Elvira Hayes doesn’t know what the secret to her longevity is, but she smiled and waved when she walked into the dining room at Parkland Manor independent living and dozens of people sang “Happy Birthday” to her.
Hayes was greeted by the pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist where she’s been an appointed Mother of the Church for more than 30 years. Marietta, where she spent many of her century-plus years, honored her as city Councilman Anthony Coleman read an official congratulations from the mayor. Family members and residents of Parkland Manor were on hand as well.
History in Marietta and Birmingham
Born April 15, 1909, Hayes went to the black schools in Marietta and graduated from high school in the city. The third of 14 children, her mother’s family helped found Mt. Zion Baptist, one of the area’s oldest churches.
At an early age, Hayes picked cotton with her older sister for 75 cents a barrel. Hayes still remembers a trick the two picked up — putting a couple rocks in the bottom of the barrel to increase the weight and squeeze out a few extra pennies.
She remembers the now-historic area of Cherokee Street at a time when only blacks lived there, and remembers serving as a maid for Marietta’s Northcutt family.
In 1929, Hayes married railroad porter L.M. Hayes and the couple moved to Birmingham, where they stayed until the 1980s.
There were turbulent times. Hayes and her husband endured the worst parts of the Civil Rights Movement, but it paid off as she was later among the first blacks to vote. In Birmingham, she worked as a laundry presser.
“Her long life can be attributed in part to close and loving immediate family,” younger relative Bernice Brinson wrote in a letter commemorating the occasion. “And in whole by blessings of a loving God, the creator of life.”
Today, Hayes has long outlived her husband, moving back to Marietta after his death. All 13 of her siblings have died as well, along with many nieces and nephews. Hayes never had any children of her own, but played a role in raising several relatives. At 105, she still lives independently for the most part, able to read and write, count and clean. She makes her own coffee and her own bed each morning.
“She still likes to dance, shop and tell jokes,” reads Brinson’s letter. “Some of her jokes are true, and some, well, you be the judge. She has some amazing stories.”
Hayes was born and married so long ago, family members were unsure exactly how old she was until just days before the party. The year on her birth certificate was illegible, but a marriage certificate finally confirmed that she is in fact turning 105.
Harris Travis has been the pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist for 32 years, but Hayes was already a member of the church when he arrived. In the church, a Mother of the Church is a position of honor. It’s a lifetime appointment that Hayes has held for decades.
“She’s a sweet person, low key, hardworking,” Travis said.
But he said Hayes knows how to stand her ground, too. One thing he remembers is that Mothers of the Church don’t allow anything to be placed on the communion table.
“In our older church the table was smaller, up front. And people would always want to set their purse down or put something on the communion table,” said Travis. “One of the things I could remember is how they were almost like a guard. Anybody puts anything up there, you gotta get it off, and get it off right now!”
Knowing the consequences, Travis never once put anything on that table.
“I knew the ground rules,” he said with a laugh.
Travis credited Hayes’ long life to a forgiving heart, one that doesn’t carry sadness or upset feelings around. His own mother-in-law lived to be 106, and Travis said she was the same way.
“I call her one of the pillars of Mt. Zion,” said Travis.
Heather King-Green saw a flier for the birthday party at a local Dollar General. She knew Hayes a decade ago when they were neighbors and has been asking about her for years. After checking it out, sure enough, the party was for her old friend.
King-Green helped Hayes get an identification card years ago. Because of documentation issues, Hayes only had a city ID card at the time.
Like Travis, she remembers a friendly and fun-loving woman, but a woman who didn’t play around. She went a long time between visits once, and when she finally came to see Hayes again, received her punishment.
“She slapped me,” King-Green said.
She brought that story up at the party. Hayes remembered the slap, too.
Hayes gave a simple “I don’t know” when asked what the secret is to her longevity. But one could offer a guess, thinking about what kind of woman she is.
“She’s never had any children and says the reason is her mother told her she would have loved them too much,” said Hayes’ great-niece Cynthia Brown. “She loved them with all her heart, but never had children. She raised my dad when he was a little boy. He was sent to Birmingham. They’d put a sign on a child’s neck and send them wherever they were going back in those days.”
Her love of people and of God might play a role, too.
“I think her secret is just being a churchgoing person and a fun person,” said Brown. “She’s like a comedian. She likes to laugh and she just likes to be around people.”