Title: Second oldest person buried at Mount Moriah
Birthdate: July 4, 1897
Death Date: May 23, 2005
Plot Location: Section 102
It’s rare to find more than one person over the age of 100, known as a centenarian, buried in the same cemetery. Three of them (so far) have been confirmed at Mount Moriah.
Sarah Lockhart Connell, who happened to be a daughter-in-law of the cemetery’s founder, George Connell, was 101 when she died in 1952. Martha Jane Gibson Taylor was buried here in 1988 at a confirmed age of 108. There was some initial disagreement over whether Nezzie was 107 or 109, but there’s not doubt she is the only one who lived in three different centuries. For that reason alone she is one of Mount Moriah’s notable people.
Nezzie didn’t arrive in Philadelphia until the second half of her life when she was in her 50s. The earliest records say her given name was Sinezilee Woodward, born in Locust Grove, Henry County, Georgia but she grew up on a farm in neighboring Butts County. Family lore in her later years held to a birth year of 1895 but Social Security data and early census records confirm the 1897 date.
The farmland between Atlanta and Macon would have been worked by sharecroppers in Nezzie’s day that labored in fields of cotton and corn, but today would include peaches, pecans, and vegetables. Nezzie was one of 11 “biological farm hands,” children of John and Adline Woodward. Her mother was one of eight children, her father was one of six, and all were most likely struggling under the system of sharecropping.
Nezzie’s life was summarized in a Philadelphia Daily News article on June 1, 2005, a week after she died. Her only living relative was her granddaughter, Charlie Spann, who was in her 70s. From her recollections and some ancestral research a timeline of Nezzie’s life has emerged.
She married Richard Barlow around 1913 when she was 16 years old and probably pregnant. The 1930 census shows she was a widowed mother of 17-year-old Emma Lou Barlow and a 3-year-old grandson, supporting them as a farm laborer. Emma Lou also had a daughter that came to be known as Charlie. Nezzie cared for the grandchildren in their infancy, as this excerpt describes.
It may very well have been the difficulties of living in the segregated South that brought these women to Philadelphia in 1949. The same newspaper story listed the various jobs Nezzie held as a seamstress, a domestic, and a kitchen worker in a Chinese restaurant at 10th and Grace Streets. What she liked best, Charlie said, was working at farms in South Jersey because it reminded her of her youth.
From the day Nezzie came to the city she attended Ebenezer Baptist Church where she sang for years in the choir and enjoyed day-tripping with the church’s Senior Club. Charlie said she never stopped singing. She never drank, smoked, or cursed, and her secret of a long life was simple: “Have faith in God and try to do the right thing.”
Beginning in the first year of the 21st century, Mayor John F. Street invited the city’s centenarians to an annual celebratory dinner. For all but one of the first five years, Nezzie was the oldest honoree in attendance. It was at the 2005 event that she suddenly felt sick so she was taken to Nazareth Hospital where she died, just six weeks shy of her 108th birthday. She shares a gravestone with someone named Willie Brooker, but there was no familial relationship so the reason they’re together is not known.
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