When Zulee Samuels says she had ‘a very hard childhood’ it is a huge understatement. She faced poverty and an abusive father but overcome them to become a professional dressmaker before finally, after a 45 year struggle, completing her college education. She turned 100 this month (December).
Her humbling story is living testimony to the power of determination, which other centenarians have also cited as key to their long lives.
Samuels grew up in poverty in South Carolina in the care of her abusive father, a Baptist evangelist preacher.
She can remember working to can peaches until two in the morning, only to be woken four hours later by her father and told to get up and cook breakfast. When she stayed in bed, he tore a branch of a bush and beat her with it. ‘He came in an pulled back my bedclothes and my gown midway to my thighs and started whipping me, and I was screaming.’
The abuse simply drove her on, she says.
Her father also refused to let her complete her education. From the age of 8 she was kept out of school to plough fields and plant crops. When she did attend school she performed well and her grandmother, who had been born into slavery, wanted her to become a teacher. ‘But my father, even though he was a minister, said I didn’t need any more education,’ she remembers. ‘I said I’m going to get an education, regardless of that,’ she says. ‘I just kept trying and trying’.
After a number of false starts, that effort finally paid off in 1983 when she graduated from college, alongside students 40 years younger than her. She was even chosen as Homecoming Queen, carried into the auditorium on a float and presented with a dozen red roses.
After graduation, Samuels worked as a literacy tutor and part-time teacher.
She says her only regret is that she couldn’t go to college earlier and teach full time. ‘It was in my heart to teach’.
A remarkable woman.