Lizzie Donald wasn’t born into a comfortable or an easy world.
To get around, her family traveled by wagon in rural Mississippi, hot bricks wrapped at their feet to keep them warm. She was a day shy of 48 before, as a Black woman, the Voting Rights Act ensured she could vote. At 51, she watched as a man walked on the moon. At 91, she saw the country’s first Black president. At 103, she survived COVID. Twice.
Regardless, you could not catch Mrs. Lizzie complaining.
Her response to everything from how-are-yous to how-did-you-make-its was the same — “I’m doing the best I can with what I got.”
Mrs. Lizzie died Aug. 14, at 105, of natural causes.
In Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, Mrs. Lizzie and her family walked to church and school, often dodging the bull that liked to chase them.
At 15, in 1932, she met and married James Donald, a young man from Sneads, Florida.
The couple settled in Sneads, had three children and a house on a hill looking out over verdant farmland. They were the first Black family in Sneads to own a television and often got treats and gifts from their father’s travels with his job.
He was a foreman who worked on the construction of the first Sunshine Skyway Bridge and Mrs. Lizzie worked at the Florida State Hospital in nearby Chattahoochee as a caregiver until the family moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1962.
The road in Sneads where the Donalds lived is now named after them.
“As a Black family, we had a good life,” said daughter Frances Scott. “People there respected us and we respected them.”
Each week, Katrina Scott-Headley couldn’t wait for the weekend sleepovers at the home of her grandparents.
In the Donald’s three-bedroom home on 21st Street in St. Petersburg, six or seven grandkids made their beds on the living room floor each weekend. Mrs. Lizzie woke them on Saturdays with the smells of breakfast, which she customized for each of her grandchildren.
Scott-Headley liked her pancakes buttered on both sides.
When one child wanted to go to the store for a treat, they all had to go. And they had to get along. Big Momma, as Mrs. Lizzie’s grandchildren called her, would not stand for confusion or fussing.
She and her husband took them on vacations to Sneads, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.
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And when their Big Daddy died in 1980, Mrs. Lizzie kept on doing the best she could with what she had. That spirit set the example for her grandchildren, Scott-Headley said, who all have careers that made her proud.
“As long as we were thriving,” Scott-Headley said. “As long as we were doing our best.”
While her friends went to camps and classes all summer, Quanyse Gaddy and her cousins went to their great-great grandmother’s house.
“I used to call it Camp Lizzie.”
Later, Gaddy lived with Mrs. Lizzie to finish school after her mother moved to Georgia, and like her parents and grandparents once did, she got up early each Sunday to go to church. Mrs. Lizzie dressed immaculately, her hat matched her shoes, which of course matched her purse.
For more than 60 years, she worshiped at Greater Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in St. Petersburg. The Rev. Clarence Williams was Mrs. Lizzie’s pastor for the last 24 of them.
“She has been just a jewel of a member,” he said. “As a pastor, you love to see these heroes of the faith, not on a page in a book, but in real life.”
Mrs. Lizzie set the standard for her three children, nine grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and 14 great-great-grandchildren. The secret of her long life, perhaps, wasn’t so much a secret as it was common sense and strong values.
For her 103rd birthday, Williams visited his parishioner at home and recorded a conversation about her life. What would she say to young people, he asked?
Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t hang out in the streets, Mrs. Lizzie replied.
“And try to live a Christian life, because we really need you now,” she said. “If we ever prayed, it’s praying time now.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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