LAURINBURG — Thought to be Scotland County’s oldest resident, Sallie Mae Hasty Graham died on Monday having never abandoned the industrious ethic and straightlaced mien she cultivated over 109 years of life.
“If she got a bill on the first of the month, that bill would be paid on the second if not the first,” said Precious Byrd, one of Graham’s 11 surviving grandchildren. “When she got older, she would tell you come over and give me a ride to go pay this bill, and if you didn’t come over right then she would threaten to walk — and she would.”
Graham was born on March 23, 1905 in the Hasty area, one of seven siblings. In that year, Theodore Roosevelt was president and the average American house cost $4,000. Las Vegas, Nev. was officially founded a scant seven weeks after her birth.
Graham’s family came by its name when her paternal grandfather, Joe Walker, was sold as a slave at the Fayetteville Market House and became Joe Hasty.
She married Joseph Graham in 1930 in Bennettsville, S.C., and the couple raised their children while farming tobacco, cotton, and corn. When Joseph died in 1954 due to complications of asthma and an enlarged heart, Graham continued to support her family as a single mother, sending all three of her daughters to college with the help of her son William Joseph.
“Mother did whatever she needed to do in order to make sure that we stayed in school,” said Graham’s oldest daughter Sallie Mae Cheston. “She was a person who really embraced education and she would do whatever it would take to ensure that we did not suffer in that area. She was a very strong woman, very determined — that’s the only way she could be.”
Graham also worked as a housekeeper, cook, seamstress, and in child care.
“She refused to get married because she didn’t want a man coming in the house and ruining us, so she never did remarry,” her second daughter, Annie Worth, said.
To Byrd, her grandmother’s extreme frugality came both as an inspiration and a source of frustration. At 99, Graham persisted in plowing her garden by hand with a hoe rather than allowing her family to hire out for the task.
“You don’t pay $25 for somebody to do your work,” Byrd said. “That just was not her thing.”
But Graham’s freezer, artfully crammed with vegetables from that garden, was a field trip in itself for the county 4H group Byrd led and a game changer for parents of the children Graham supervised in her daycare.
“I just enjoyed watching her garden and go out and pick pecans and work in the yard with the children,” said Annie Bethea. “They learned to use yes ma’am and no ma’am, and they learned to eat food that was healthy for them. If I cooked something, it was always ‘well Mrs. Graham didn’t cook it like that.’ She liked to raise her food out of the garden.”
As the years crept by, the centenarian held true to her favorite maxim — if you slow down you go down — restricted from full mobility after breaking one hip at age 103 and the other at 106.
“She’d say ‘if I could just walk, I would get up and clean this house,’ so when I was in the hospital she tried to get up and clean the house and that’s when she broke the other hip,” Worth recalled ruefully.
Graham received presidential felicitations on both her 100th and 105th birthdays from George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively, on top of extravagant community celebrations hosted by her family each time her birthday rolled around.
She rejoiced at the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, having remained out and about at the county Democratic headquarters late on Election Day that year and attending Obama’s campaign stop at Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum a few weeks earlier.
“That is something she thought she never in life would see,” Byrd said.
Though African-Americans were granted the right to vote in 1870 with the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Graham was all too familiar with a time when Southern blacks were effectively barred from the polls by taxes and literacy requirements. The Voting Rights Act came in 1965, as Graham was beginning her seventh decade of life.
“Voting was something she didn’t take lightly; that was something she did every single time,” said Byrd, who often encouraged apathetic acquaintances to follow her grandmother’s example.
“With her, you didn’t have to ask, you saw it. It wasn’t like it was something she was saying all the time; it was what you could see. Here’s a 106-year-old woman going out to vote early, so what’s your excuse?”
Funeral services for Graham will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169. Follow her on Twitter @emkaylbg.