Juanita Mitchell profile CS 2016-12-27 DSC_0004
Local News

‘Always wear a hat to church’ and other advice from local 105-year-old for long, successful life

  Juanita Mitchell laughs while talking about her long life.
  (Photos by Carrie Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)

At age 105, Juanita Mitchell still pays great attention to detail in fashion. Returning from a road trip to Wisconsin, she arrived home in a festive sweater dress complemented with sparkly shoes and coordinated jewelry. Her sense of style is one thing she’s always been known for. 

Mitchell, of Flossmoor, celebrated her Dec. 15 birthday with a gathering of family and friends at a local country club, looking spry and many years younger than her birth certificate indicates. As recently as six months ago, she was mobile, walking without assistance and living independently. A fall over the summer resulted in her now depending on a walker to move about, but she points out that she didn’t break a single bone in the mishap.

Born in the little Louisiana town of Narin, not far from New Orleans, Mitchell recalled massive flooding in the area when she was a child. Her mother had just delivered her sister and they were forced out of their home by rising water. The family climbed into a skiff and made it to a levy where her mom waited for help into the next day, holding tightly to both children to prevent them from washing away.

Her father was traveling to serve in World War I when he developed pneumonia along the way and died. At age 8, she and her sister moved to Chicago’s Bronzeville area to live with an aunt and uncle.


“I could walk out on the back porch and watch the soldiers of the 8th Infantry Regiment in training,” she said. 

A graduate of Hyde Park High School, she expanded on her seamstress skills at Washburne Trade School and said she spent the “greater part of my life as a youngster” at Olivet Baptist, the oldest Black Baptist church in the city.

She traveled back to New Orleans from time to time where her grandparents — a white man who ran a rice plantation and his black wife — lived together on acreage where they raised and grew all their own food. She still leans toward fresh foods, something her daughter, a nursing administrator, attributes to her longevity.

When Mitchell spent time with her ill grandmother in her final days, her grandmother’s last wish was for her to make her burial clothes.

“I made long underwear with lace around the bottom and a dress,” Mitchell said. “I made it fancy. ‘And don’t forget my hat’ she told me. So I made a cap with lace and when she was buried, she was buried in style.”

On one visit to Louisiana, she was convinced by the local school superintendent to come work as a teacher.

“He said he needed me and he impressed me so much,” she said. “The children did not know how to write their name or address. They really knew nothing of schoolwork. They just came because they had nothing else to do. I taught them to read and write and they taught me how to dance.”

After a semester, she came home with plans to move permanently to the south to teach, but then she met a man who said, “Well if you weren’t going to Louisiana, I’d marry you.” 

She decided to stay in Chicago and that marriage lasted 52 years and 7 months until his death.

“I sure wish he was here now,” she lamented.

Her advice for a long, successful life is simple:

Pray. Believe in God. Take care of your children and demand respect from them.

And always wear a hat to church on Sunday.

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