Atlanta woman, 111, lives through Jim Crow South, meets Michelle Obama

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

Along the mantel inside Willie Mae Hardy’s East Atlanta home sat pictures of six generations of her family. Paintings of Hardy — Kirkwood’s oldest living resident — adorned the walls.

And in the middle of it all sat Hardy: A quiet but alert 111-year-old woman who smiles occasionally and laughs at jokes.

That same smile and laugh was front and center in May when Hardy, the granddaughter of a slave, met former first lady Michelle Obama at a signing for her book “Becoming.”

For many, meeting the first black first lady is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But for Hardy, the meeting was more than a century in the making.

In her lifetime, Hardy has lived through 20 presidents — from Theodore Roosevelt to Donald Trump — but it would be 100 years before she voted for a black one.

When asked, Hardy tells a reporter where she’s from and when she was born without missing a beat. Born March 11, 1908, in Junction City, Ga., in Talbot County, she grew up on what was once a plantation. Her family continued to live on the property and worked the land.

Hardy remembers it all: Harvesting crops, plowing the land, and weighing cotton.

“I did everything I could do,” Hardy said when asked about her time on the farm. Hardy was quiet much of the interview, but her stories were told through her granddaughter and caregiver Veronica Edwards.

RELATED | 111-year-old Atlanta resident gets free tickets to Michelle Obama event

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

And Hardy remembers her siblings — she had seven. Her sole surviving sister Leila Bell Marshall, 95, lives in Detroit.

She also remembers her cousin Dan Heath.

Heath, as Edwards tells it, was a cousin who was kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, Hardy was a teenager still living in Junction City when the KKK stormed their property and demanded Dan. “He never reappeared,” a solemn Edwards said. It’s a story Hardy has drilled into the family to keep his memory alive.

“That’s something she vividly talks about,” Edwards said. “We always share that with every generation.”

She met and married her husband Frank Hardy in the 1930s and remained with him until his death in 1979. At the age of 31 and with only a third-grade education, Hardy moved to Atlanta in 1939, just as the old airport was expanding and the city took center stage as the setting for the blockbuster movie “Gone with the Wind.”

Looking for what she called a “better life” than what she had in Junction City, Hardy, her husband and her only daughter Cassie Edwards settled in the area now known as the Old Fourth Ward.

Once here, Hardy worked for prominent Atlanta families as a housekeeper until the 1980s, raising the children in those families as she did her younger siblings. In 1966, Hardy and her daughter moved into the grayish-blue Kirkwood home that they shared until last July when Cassie died just four days shy of her 93rd birthday.

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

When she wasn’t working, Hardy was involved her church, the historic Butler Street Baptist Church on Ralph McGill Boulevard in northeast Atlanta. Hardy told her children and grandchildren stories of seeing Martin Luther King Jr. during civil rights rallies held at the church.

Those rallies would eventually pave the way for a Michelle and Barack Obama to be in the White House and Hardy’s subsequent meeting with the former first lady.

Edwards got a phone call from Carrie Johnson Salone, co-founder of the Mother's Legacy Foundation that works to assist and honor elderly residents in Kirkwood, about Hardy meeting Obama. Salone and Atlanta Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, who has honored Hardy twice, arranged the meeting while Michelle Obama was in Atlanta on her book tour.

“(Michelle Obama) was really amazed at how well she looked, how healthy she looked, and how she could still articulate and talk about things,” Edwards said of the meeting with Obama, who along with former President Barack Obama sent Hardy a birthday note in 2012.

“What was so phenomenal about (Hardy) was that she was able to talk about her background,” Salone said.

Salone had known Hardy for four years and often arranged gatherings for her birthday. “I said: ‘OK, what do we need to do this year for her?’” Salone said.

That’s when she got the idea for her to meet Obama.

But the meeting almost didn’t happen. Edwards said in the days leading up to it, Hardy hadn’t been feeling her best. But that morning, Edwards said Hardy was starting to feel her normal self and so she reminded Hardy of the meeting.

From there an excited Hardy was alert as ever: “She said: ‘Oh, get me ready,’” Edwards said.

In her lifetime, Hardy has experienced a lot of change.

When she moved to Kirkwood, the average monthly rent in Georgia was $51 and Kirkwood was transitioning from an all-white community to an all-black one. Kirkwood was comprised of mostly black residents by 1965, essentially forcing the integration of the one school in the area.

Now, many of Hardy’s longtime neighbors are no longer there. And Hardy notices that change.

“She’s definitely aware of that,” Edwards said. “She’s talked about her surroundings and that her neighbors are no longer in the community.”

But Hardy and her family plan to stay in the neighborhood.

For decades, the home has been a central gathering place for family, friends, and neighbors. Every Sunday, six generations of Hardys gathered in her home for family dinners. Edwards recalled that as the smell of cornbread, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese spilled from the kitchen, so would her laughs with daughter Cassie.

“That tradition kind of rolled off unto us,” Edwards said.

It was that togetherness that shaped the family and something Hardy’s great-great-granddaughter Trinity, 12, hopes for herself and her children one day: “I want them to know it’s possible to live that long and still have a wonderful life.”