Louise Jimerson was born on June 7, 1917, less than a month before dozens of black people were shot, clubbed and burned to death in the East St. Louis race riots.
But she doesn’t remember feeling racism as a child growing up in nearby Venice. She was friends with white kids in the neighborhood. They played together and ate at each others’ houses. Everyone was poor, and that created a bond.
“I guess I didn’t even realize I was black,” said Louise, of Venice, who turned 100 on Wednesday.
But when she and her sister, Shirley, got older, they had to attend Dunbar School for “colored” children. It would be three decades before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against school segregation.
Another reality check came when Louise was about 12. She went to visit her aunt in Memphis, boarded a streetcar and sat in the front section reserved for white people.
“The bus driver said, ‘Hey, girlie, where are you from, New York?’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘No, I’m from St. Louis.’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to go to the back.’ But I didn’t go, and he didn’t make me.”
Today, Louise jokes that she could have made history instead of Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955.
But Louise is a legend in her own community. Friends and family are amazed she’s so healthy and active at 100. Her only medication is a pill for high blood pressure. She’s never spent time in the hospital for anything other than childbirth.
“I hope I can be like her when I grow up,’” said Lorraine Strauther, 69, of Madison, a retired social worker who attends her church, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal. “She’s always been one of my role models.”
Louise was Lorraine’s Sunday school teacher years ago and continues as a deaconess at Bethel, conveniently located across the street from her home. She’s been through 24 pastors.
Her stylish outfits on Sunday mornings always include hats. She owns about 40, half for summer and half for winter.
“But she doesn’t flaunt anything,” Lorraine said. “She’s always been very quiet. She’s a beautiful person, a kind-hearted person, a loving person. There’s just nothing bad I can say about her.”
Same address for 70 years
Louise lives in a small brick home with a fenced yard that she bought in 1947 with her late husband, Chance. It’s a block from where she grew up.
Son Terrence Jimerson, 67, a retired school custodian, moved in three years ago while recovering from heart-bypass surgery. Louise cooks for him every day — beans, cornbread, meatloaf, greens — and even barbecues on the grill.
“I’m going to make a pound cake and a lemon meringue pie today,” she said Monday, looking spiffy in her capri pants, tan jacket, gold hoop earrings and glass beads.
Terrence helps her dig holes for her garden, which consists of tomatoes, onions and potatoes this year. She also likes to piddle around with her silk flowers, animal figurines and other yard art.
Louise mowed the grass until age 90. She still drives as far as East St. Louis in her 2003 Chevy Impala.
“I had to take my driver’s test on Friday (June 2),” she said. “The lady said, ‘You’re 100? You didn’t miss any questions on your test. You had no rolling stops, and you backed out of the alley correctly.’”
“I’ve never had an accident,” she added.
Louise has six living children. Her seventh, Mark Jimerson, died of brain cancer five years ago at age 59. He was an FBI agent.
Son Alvin Valentine Jr., 79, a Baptist minister and retired General Motors supervisor, lives in her childhood home in Venice, next door to brother Victor Valentine, 75, retired head finisher for Dow Chemical Co.
Then there’s Willard Valentine, 77, retired city water supervisor in Portland, Oregon; Autumn Mitchell, 68, retired kindergarten teacher in Redondo Beach, California; and Shirlee Coleman, 65, retired kindergarten teacher in Flower Mound, Texas.
“All of her sons went into the military, and we were all honorably discharged,” said Victor, a Venice city councilman for 37 years.
Surviving the Great Depression
Black or white, women didn’t have the right to vote when the former Louise Berry was born in 1917. It would be three years before ratification of the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment.
Louise’s father, Curry Berry, worked as a school custodian in Madison. Her mother, Bessie, was a homemaker.
She remembers her father going to the bank after the stock market crashed in 1929 and being told that his savings had vanished. Then he got laid off.
“My sister and I started crying because we didn’t have the money to do the things that we were used to doing,” Louise said.
“We went on ‘relief’ — that’s what they called it back then — and every Monday morning, we’d go up and get food, like rice, flour, sugar, beans and maybe a jar of apple butter.”
Curry gathered coal that fell off railroad cars to heat their house and walked five miles round-trip to the National City stockyards to get meat-packing scraps.
“Back then, white folks didn’t eat pig’s feet, pig’s tails, neck bones or chitlins, so they’d throw it away,” Alvin said. “People knew what day they cut meat, so they’d go down and get that meat.”
After eighth grade, Louise went to live with a friend in St. Louis so she could attend Vashon High School. Her father didn’t want her to go to the local private high school for blacks because it wasn’t “college-accredited.”
Louise finished a year at Stowe Teacher’s College, married Alvin Valentine, lived in St. Louis for six years, got divorced and returned to Venice with her three children.
She was working at her uncle’s dry-cleaning store when she met her second husband, Chance Jimerson, a Granite City steelworker. They had four children, raised chickens and sold eggs.
“She was a good mother,” Terrence said. “She looked out for us. She used to give us a dime for allowance. That was a lot of money back then. We had to mop the floor or wash dishes.
“She always made sure that we’d get a toy for Christmas, and on Easter, we all got new shoes. And then in the summertime, we’d get tennis shoes. She always made us go to church, and she’d take us to the dentist at Washington University.”
Husband dies of heart attack
After her children were grown, Louise earned a teacher’s aide certificate at Belleville Area College and worked 23 years in Madison schools. The job was a lifesaver after her husband died of a heart attack in 1976. She found him in bed on her lunch hour.
Louise later spent 25 years as a buyer and seller at an East St. Louis flea market, retiring two years ago.
Today, she has 15 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
The family celebrated her birthday Wednesday at O’Charley’s in O’Fallon, one of her favorite restaurants. She also loves Lotawata Creek in Fairview Heights. Earlier that day, she received a city plaque.
Other festivities include a picnic June 10 at Edwardsville Township Park and a luncheon June 11 at Bethel.
“We had a big party for her when she turned 80, and I told her, ‘Granny, you’re going to live to be 100,’ and she said, ‘I hope so,’” said her grandson, Anthony Valentine, 48, a school custodian in Madison.
“The last few weeks, I’ve been waiting on pins and needles. I said, ‘God, just let her make it until June 7. Don’t let anything go wrong.’ I’m so proud of her. She’s always been my guardian angel.”
Another thrill was traveling to Israel, Egypt and Greece in 1994 and 2000 with a friend’s church group and getting baptized in the Jordan River.
Louise is most proud of her family.
“I think I was a good mother,” she said. “I tried to teach my kids to go to church, no matter where they lived. I taught them to be respectful and responsible and work hard and save their money.”