldn’t afford when she was younger.
“[She was] truly taking her own experience and using her salary and earnings to support the next generation of young people,” Olatoye said.
Olatoye noted that Miss Susie’s life spanned historical events like the advent of the automobile and airplane, two world wars, the Great Depression, women’s suffrage and civil rights, the moon landing and even global connectivity. She twice voted for the first African American president of the United States, Barack Obama, who wrote a letter to Jones on her 115th birthday. According to NYCHA, that letter still hangs on her wall.
“She was a living history and a true blessing,” Olatoye said.
Elected officials who had known Jones attended the celebration on Wednesday. State Senator Roxanne Persaud, whose relative was Miss Susie’s caretaker, presented her family with a New York State citation.
“She was quite a jovial person,” Persaud said.
Councilwoman Inez Barron and Assemblyman Charles Barron both spoke fondly about their memories with Jones. Councilwoman Barron, who called it a memorable and sad occasion, said the Vandalia community was an important part of her life.
“You took time each year to honor her, have birthday parties here and planned programs where children would come, celebrate her life and give her cards,” she said. “In her 116 years, she had much wisdom and now has gone on to be with her ancestors.”
Every year since Miss Susie turned 100, the Vandalia community threw her a birthday party. Although she had lost her eyesight and was hard of hearing later in her life, Jones still celebrated with her friends and family.
“You know, the beautiful thing about planting a tree is that now, she lives forever,” Assemblyman Barron said. “We will never forget Miss Susie.”
A small contingent of her nieces and nephews shared their thoughts about their late aunt at the ceremony. Lois Judge, one of Jones’s many nieces, said they were there by her side on the day she passed away. They asked her questions about her mother, father and brother.
“We were able to get some answers from her,” Judge said. “This is what she did until the last minute.”
Last year, Guinness World Records officially declared Jones the world’s oldest person. She reportedly told Guinness that her longevity was due to lots of sleep, a lack of vices, love and positive energy, according to NYCHA.
“She would ask us many times, ‘Why me?’ and I said, ‘Why not you?’ Judge said. “God has a plan for you. He’ll let you know when it’s time to go and then He’ll take you.”
Judge said everybody wanted to be in the presence of Miss Susie, and they were happy to share her life with those around her. She thanked everyone, from her caretakers to fellow community members, for what they’ve done for her aunt.
“It was a blessing to have been her niece,” she said. “We have shared her with the world.”