Lester Townsend, Man of the Century–Literally!

I had the good fortune of knowing a supercentenarian who was also a family member. It is my father’s older brother, Lester Syrus Townsend, who finally departed this life at the incredible age of 111-years, 6 months and 22 days on October 22, 2019. He was born March 31, 1908, and I always called him on his birthday to find that he had survived another year.

Now Lester was not the oldest person alive by any means. That honor goes to a French woman named Jeanne Calment, who lived to be 122½-years-old! His age distinction had qualified Uncle Les to make Wikipedia’s list of the oldest-living people in the world. But now that the list is limited to those who are still alive and to only 50 names, there are at least fifty others who surpass him.

My Facebook friends, among others, have taken quite an interest in my Uncle Lester and wanted to know more about him, as did I. I had often suggested to Lester that he allow someone to chronicle his life story, but he was always reluctant to do so. Now it’s too late to get a first-hand account from him. Can you imagine what all he must have experienced in his life since 1908? Although I don’t know a whole lot about his life, I can at least share a bit of what I do know about my uncle and our family.

I was born into a large family on my father’s side. My father’s grandfather was one of 11 children, most of whom had a bunch of kids, and my dad’s father was one of 10, most of whom had a bunch of kids. My dad, who grew up in Cairo, Illinois, was one of 12, and most of them married and had several children. My father’s mother was one of 23 kids, and I expect that most of them had a big slew apiece. So with all that begetting going on, on both sides of the family, they managed to rack up a whole lot of descendants. Our family historian once estimated that at any time the Townsend-Henson Clan has over 2000 living relatives! I have considered consulting the Guinness Book of World Records people with that information. At least half that number tend to show up for our family reunions every few years.

Most European immigrants have the referral of New York’s Ellis Island archival records at their disposal by which to trace their family history and heritage. They can obtain names and exact dates when certain ancestors landed in this country. Alas, we descendants of the African slave trade don’t have that luxury or privilege. Most of us don’t know where we came from exactly or who our original people were. They were brought here against their will as anonymous non-entities, and became personal property, their families split up at will and sold to locales unknown. However, some research that has been done has narrowed our roots to the Western Africa regions of Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea Bissau and/or Liberia.

My family’s known history goes back only as far as my parents’ great-grandparents. The American patriarch of my father’s family on his mother’s side was Rev. Syrus Bogan Henson [1835-1910], a freed slave who, when he left the Henson Plantation in Wilmington, North Carolina, bought 120 acres of land in Kilmichael, Mississippi, where he became a minister and raised a family of 23 children! Several of Syrus’ offspring became educators. His son Luther, my great-uncle who lived to be 101-years-old (he died in 2001), taught blues musician B.B. King and is purported to have given him his first guitar. King remained a close friend of the family until he died in 2015.

The story goes that my paternal grandfather, William Townsend, left Mississippi for Arkansas then to Cairo, Illinois with his family after a boll weevil epidemic ruined the cotton industry in the 1910s and they had to find work elsewhere. Another story is that Grandpa Will had killed a white man–no doubt in self-defense–and had to flee north. I suppose it was work opportunities at Studebaker that eventually brought most of the family to South Bend, Indiana.

I learned that Will’s grandfather was Isom Townsend (born in 1835), and his father was Jerry Townsend (born in 1810 in North Carolina), but that’s as far back as I go with that branch of the family. I don’t know who their parents were or if any of them were slaves at any time. They probably were. Where did we get the surname Townsend, I‘ve always wondered, and just what is our European connection?

As a kid, and since he did live in South Bend, too, I did get to know my Grandpa Will and got to visit with him on occasion, such as family gatherings and such. I remember him as being a nice, jovial man who loved his family. I never knew my paternal grandmother, Minnie Henson, however, who was Syrus’ youngest offspring, for she died in 1934. Grandpa Will died in 1960.

Besides Lester (ne Luster) and my father, Earl, their other siblings were Aaron, Amy, George, Joseph (first name, Henson), Lenora, Lillian, Lottie, Ora and two other unknown half-brothers whom Will sired after my grandmother died. I never knew Uncle George (he died before I was born) or my alcoholic Aunt Lillian, who died when I was very young. But I knew and spent time with Uncles Joe and Aaron and Aunts Amy and Lenora, who lived in South Bend (and died there) and Aunt Ora, who lived in Kansas City. Aunt Lottie remained in Cairo. Lester, the third-born, had all the characteristics and maladies that did not suggest future longevity. He was sickly from birth and plagued by migraines from an early age. But he managed to survive all his siblings and was the oldest and longest-living relative of our family.

