A Chattanooga icon: The life of Mary Walker
Mary Hardway Walker was born in Union Springs, Alabama in 1848. She was born a slave to slave parents. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, Mary Walker was already 15 years old.
In 1917, Mary and her family moved to Chattanooga. For many years, Mary lived in a flat, run down and dilapidated old-age brick apartment at 1812 Baldwin Street. It was said that Mary would cook for the neighborhood, sometimes for donations, to donate to New Hope Baptist Church on Kerr Street.
Mary eventually moved to the Poss Homes High Rise Apartments on Market Street. It was there she met a woman named Helen Kelly, a volunteer teacher for the Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement. The students who volunteered numbered 26 -- of whom 19 stayed and graduated from illiteracy to literacy. The spotlight of the class though was Mary Walker. She learned to read, write, add and subtract at the age of 117, after she attended a 1-hour class, 2 nights a week for more than a year.
Her age, determination and attitude earned her the greatest recognition given to any poor person, black or white, in the city of Chattanooga, and perhaps the nation. She twice received Chattanooga's Ambassador of Goodwill award and was declared the oldest student in the nation by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Dignitaries from across the nation, and even Canada, came out to celebrate Mary and her achievements offering accolades, airplane rides. The city of Chattanooga even renamed the high rise in which she lived after her.