WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS, Ohio – She was generally regarded as the oldest person in the world. Rebecca Lanier, at age 120, took her last breath on Aug. 13.
She lived with one of her grandsons, Jimmy Shambley, who is 62, in his suburban Cleveland home. Born in 1892, Lanier outlived her husband, who died in 1961, and her two daughters, who lived into their 80s.
“She would say, ‘Everybody is dead,’” said Rebecca Shambley, Lanier’s granddaughter, with whom she had breakfast every day in the Shambleys’ home in Warrensville Heights, a quiet community about ten miles from downtown Cleveland.
“Every morning, she would have three slices of bacon, grits, and a glass of orange juice,” said Rebecca Shambley.
Following a short illness, Lanier died quietly. The Social Security Administration reported her 120 years of life placed her in the category of the oldest living person in the United States. Lanier’s grandson proudly display the letter she received from the administration acknowledging her birth as in March 1892.
Because she was black, Lanier had no official birth certificate. It was common in Mississippi and other Southern states during those years that the births of black babies were not chronicled officially. For that reason, the Guinness Book of World Records refused to acknowledge her as the oldest living American or oldest on the planet.
“I know for sure she was the oldest healthy person in the world,” said Jimmy Shambley. “She got around until the last three weeks of her life.”
Lanier was often seen riding in the car driven by her relatives. Daily, she visited a day care center for seniors, where she made many friends.
Lanier was born in South Point, Miss, only 27 years after the Civil War. Her parents had been slaves. Her birth came during depths of the Jim Crow anti-black days.
During a 2011 interview on the occasion of her 119th birthday, she spoke of what she remembered in the early part of her life.
“Working for the white folks,” she said matter-of-factly.
Over the years, she received birthday greetings from the White House. Her family proudly displays the sentiments sent by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obaama. This woman, who was born 71 years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, DC., where he called on voting rights for blacks and others, has voted for many years.
“Even at her age, we took her to the polls so she could vote,” said Jimmy Shambley.
About a month ago, doctors found cancer in her liver. It was then she began to take medicines. Until that point, her daily medicines were few. Lanier was able to get around on a walker and always attended parties in her honor.
She said she never drank alcohol in her life.
“I asked her, ‘Ma, did you ever drink anything?’” remembered Shambley. “She answered, ‘No, I never drunk nothing.’” Shambley said she also avoided coffee.
Lanier, born before the birth of the airplane, telephone, movies, and most of the technological achievements that people today take for granted, died at the age of 120. She lived more than half the age of the United States.
Her funeral will be at 7:30 p.m.Aug. 17, at Second Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, 5713 Kinsman Rd., Cleveland.