Mary Olsen from the Mayor's Office reads an official proclamation honoring Earnestine Hayes' achievement of becoming a centenarian. Credit: Amir Aziz

A few dozen people waited quietly inside Saint’s Rest Missionary Baptist Church in East Oakland on Monday, Jan. 23, talking excitedly in hushed voices when Earnestine Hayes was helped into the room by her grandnephew, Mawuli Davis.

“Happy birthday!” they shouted. Earnestine’s face lit up and her eyes filled with tears of joy.

After a few moments Earnestine, dressed in all purple and wearing a tiara, grinned. “You’re a queen, Earnestine,” one of her relatives exclaimed.

The occasion was Hayes’ 100th birthday.

Man behind woman (Ernestine Hayes) in a wheel chair with white flower archway in background.
Earnestine Hayes is surprised to see family members greet her at Saint’s Rest Missionary Baptist Church in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Born Earnestine Smith in Bienville Parish, Louisiana in 1923, Hayes spent her childhood living and working on a farm until her early 20’s when she moved to the California beach town of Santa Barbara in the 1940s. She moved to Oakland shortly after and married Morris Hayes, who worked many years at the Sunshine Biscuit Factory in deep East Oakland before it closed in 1995. 

At her birthday party, Hayes was awarded a mayoral proclamation celebrating her long life. Mary Olsen, who works in the mayor’s office, presented the proclamation to Hayes. The centennial celebration was largely organized by Hayes’s niece Marie Levin, who is also her caretaker, and Levin’s cousin Bettie Pearson.

By all accounts, Hayes has achieved a fantastic accomplishment by simply existing. According to Boston University’s New England Centenarian Study, a comprehensive analysis of people who live to be 100 years old, about one in every 5000 people in the U.S. are centenarians like Hayes. This feat is even more impressive when you consider the average lifespan of an American citizen born in the 1920s was roughly 54 years old for women and 53 for men. This is compounded by the fact that the life expectancy of Black people continues to be shorter than other racial groups. 

A few days before her 100th birthday, a 99-year-old Hayes spoke with The Oaklandside at her East Oakland home about her upbringing in Louisiana, working and living in Oakland, and lessons she’s learned in life. Levin was also present and asked some questions about their family lineage. At times, Levin learned new information about her aunt she had never heard of before. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How long have you lived in Oakland? 

I lived here since 1943. 

Where do we even begin? I want to start by asking you to describe your personality.

I would explain my personality as being a person that accepts people as they are. I was friendly to people and I liked to talk when I was younger. I treat people right. I don’t say something to one person and get behind their back and say something else. I’ve always been a straightforward person, as long as I can remember. And I love people.

Could you tell me a story about yourself that explains who you are as a person?

My father was a sharecropper and of course, I was raised in the country on the farm. I was very young and I grew up working on the farm with my father. He raised cotton, sugar cane, ribbon cane, and also corn.

He’d raise corn and we’d have to wake up early to work in the field. Corn grows in stalks and so we’d pull it, pull the shucks off of it, and you had to strip the corn down.​​ Then we’d carry the corn to the mill to grind it up and make it into cornmeal. You had to make it that way ‘cause we were in the country. 

And we also raised sorghum cane. We had to strip that down too. Your fingers would get cut up and everything. We would make that into sorghum syrup. All this stuff is what they call organic here. Well, all we ate was organic because that’s what we raised. We also raised sweet potatoes and peanuts. You’d have to pull the peanut plant out of the ground and then you’d shake the dirt off them. 

Family members greet Earnestine Hayes on her 100th birthday. Credit: Amir Aziz

How long did you do this kind of work?

I started working in the field when I was about eight years old and worked until I was about 18 years old. My dad started farming and he had to borrow money from the white folks to make cotton. He would make over two-to-three barrels of cotton but he had to pay the white folks back the money he borrowed. 

So he farmed all the time. He was a good farmer. And we raised a lot of the food we ate. We raised chicken and cows. That’s where we got all our milk from. We didn’t know nothing about buying our meals. Of course, back then everything was cheaper.

Levin: You could get everything on your grocery list for a dollar.

What did you like about the work and what didn’t you like? 

It was hard work back then but as I grew up I realized it’s the best way for folks to grow up and know how to work. We had cotton mattresses that we had to make.

And then, of course, the Black folks that lived there in the country had gunshot houses [a house where rooms are connected without hallways, also known as “shotgun” homes]. That’s what I grew up in, a gunshot house. 

The biggest town at the time was Shreveport and that was huge. Where we lived sat between Monroe and Shreveport. [U.S Route] 80 would come right down through the small town where I lived. They didn’t have no highways like they do now.

So how did you travel from one place to another?

Everyone had wagons back then. You’d also be walking. You’d be walking from the little town you lived in and you’d be lucky to get in a wagon and ride. 

Levin: How many miles did you walk to and from school?

You’d walk about five miles or more to school. And school wasn’t more than three months out of the year back then. 

Why was it like that?

There were no teachers to teach and that’s how it went for Black folks, ‘cause there was Black folks’ school, but there was white folks’ school. We didn’t go to no white folks schools. And the books you would read were what the white folks didn’t use anymore.

I went up to high school and didn’t finish but most of my family did. But I had good common sense and knowledge. 

You were born a few years before the Great Depression and grew up in the Jim Crow era. What was your childhood like? What was good and what was challenging?

There were good white folks and Black folks. They had to work together to have a little something. It was easier to get along with poor white folks back then. They had their little stores and stayed downtown. When you didn’t have no money, you’d go down there and buy stuff on credit. At the end of the week, Black folks and some white folks would be down in that big little town we had. 

