On Tuesday, the woman believed to be the oldest person in the U.S. passed away at her home in Cleveland Heights, the Associated Press reported. According to the Gerontology Research Group, which tracks and verifies the age of people aged 110 and older, Lessie Brown lived for 114 years and 108 days.
Brown’s grandparents were slaves in Georgia, according to Cleveland Magazine. Brown left school after the eighth grade, working full time on her parents’ farm. At 16 years old, the family moved to Cleveland — but it was a treacherous journey, seen at that time as an act of rebellion. “The country was still deeply segregated,” Cleveland Magazine reported. “African-Americans were pressured to stay in the South and work on farms, not to move to the North and start a new life. So her father was forced to travel at night. The rest came in a small group, leaving behind anything they couldn’t carry.”
Brown met her husband Robert Brown at a Halloween party in 1924, got engaged after two months, and stayed married for the next 66 years until he died in 1991.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama sent Brown a letter on her 112th birthday, her grandson Ronald Wilson told the Magazine. “That meant a lot to her because in the era that she grew up in, she never thought she’d be able to vote for a black president. But she did — twice.”
While some supercentenarians — those who live to at least 110 — have credited their longevity to whiskey, Brown avoided alcohol, her family says. Instead they attributed her long life to regular consumption of sweet potatoes, which she ate nearly every day until well after her 100th birthday.
“Oh I don’t know,” Brown told WJW-TV five years ago, the AP reported. “A lot of them say it’s because I ate a lot of sweet potatoes, but I don’t think that’s it.” Brown said her longevity was more likely due to “God’s will.”
That’s no secret, her oldest daughter Vivian Hatcher told Fox 8 Cleveland in May. “It’s her belief in God, and he’s allowed this, and I’m thankful for that,” she said. “We’ve been together for years and I’m grateful.”
“She is such a Godly woman,” granddaughter Gayle Chambers told Cleveland Magazine. “She inspired all of her kids and grandkids, including me, how to pray. She even prayed on her knees at the side of her bed until she could couldn’t kneel anymore.”
“God has blessed me,” Brown told Fox 8 when she turned 111, “Spared me to live this long. I’m thankful.”
According to the Gerontology Research Group, there are now 34 remaining supercentenarians worldwide whose age has been validated; all but one of them are women. The oldest living person is Kane Tanaka of Japan, who just turned 116. She says the secrets to a long life are family, sleep, and hope.