Mamie Kirkland on her 111th birthday.
Mamie Kirkland was born in Ellisville, Mississippi, USA on 3 September 1908. Born Mamie Lang in Ellisville, about 25 miles north of Hattiesburg, she was the second of five children. She maintained that she died and went to heaven when she was 5 after she came down with typhomalarial fever, but was revived with a tea brewed by her grandmother, a midwife and herbalist. Her family fled Ellisville when she was seven after her father was threatened with lynching and she vowed never to set foot in Mississippi again. When they arrived by train in East St. Louis, Mo., her father told them that a close friend, John Hartfield, had been seeing a white woman and white men were after them both. Hartfield was hung to death in a public lynching after he returned to Ellisville in 1919. The Langs spent two years in East St. Louis, Mo., but moved again in fear after witnessing the violent race riots there in 1917. Resettled in Alliance, Ohio, where her parents ran a boarding house, they were threatened again, this time by the Ku Klux Klan, which burned a cross in their front yard. She married one of the boarders, a railroad worker named Albert Kirkland, when she was 15 and they moved to Buffalo in 1924. They raised nine children and lost another to miscarriage.
After her husband, who was a steelworker here, died in 1959, Mrs. Kirkland, with only an eighth grade education, became a sales representative for Avon Products to support her children. In the course of her sales calls, she became a counselor to her clients and a substitute parent to their children. A Buffalo News story on centenarians in 2016 noted that she was still selling Avon Products when she was 107. She was convinced to return to her birthplace in 2015 by her youngest son, Tarabu Betserai Kirkland, a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles, who made a documentary film about her family’s flight, “100 Years from Mississippi.” A New York Times reporter chronicled her visit in a front page story. She was honored by the Equal Justice Initiative in 2016, traveling to New York City to receive their Lynching Legacy Award. At the ceremony, she declared, “I left Mississippi a scared little girl of seven years old. Now I’m 107 and I’m not frightened any more.” She was honored again as the oldest lynching survivor in 2018 in Montgomery, Ala., at the opening of the Legacy Museum and the Peace and Justice Memorial. Her story, with photographs and an oral history, is on display in the museum. Known for her jewelry and her fondness for the color purple, she was an active member of First Shiloh Baptist Church for more than 85 years. She also rarely missed a chance to vote. “People died so I can vote. Years ago, people didn’t have a chance to vote,” she told Buffalo News reporter Jane Kwiatkowski Radlich, who interviewed her in 2014 at her polling place in the Richard E. Winter ‘42 Student Center at Canisius College. “I’m 106 and I get out to vote. The young and old should do the same, because it means a lot to everyone.”
On her 110th birthday, Kirkland had five living children, 20 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren, 83 great-great-grandchildren and 22 great-great-great-grandchildren.
Mamie Kirkland died in Buffalo, New York, USA, on 28 December 2019 at the age of 111.