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Ruby Harmon Celebrates Her Centennial Birthday

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday May 23, 2006

At 99, Ruby Harmon still insists on a slice of crispy bacon, grits, and coffee for breakfast everyday. Her face breaks into a smile—a million tiny creases—when I ask her why.  

Recovering from a series of recent strokes, Ruby can neither talk nor walk without support. Her mind, however, is as alert as ever. She tells me by scribbling painstakingly on my yellow legal pad that her favorite part of the day is when she sits down to work on her crossword and jigsaw puzzles. 

Ruby turns 100 this Thursday, and her remarkable journey through life was celebrated by the Trinity United Methodist Church last Sunday.  

“Friends, family, neighbors—they were all there to celebrate the indomitable spirit that is Ruby,” said Luanne Rogers, friend and a church trustee. “She is one of the most willing and able women I have ever known. She is capable of everything and has done it all in the name of social justice.” 

If walking for miles for food and raising money for blankets to help her community after moving to California from Louisiana in 1943 wasn’t enough, Ruby served on every possible church committee—locally and at the district, state and national level for United Methodist Women—and was a lay preacher in the pulpits of churches in Vallejo, Pleasanton, Alameda, and Trinity. 

She also volunteered in the Berkeley Unified School District for more than ten years and developed a Civil Rights cartoon collection that has been exhibited at Trinity, Pacific School of Religion, and the Berkeley Public Library. 

These decades of dedication to the community are part of the reason the City of Berkeley will be proclaiming May 25, as Ruby Harmon Day today. 

Ruby was the eldest of three children born to Jim Tom and Sally Philip Roberson in Arcadia, La. 

“In my hometown Arcadia, my father held me by the hand when I would go to town with him,” she said. “And in the fall he would take his cotton into town to the merchants. And the one that paid the most, that’s the one he would sell his cotton to. And the sidewalk was narrow and if a white lady would come he had to step off the curb because he couldn’t get too close, a black man couldn’t get too close to a white lady in Louisiana, or in the south anywhere.” 

In her conversations with Rogers in 1997, which were later transcribed for preservation, Ruby speaks of Civil Rights in Louisiana, the segregated school system and the integration that followed thereafter: 

“You can’t believe the education they had for blacks in the south, or particularly in Louisiana,” Ruby said. “We didn’t have a high school in the whole parish until 1937 when they built a high school in Arcadia for blacks. All the blacks could do was go to seventh grade if they didn’t have money to go away somewhere to board.” 

After arriving in California in 1943, she worked for Lockheed Aircraft and later moved to Berkeley and became a devoted volunteer in the Berkeley public schools, working to make sure that all students had a chance to succeed and continue their education. 

Ruby completed her own studies at a boarding school in Grambling, La., which later went on to become Grambling University. In Ruby’s words, “When integration came, Arcadia immediately integrated. I was surprised at that redneck hick town. They tore down that white high school across town and built Arcadia High School and the black high school that was built on parish land became a training school for anybody who wanted a trade.” 

She remembers being surprised by the changes she witnessed when she went down to Louisiana for her nieces’ graduation from the first integrated school. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I sit up and look around and on the platform were two white teachers and two black teachers. The main speaker was a black professor from Grambling University. And the high school band of about 40 was mixed, white and black. The conductor was black and he had jazz in there and white people were playing that jazz. And ooh the white girls and white boys were playing that jazz and I couldn’t believe my ears! I looked around and said, ‘Is this Arcadia? This couldn’t be Arcadia.’ 

The white ladies that my father used to step off the curb for, their grandchildren were playing with his grandchildren. They had their arms around each other’s necks and they were dancing together and they would even take a piece off my plate and stick it in their mouth—integrated and I couldn’t believe it, in Arcadia.” 

In these transcriptions, Ruby also talked about her great grandfather, who was one of the last slaves shipped from Africa before the slave trade was abolished and whom she knew before he died in 1917 at age 111. 

“He was 11 when he was sold on the auction block in New Orleans,” she said. “His mother and little sister and he came over here and they were sold to three different families. He never did meet them ever again and he always wondered what happened to his little sister.” 

Ruby’s vivid descriptions of the horrors of slavery and the plundering of the south by the Yankees are stories she heard from her grandmother—and they all left a deep impact on her. Her great-grandfather was a tremendous influence on her and when he died, it was a huge loss for her: 

“I was 11 when he died. I was very hurt because I loved to hear him talk. He talked about flowers and snakes and every creature in the world. Louisiana had all kinds of things, all creatures, frogs and snakes and lizards. He would talk about those instead of what had gone on in slavery.” 

Today, Ruby’s gold wedding band is the only living reminiscence of the life she had led as a young girl in Louisiana. In 1967, after retiring from Lockheed Aircraft in California, Ruby got married to Bill Harmon and moved to Berkeley. And thus began a completely new chapter in her life—one through which she found her calling for social justice and service. 

When asked whether she misses Louisiana, her father’s farm, or Arcadia, she wrote on her yellow pad, “No — I can’t because I am all grown up.” 

Now, on the cusp of being alive for a century, Ruby said she is looking forward to her big birthday. 

“I am very excited about Thursday,” she wrote. “There will be a party with homemade birthday cake. And ice cream. Lots of it.”