By Brittany Whitley
In the world of research, it is commonly agreed that Americans are now living to be older than history once proved. According to some researchers, individuals over 90 years old constitute a larger population than other older age groups. It is believed that most individuals over 90 live alone or in nursing homes, and are widowed white women, high school graduates, and have one or more disabilities. The only demographic feature characterizing 93-year old Madison native Ruth Binion is being a woman.
Born by midwife to two sharecroppers of African American and possibly Native American decent in 1925, most of Binion’s childhood memories take place on the farm where she and her 10 siblings were raised, and other farms where she and her family worked.
“It was good and it was hard days,” she said as she thought of the laboring times on the one-horse farm. “We had to work in the cotton field at 7 o’clock. We would work from 7 to 12 o’clock and go to dinner [lunch]…back then it was breakfast, dinner, and supper.”
Beginning at the underripe age of seven, Binion along with her two older sisters set out daily to pick cotton at different fields, a duty she would continue for about 30 more years.
“Mama made us a little cotton sack,” Binion remembered. “We would be out there pulling one lump out the hooker at a time, but see since we were little, we were just pulling one lump of cotton out.” She also recalled riding with other workers in wagons to get to the fields until times grew older and riding in truck beds became more prevalent. Among the cotton workers, the young Binion and her sisters earned only .75 cents a day until wages transitioned to three dollars per hundred pounds of cotton in the later years. Eventually, Binion married and picked up housework for white families where she earned $25-$30 per week before going on to retire from her only public job at the nursing home in the 70’s.
Woven throughout her memories of harsh labor are fond reflections of a time when life was full of simplicity.
“See we was raised up on whatever like vegetables,” Binion said, “corn for the cornmeal, wheat for the flour, ice potatoes, chicken, hogs, and we had cows…We raised everything…like cane and made our own syrup. Only thing we had to buy was sugar.”
With a giggle, she remembered the chickens they raised, “living in that old house, it had them cracks [in the floor], you could see the chickens walking up under the house…that was the best chicken. Chicken ain’t good like it used to be.”
Unable to afford radios, refrigerators, and trips to the doctor, Binion’s late mother, Mallie Woods, relied mostly on nature and wit. In the winter, fresh milk and buttermilk was chilled by the brisk air and protected from the heat waves of summer by ice bought from the “ice man” who chiseled off pieces of ice for as little as a dime; leftover ice was wrapped tight in Crocker sacs and placed inside the unused fireplace to keep cool. Fish would be preserved with salt after fileting to delay rot while hog meat was salted and left to cure in a box for weeks at a time without a need for refrigeration.
“We didn’t go to the doctor,” Binion said. “If we got sick, they would do home remedies.”
For the common cold, family members were given a cup of tea brewed from rabbit tobacco and pine at night or, sometimes in conjunction with, a flannel cloth soaked in tallow (a fatty substance from animal fat), kerosene, and turpentine to lay on the chest as they slept. And according to Binion, “you wake up that next morning feeling like a spring chicken afterward.”
For stomach aches, a teaspoon of sugar with nine drops of turpentine would clear it right up. The oil drained from a can of sardines would be rubbed around the throat of someone affected with mumps, and sut, cobbweebs, or salted fatback could be packed inside cuts or soothed onto burns and wrapped with a cloth for a clean heal.
Binion reminisced on everything from baking potatoes by covering them in hot firepit ashes until cooked through to painting the inside walls of her childhood home white with white dirt dissolved in water, sometimes adding Bluing (a detergent used to wash clothes) for painting the outside window shutters blue to standing in line at the A&P Grocery Store during the Great Depression to receive food rations.
“I remember that,” she said. “When they would ration cheese and butter and stuff like that… we got there sometimes and it would have been done sold out cause the line was so long.”
Binion not only lived through America’s life-changing wars, but had close ties to them. Her step-father was a World War I veteran and ex-husband, a World War II navy veteran.
Strong. Black. Independent. Healthy as a horse. Ms. Ruth Binion crushes the presumptions that typically depict people in her age group. It is not unusual for daily passersby to catch a peripheral glance of Binion raking leaves in the yard of her Green Meadows residence during the cooler months.
“I like to get up and do,” Binion expressed, “it makes me feel better. I just can’t sit, you know. I like to move around.”
She takes the phrase “move around” just a step further with her extensive vacationing. Her love of traveling has taken her to places like California, Michigan, New Orleans, Arkansas, Las Vegas, Florida, the Carolinas, and Washington, D.C., often making several visits a year to the same location for events like Marti Gras and to be with family.
Despite her, now, frequent flyer track record, Binion remembers the very first time she saw one of the early airplane models.
“We were picking cotton… and I told mama I wanted some water and she told me to gone on down to the house and get it,” she thought back. “I remember it was cloudy. You’ve seen it when the sun be shining and these big ol’ thunder heads just be white and some of them done turned dark…and when I came out that house, I heard that airplane coming…I took off running… And I always said I wouldn’t ever get on a plane…”
Experiencing almost a decade of life, Binion remembers when people of color had no voice and little to no respect, and cherishes the progression of today where racial equality is fought for and all are able to share their voice. With that, she takes every opportunity to vote because she remembers the time when her opinion was equivalent to nothing. When recalling former President Obama’s historical victory as becoming America’s first black president, Binion said, “I prayed for him and prayed for God to let him get in there. My granddaughter called me from California and asked me ‘grandma did you ever think you would be able to have a black president?’ I said no.” For her 90th birthday, she received a plaque of honor signed from Obama.
And at the age of 93, she made the decision to participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through baptism at Chestnut Grove Baptist Church in Athens after witnessing her 7-year-old grandchild initiate that very same leap of faith.
“I already had religion, I know, but I had never been baptized,” Binion admitted. “Something came to me and said ‘you been here all these years and you done let your great-great-granddaughter get baptized before you did’ and I told my son, he’s a minister, and he asked me if I wanted to get baptized and I said yeah.”
“One thing about it, I thank God for being here,” Binion concluded as she reflected. “Just like they say, I never thought I would be able to get this old but God is blessing me. It’s something I done did right. But I never been a real bad person, I was about the quietest one out of the girls and I didn’t bother nobody if you didn’t bother me…”