[Franklin Delano] Roosevelt was the president. It was the Depression back then and my daddy would get that WPA [Works Progress Administration] support. We got free stuff around here like books. I was young but I remember there were hard times back then. 

Ernestine Hayes celebrates her 100th birthday with a surprise party held by family members at Saint’s Rest Missionary Baptist Church. Credit: Amir Aziz

Levin: What was it like growing up as a teenager? Because we see on TV how prejudiced some white people were. 

You always respected white people. Like if you were walking along the highway and you saw white folk riding up, you’d get off the highway and get on the side in the dirt because they could run you over. There would be nothing done about it. And of course, Black people couldn’t vote down there. I voted and I voted when I came to California. It was at this big church that used to be called Divine something somewhere between 7th Street and 8th Street in West Oakland. 

Levin: Would you tell him about how the White folks stole the land?

That was slavery time. My mother’s father Tanner, his father was Anthony and his mother was Elvira. They were slaves. Anthony, I don’t know what part he comes from but his wife Elvira comes from some part of Virginia. The white folk that had grandpa Anthony were named the Wilsons. Anthony was raised up by the Wilsons. 

After Slavery and the Civil War, Anthony became a Wilson. That’s how Black folks got their names. I grew up with my [great] grandpa Anthony. 

So when they were free, they were sold the land and they got about 440 acres. Great-grandpa Anthony was the head owner of all the land [and this was passed down to Tanner, Earnestine’s grandfather]. 

Anthony and Elvira had a bunch of children. They had boys and girls, but more boys. So it was Tanner Wilson, Jim Wilson, Doc Wilson, Charlie Wilson. Uncle Jim was an albino. Uncle Charlie and Jim—they called him Gaine— bought them some land from the acres. 

So what happened is their families grew and they started borrowing money because the land was not right at all. They started borrowing money on that land, and they were eventually forced to sell. It was sold at a courthouse. 

They forced Tanner Wilson off the land and then everyone else followed Tanner because they had no one else to fight for them. 

You left Louisiana in the 1940s during the second great migration. What made you decide to come to Oakland? 

When I decided to leave and come to California, I didn’t come to Oakland first. I came to Santa Barbara. There was a girl named Beverly Walker. We were raised up together. 

Her father’s sister lived in Santa Barbara and so that’s how she got there. She came home to [Louisiana] to visit and she said, “Earnestine, come out there and stay with me. I got a room and I can get you a job there.] 

So I went. I left home with her. I worked at a factory. My [first] husband was in the service [U.S. military] at the time. His people lived up here and that’s how I got to Oakland. My marriage with Morris hayes lasted about 50 years before he passed away. I was 25 when I married him. 

What was your first impression of Oakland?

Oakland was just heavenlike. People were kind of crazy then but much better. It was nice, you know? I wasn’t making much money out here but it was much more than we got back down south. 

Where did you move when you first come to Oakland and what was your living situation like? 

738 Chester Street. I came on a train and got to the 16th Street train station down by the pier. There used to be a pier, but that’s not there anymore. 

What kind of job opportunities were available to you?

I worked at the Fruitvale cannery. It was right up 81st Avenue. All that is torn down now. It was across San Leandro Boulevard. I also did a lot of custodial work. I worked at Swan’s 10th Street Market for a long time. It was one of the biggest stores in Oakland. 

Then I got into a union, Local 18. It was around there on 17th Street downtown. I worked at Hill Castle Hotel [now Hill Castle Apartments] making beds and stuff like that. Then I worked at the Sunshine Biscuit Factory for 25 years, from which I retired. They closed it down but you can still see the name on the sign. 

I always had a job and I would always help my mother and father because I always thought about how hard it was for them to come up. I’d always send home $10 or $20—whatever I could send—because it was still hard back in Louisiana. 

I wasn’t making much money back then because when we got this house we paid 6 cents on a dollar and $107 a month to pay it off. We moved to East Oakland on August 16th, 1966. When Morris and I moved into this house, no one had ever lived in it. There used to be a lot of woods out here before they built these houses. 

What was your social life like? 

When I came out here, we joined Star Bethel Church on Center Street in West Oakland. I was raised in the Church so I never was a nightlife person cause I didn’t care for that kind of life.

What was your area like before you moved in and when you moved in?

There was no I-580, no I-880. There were no freeways, that’s not how we got around. There were all houses but those are all knocked down now. 

Where I live now, it used to be all white folks. If you came into the neighborhood, there would be some problems. People would wonder, “Why are you here?” 

Earnestine Hayes hugs one of her many nieces at her 100th surprise birthday celebration. Credit: Amir Aziz

Moving to Oakland, was it worth it? 

Yes, I would say it was worth it. But if I had a way to go back to Louisiana now I’d live there by myself because I like the country. Ain’t nobody back there now. Everyone got old and died or they’re living with their children somewhere else. It really changed.

I didn’t mind living in the country. I thought it was hard, hard work, but I didn’t mind. 

What’s the best advice you can give to a young person? 

Just do the best you can and do right by other people and do right by yourself. Don’t get in the fast lane with other folks you know ain’t doing right. You have to use your common sense and be your own boss.

What’s the meaning of life to you?

Just to live as long as you can and to take care of yourself. I never thought I’d live to be 99 years old. I just lived day by day. I wasn’t thinking about how long I was going to live. But God has been good to me all these years. As old as I am, there was never anybody I hated because if I done you wrong, I’m willing to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.” So I don’t carry any grudges. If someone has done me wrong, I’m easy to get over it.

Do you think that’s what has kept you alive so long, not holding grudges and doing right by others as well as yourself?

It probably helps a whole lot. 

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.