The life of Mary Walker: the nation’s oldest student

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The biography “Ex-Slave Ex-Tra: The Living Voice and Biography of an Ex-slave in Modern History” at the Chattanooga Library offers more insight into Walker’s life. | Photo via NOOGAtoday

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What do you hope to be doing at the age of 116? Frankly, we’ll count ourselves lucky if we’re still alive. For former Chattanoogan Mary Walker, being alive wasn’t enough — at 116, she learned to read and write, was given the key to the City of Chattanooga, and received recognition from not one, but two US Presidents.

And, for the record, we’re not talking about the Mary Walker who shows up on the first full page of Google when you search her name — Mary Edwards Walker was also a cool gal (who, interestingly enough, also has ties to Chattanooga), but this Mary Walker’s story is much different, and it’s one we just had to share with you.

Her life

Alright, let’s rewind the tape a bit — we’re sure you’ve got questions. Mary Hardway Walker was born into slavery during the year 1848 in Union Springs, Alabama. Until the age of 15, she was enslaved. Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Mary didn’t waste time beginning what would become a full + eventful life, despite the segregation and racism of the Jim Crow era; by the age of 20, she was married + had her first child.

Mary eventually had two other children (three sons in total), and worked various jobs like cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and even selling sandwiches to raise money for her church. In 1917, Walker and her family moved to Chattanooga, where she lived until her death in 1969.

Here in Chattanooga is where Walker outlived her husband and all three children by the time she was 114. It’s also where she first learned to read, write, add, and subtract after enlisting in the Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement in 1963. At the time she learned these skills, Mary Walker was 116 (some sources say 117, but that may be referencing her over a year spent in class — either way, it’s impressive). She attended a one-hour class two nights a week for more than a whole year.

According to an old newspaper article featured in the biography “Ex-Slave Ex-Tra: The Living Voice and Biography of an Ex-slave in Modern History,” on Mary’s 120th birthday, she recited a poem composed + dedicated to her by Norman Eakin called “Four Score and 20 Years Old":

“My body is frail-and my hair is grey-And I’m just four score and 20 years old today. Tomorrow my friends are coming to shake my hand-and my loved ones are coming with a birthday cake.”

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Mary Walker with her teacher, Mrs. Helen Kelley, and classmates during one of their classes | Photo taken by NOOGAtoday via the library’s “Ex-Slave Ex-Tra: The Living Voice and Biography of an Ex-slave in Modern History”

Her accolades

The US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare certified that Mary was (and remains) the nation’s oldest student, but that’s not her only accolade. She was also:

  • Named Chattanooga’s Ambassador of Goodwill — twice
  • Recognized for her achievements by the US President — two of them, in fact: Johnson + Nixon
  • Visited + celebrated by leaders from across the country and Canada
  • Given the key to Chattanooga
  • Named the “prize pupil” of her Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement class
  • Noted to be one of the longest-living former slaves

Her legacy

After her death, the City of Chattanooga renamed her former retirement home in her honor + created a memorial that can be found at 3031 Wilcox Blvd.

In 1970, Chattanooga’s Mary Walker Foundation was established to promote academic and economic literacy in the city through reading and writing classes, historical displays, family crisis support, scholarships, and local news outlet The Chattanooga News Chronicle.

In 2019, a local author named Rita Lorraine Hubbard wrote a book about Mary Walker called “The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read.” Thanks to Hubbard’s book, Walker’s name was back in the press a great deal, and we’re grateful to have the opportunity to bring it back once more + share the story of this wonderful woman.

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