Lester was married to his wife, Rena, for 80 years, until she died in 2015, at the age of 99. They had two daughters, Gwendolyn and Drapel, both still alive, and a son, Oris, who is deceased. Being a few years older than I am, I did not see my cousins too often growing up, except for occasional visits and family gatherings. Gwen is quite the scholar, however. She has a doctorate in philosophy and served as vice-president at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina and dean at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. I don’t have any T on Drapel, although I suspect that she is a smartie as well.

All I know about Lester’s work history is that he was a farmer, a social worker and factory worker. He did work at Studebaker for a time, as did my dad, and he never had to fight in any wars. When I was attending Linden Elementary in South Bend, Lester was our school custodian. He still remembered the names of the teachers who were there at the time. That was over 60 years ago! I don’t remember most of them myself! Lester was a kind man of even temperament, soft-spoken, and like his father before him, he loved his family.

I have a few notable relatives from the Henson side of the family, the most famous being explorer Matthew Henson [1866-1955], who actually was the co-discoverer of the North Pole in 1909. It has been proven that Henson actually got there first, but being a member of Peary’s expedition, naturally Peary received all the credit, initially. Matthew was Grandma Minnie’s uncle, therefore my great-great uncle. As a result of Matthew’s time spent in Greenland and eventual cohabitation with a local Inuit woman, there are a slew of Eskimo Henson cousins still residing up there, none of whom I have ever met, of course.

According to his Wikipedia page, which lists him as a relative of Matthew Henson, it appears that Josiah Henson, the original “Uncle Tom,” is my ancestor as well–my great-great uncle, I think. You see, great-granddaddy Syrus must be a descendant of one of Josiah’s [1789-1883] male offspring. Josiah eventually escaped to Canada and became a preacher and lecturer. His published narrative autobiography apparently caught the attention of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and during her research to get background on the book that she was writing, she sought Henson out and interviewed him and other former slaves. He must have impressed her enough to become the inspiration for the title character in her famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I have a couple of talented and successful actor cousins, whom I haven’t met–namely, Taraji P. Henson, the star of “Person of Interest” and “Empire” on TV and lots of movies, comes from the North Carolina branch of the family, and director/writer Robert Townsend, who is rumored to be the son of my first cousin Thomas Townsend (Uncle Joe‘s son). My late cousin, Purvis Henson, played lead saxophone in Buddy Johnson’s Orchestra for many years. The pop gospel singing group, the Staples Singers, are also my cousins. I suspect that former member of the ‘60s vocal group The Fifth Dimension, Ron Townson, who I learned changed the spelling of his name from Townsend, may be my cousin as well. He hails from St. Louis, where many of my relatives make their homes, and he does have that Townsend family resemblance about him. Another actor, Darrin Dewitt Henson, may be a member of the Henson Clan as well, but I have not yet confirmed it. With so many cousins and such who don’t even know each other, we probably are all related somewhere in there.

My first-cousin Lottie Williams, Aunt Ora’s daughter, now deceased, was the mayor of Velda City, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, for several years. For a time it was believed that Oprah Winfrey was my second-cousin. On conducted genealogy research someone had concluded that Oprah’s grandmother Arah Townsend Winfrey and my grandpa Will were brother and sister, but that was not corroborated by any other source and has since been proven not to be true.

During his last year in office, Lester got to meet Barack Obama. POTUS was in the South Bend area, and 2nd District Congressman Lynn Coleman, a friend of my uncle, thought that Barack would be interested in meeting someone who was 108-years-old (at the time) and a living grandson of a slave. They made it happen. In 2017 during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, Lester, who was an advocate for voting, received a “Drum Major” Award (whatever that is) from Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

People have asked me what was the secret of Lester’s amazing longevity? I don’t have a clue. He was not even ailing and seemed to be in remarkable health, in spite of his age. Just like the centenarian Okinawans, maybe taking life slow and easy is the key. Lester maintained a vegetable garden at his home, and for exercise, he rode his bicycle every day. He wasn’t doddering but still had his mind and wits about him. The man just finally wore out, I guess. Was it just good genes, good living, what? I don’t know. All I can say is, Bless his heart! I just hope I can follow his example.