I became aware of Mrs. India Edwards, nearly 104-years-old, at a pre-Juneteenth event in May, in my home state of New Jersey. I was the speaker and do not recall much of what I said, but I shall never forget meeting Mrs. Edwards afterwards, and one of her daughters, Soni, and Soni’s husband, too. It was as if I had met an eternally breath-taking angel—Mrs. Edwards’ soul vibration was that magnetic. I was born and raised in Jersey City and Mrs. Edwards has spent most of her life there, so it is technically her hometown as well. The mother of four children, all daughters, she was married to her husband for 56 years, until his passing in 1999. At that first intro, I was stunned when Mrs. Edwards said she was 103 years old, was born during the last global pandemic on October 10, 1918—the Spanish Flu—and here she is in the era of COVID.
I knew I needed to interview Mrs. Edwards, because it is rare that you cross paths with someone who has been woke and community-minded for so long, but who also can say they lived through World Wars I and II and Vietnam, and the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, and the explosion of music forms like jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop, and the historic presidency of Barack Obama.
We reconnected in July at the main branch of Jersey City Free Public Library. For about three hours Mrs. Edwards shared her story. I’ve interviewed iconic figures like Stacey Abrams, Tommy Hilfiger, Tupac Shakur, Colin Powell, Kerry Washington, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Dave Chappelle, Erykah Badu, Chris Rock, Eve Ensler (now known as V), and bell hooks in my writing career. But I can say nothing has excited me as much as sitting with Mrs. India Edwards, who is also a poet like me, and is the oldest person I’ve ever interviewed. We are richer because of women, Black women, like her.
Kevin Powell: I understand that you were only two pounds at birth.
Mrs. India Edwards: I was in an incubator—my grandfather said he could hold me in the palm of his hand.
I know you’ve spent over ninety years of your life in Jersey City, but where were you born?
I was born in New York City and brought back to Jersey City by my parents. I remember staying at my grandmother’s. I stayed with my grandmother until I had a sister who became ill. She had infantile paralysis and she lived until she was twelve. And I remember—this sounds strange—but I helped her out of her coffin, and we played marbles in front of her coffin. Then we heard people coming and I helped her back into the coffin. Strange things that happened to me every now and then.
Please tell me about your family.
My mother was born in New Jersey and my grandfather was born in Virginia. He and his brothers came up in the Summer and worked at casinos in South Jersey. Whatever he touched, multiplied. When the stock market crashed my grandfather lost $75,000. It didn’t make any difference to him because it was come easy, go easy, and life had been good to him. I remember him standing in front of me saying, “Daughter, I have a ten-dollar gold piece in my left pocket and a ten-dollar gold in my right pocket, and I’m free as a bird.”
What else do you recall about your childhood?
I was always with my grandfather. He was always taking me out and entertaining me and going to see the shows in New York.
What about your education, what memory stands out from school?
The teachers were very rough and rude. I remember rushing to my classroom and knocking a sweater off the back of a chair, the teacher’s chair, not realizing I had done this. All hell broke loose. She came and dragged me out of my class and told me that I did this purposely.
Was the school integrated or segregated in Jersey City?
It was integrated.
You went to school with kids from all backgrounds in the 1920s and 1930s in Jersey City?
You could have a white person as a friend then?
Right. You could have a friend, yes. (author's note: All four of Mrs. Edwards’ daughters are present at interview, and the son-in-law I had met previously. One of the daughters reminds Mrs. Edwards of a racial incident.)
Do you recall what your daughter just said about a racial incident during your high school years?
My friend and I were the only girls in school who had long, black hair; we had long braids. And Miss Van Tasse suggested that she pull me out of my class and wanted me to be in a group and dress me up just as a slave would be, you know, my hair all tied up in tiny ribbons. I said, “I’m sorry, I cannot tie my hair up in tiny ribbons.” And she went to my girlfriend’s classroom and suggested that she become one of the groups that sang these slave songs.
I am sorry you experienced that, that we still have incidents like that in America. On a lighter note, what did you aspire to be when you were a girl?
I wanted to be a nurse. I knew that nursing helped people and you could be with them whenever they were sick at certain times. I loved helping people. I will never forget this group of three women who evidently had just been released from the reformatory. They had just gotten on the train. I saw how wretched they were. I took out five dollars each and folded it up and gave them each a five-dollar bill, so they didn’t know what they had until the train started. They ran down toward the end of the platform and held up the five dollars to let me know that they were so happy because five dollars at that time was—you could buy a home for a thousand dollars.
What do you recall about being at the famous March on Washington in 1963?
There was excitement in the air. It was just wonderful. I could touch Martin Luther King’s feet. I was that close. After I came back, I was inspired in that most of my work was involving caring for people in some way of another.
What kind of work, specifically?
First, it was with the Jersey City Office on Aging. And I was with the Welfare Board. The Welfare Board changed me regarding the attitude of the social workers toward the type of people who came in for attention. They came because they were so poor. In 1967 and 1968 we saw a lot of unrest in the country, and obviously, when Dr. King was assassinated, the country exploded in a lot of places. I was walking down the street and I had almost reached my home. A man said, “Mrs. Edwards, Dr. King was killed.” It just startled me—I just couldn't get over it. It was so shocking to me, and I could see the—in fact they showed on the air how he was shot.
Did you ever consider yourself a leader?
No, I was always hiding behind people, doing what I had to do. Always, always hiding behind them.
I didn’t much think I measured up to what I was supposed to do although I knew I did a perfect job.
Why were you so hard on yourself?
Whenever I was out with my parents, I was never allowed to make any—was not allowed to speak because I made one mistake (when she was three). I thought that the National Urban League was a baseball team. For having made that terrible mistake in front of my parents’ friends is the way I got quiet. I had to be perfect. So, I was always hiding behind somebody.
You got to see Barack Obama become the first Black president.
I just knew that he was going to be the next president. All I had to do was look at him.
How do you feel having lived through so much American history?
It’s really an honor for this to have been part of my legacy or whatever you want to call it, part of my end.
If you could go back and talk to the little girl you were, what would you say to her?
Just give the best of yourself to whomever you meet, and always be available to help someone.
Below is one of Mrs. Edwards's original poems written in 1964:
GOODMAN, CHANEY & SCHWERNER
By India N. Edwards
Foreign soil was in their land.
Interlopers were they.
Ham, Abraham on a march,
Freedom quest for slaves.
Joining others along the way,
Brothers, White and Black,
Interpreted law of the land,
From the Prison to the shack.
Freedom cast in many lots
by civic-minded men,
In bits and pieces on a block,
Reclaimed, resold again.
Girded loins with minds astride,
Southern might in grey.
Frenzy movin’ in their mouths
of tidal producing waves.
Initiates railed in coven trials
sought shadows of the three,
Merging images into theirs,
Never again to be free.
Churches, cells, where’er they sat,
Imprisoned shadows held,
Measuring links for the chain,
As bodies did foretell.
Dixie pivoting in hateful rage,
Churning livid dust
Asperged in Northern rights were they,
Blinded to the initial thrust.
Battle-weary were these lads.
God beckoned them to come,
Eagerly donned their spiritual guise,
Linked arms and headed home!
1964Poem by India N. Edwards