Pacifica Senior Living Blog

Inspiring Black Seniors Who Were Advocates for Change

Feb 22, 2024 1:07:33 PM / by Carly Dodd, Pacifica Senior Living

This month, as we celebrate Black History and stories, we’re looking at inspiring individuals who continued the fight for visibility and representation well into their later years. Whether it was making a mark on the culinary scene, pushing for desegregation in the armed forces, winning Grammy Awards as a senior, or being one of the first to represent black women on television, these inspiring black individuals left a lasting impact.

Maya Angelou

Born in 1928, Maya Angelou was a woman who faced some very real hardships in her life, and yet she is most widely known not just for her artistic endeavors - acting, screen plays, and poems, but for her resilience, strength, and passion.

Angelou was awarded a wide variety of honors and awards for her works over the years, many of which came later in life. At the age of 64, she was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

When she was 65, Angelou won her first Grammy for her spoken word album. She won Grammys again at 67, and 74.  At age 72, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. Ten years later, at 82, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010). Though she passed away in 2014, Maya Angelou also became the first black woman to be depicted on the American quarter, with the coins being distributed in 2022.

Percy Julian

Percy Julian was born in 1899 and was a research chemist who made great strides in chemical synthesis of drugs from plants. He was the first black chemist elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He faced prejudice and setbacks in his early years, as no highschools in his region would accept a black student. He did however make it into DePauw University, where he graduated top of his class.

In 1935, he gained international interest for a drug he was developing for glaucoma. When he was 55, he created his own laboratory, having found resistance in many academic circles due to his race. He sold the laboratory at age 64, and went on to found the Julian Research Institute.

His work at the Institute had far reaching impacts in medical science and beyond. His research with steroids formed the foundation for drugs such as cortisone, corticosteroids, and birth control pills, among other things.

Carrie Meek

Carrie Meek was the first black person representing Florida to win a congressional seat since reconstruction. She did it in 1992, at the age of 66. From there, she went on to gain a seat in the House Appropriations Committee within her first year. Meek was an advocate not just for her constituents, but specifically for others in her senior age group.

She pushed for programs important to minorities and older adults, while supporting welfare programs and immigration policies. Meek served from 1979 to 1982 in the Florida House of Representatives, held a position in the Florida Senate from 1982 to 1992,  and was a congresswoman in the United States House of Representatives from 1993 to 2003.

Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis was a much loved and decorated American chef who brought Southern cooking to a whole new level, refining opinions of the style, and shining a light on this less-featured cuisine.

At 56 she published her first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972) and four years later at 60, came out with The Taste of Country Cooking. Her books focused on Southern cooking and life in a tight-knit community of freed slaves and their descendants. In the late 1980s, she founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food which later grew into the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA).

In 1986, at the age of 70, she was named Who's Who in American Cooking by Cook’s Magazine. At 74, (1990) she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She returned to actively cooking in a professional kitchen at this time, working in kitchens in New York City and Brooklyn before officially retiring in 1995. That same year, when she was 79, she was awarded the James Beard Living Legend Award which honored her immense impact on the culinary world and went on to pick up several more prestigious culinary awards.

Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr.

 Benjamin Davis was the first black general in the United States Army. He was one of the few career officers during a time of segregation. He commanded the famous Buffalo Soldiers in both Liberia and the Philippines, and headed a special unit during World War II designed to boost morale of black soldiers. 

At the age of 63 (1940), Davis became the first African American to be promoted to brigadier general. He retired at age 71 after 50 years in the service, but became an advisor to the military on issues of racial discrimination, ultimately laying the groundwork for full integration of the armed forces.

Davis received a Bronze Star and a Distinguished service Medal. His contributions paved the way for many more black military personnel, including his son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who went on to be the second African-American general in the U.S. military and the first in the Air Force.

Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols was an actress who broke many walls in terms of representation. She was the first in her industry in many ways, notably with her role as Uhura in Star Trek. The major supporting role as a bridge officer was one of the first to depict a black woman in a role other than a maid or housekeeper, and it was also one of the first black characters in a science fiction television series. It was also one of the first depictions of an interracial kiss on screen. The character was treated as a working equal rather than a character whose story focused on race.

Notably, she considered leaving the role to pursue other opportunities but was told by Martin Luther King Jr. how important her representation was for other black people and young black girls, and so she decided to stay.

After the show’s cancellation, Nichols went on to volunteer on special projects with NASA. The initiative aimed to recruit minority and female candidates for the space program. She continued to be an advocate and a working actress long into her senior years.

Each of these individuals, and others like them blazed the trail for so many young black individuals and people of color who came after them. Though many had long lives filled with activism and achievements, their work and impact carried on into their later years. 

We spoke to some of our own residents and staff members, asking them to reflect on what Black History Month - and black history more generally - means to them. As seniors themselves, many of  our residents could relate to these stories, and the need for representation and groundbreakers in their time.

Mike B, of Meridian at Westwood reflected on his own experiences. He spent 22 years in the Air Force as a lab equipment calibrator. “When I was growing up, Black History was only 1 week long. I feel that even now with Black History Month, not enough is taught about the contribution the Black Americans have made for this country and the world.” 

For Reyna, a Medical Technician at Alta Vista Senior Living, things are moving in a positive direction, “As someone who has seen Black History Month grow and evolve over the years, it means that people themselves are evolving and changing for the better.”

Another Pacifica Senior Living team member shared “Black History Month reminds me to continue to remember the past but always look to the future. Continue to ask myself what can I do to make this a better place for not just my children but for everyone's children.”

One of our residents from Meridian at Stone Creek summed it up with this sentiment, “As a proud African American, Black History Month means a great opportunity to be educated and to learn from the great heroes who have made a difference in the African American community.”

We aim to continue to shine a light on the amazing stories of not only trailblazing activists like the change makers listed above, but the inspiring stories of our own residents who have, and continue to shape the fabric of black history, American history, and the communities in which they live.

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