Though many centenarians have passed away in the City of Brotherly Love, none have surpassed the forgotten, but truly remarkable, African-American woman named Mary McDonald. McDonald died on January 5, 1906, at the ripe old age of 135!
Many may scoff at the above declaration, but Mary’s official death certificate in Philadelphia declares her to have been born in Pennsylvania on November 14, 1770, and died at the age of “135 years, 1 month & 21 days.” Also, the 1900 Federal Census returns for Philadelphia’s Ward 34 shows Mary as being born in 1770 in Pennsylvania.
In 1887 at age 117, Mary McDonald (occasionally referred to as McDonnell) moved to the Home for Aged & Infirm Colored Persons, located on the southwest corner of Girard and Belmont Avenues. The home had been founded in 1864 during the Civil War by Stephen and Harriet Smith, also of African ancestry.
The Annual Reports of the Board of Managers of the Home of Aged and Infirm Colored Persons provide a biographical sketch of Mary, noting in 1902 that Mary was “familiarly known in the house and without as ‘grandmother.'” According the records of the Home, Mary was born in Frogtown near Valley Forge. Mary related how “at the age of four years she was placed in the family of Reese Howell” and “remembers the years 1777 and ’78, when the Revolutionary forces were camped near Valley Forge.”
The Daughters of the American Revolution organization verified Mary’s reminiscences, and agreed that in 1899 “the old woman must be over one hundred and twenty-eight years of age.” Mary McDonald reminisced about the Revolution, giving details of the skirmishing of the Continental Army “in the neighborhood of Philadelphia,” and how “the soldiers were always going up and down the road. They were dressed in all buttons.” She remarked how “the soldiers came around twice a week to collect the provisions prepared for them. All the women in the neighborhood gave food to the patriots.”
Mary McDonald remembered those who resided in the Valley Forge area, such as Isaac Walker and his family. During an interview, Mary reportedly asked “if the Walkers were still there” and if Isaac was still living. The interviewer told her that Isaac’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren now lived here, and Mary “became greatly excited & praised the Lord.”
Mary McDonald was buried at Olive Cemetery, a graveyard reserved for Black individuals, which was originally located at Girard and Belmont Avenues in Philadelphia. She was moved to Eden and Mt. Zion in 1923.
Another centenarian, Edith Gilliam, an ex-slave from Sussex County, Virginia, was also buried in Olive Cemetery. Gilliam, who was the mother of 21 children, passed away in Philadelphia at the age of 115 on February 18, 1880. There is also an account of a woman named Alice, who reportedly died at age 116 in 1802. John Fanning Watson, the famed Philadelphia antiquarian of the 19th century printed a brief biographical account of Alice, who was born as a slave in Philadelphia, in his multi-volume compilation Annals of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania.