NORFOLK -– At 111 years old, Lela Babb Burden spouts history lessons like she’s a retired social studies teacher. Newspapers and newsletters sit on and around the nightstand in her room at Lake Taylor Transitional Care Hospital.
She recounts how people danced in the streets of Norfolk when Jack Johnson became the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion back in 1908; and how Martin Luther King, Jr., did wonderful things, although in her opinion we shouldn’t forget that many other people helped lead to African-Americans’ progress through today; and how she wasn’t afraid to say back in the ‘60s and ‘70s that “white flight” from Norfolk and Portsmouth to the region’s suburbs was silly, because no matter where people moved, they would encounter people of other races.
More than a lifetime’s worth of firsthand knowledge tumbles from this woman who never even got a chance to earn a high school diploma as a girl growing up in Norfolk. On Tuesday, June 17, 2014, Norfolk Public Schools gave Lela Babb Burden another milestone to celebrate, when Superintendent Samuel T. King awarded her with an honorary diploma from Booker T. Washington High School during Booker T.’s graduation ceremony at 4 p.m. at ODU’s Ted Constant Convocation Center.
Booker T. Washington is the school Lela Babb Burden would have attended if she had completed her education. She is likely one of the few remaining people who were alive when the famous leader lived and when the school was named for him after his death.
The honorary diploma was a surprise for Babb Burden, whose extended family members accompanied her to the Constant Center.
“God gives you what he wants you to have,” she said on Monday, June 16, the day before the ceremony. “He has a reason for keeping me here. I said, ‘Lord, whatever you’re keeping me here for, let me do it.’”
Lela Babb was born on May 7, 1903 in Southampton County, and came to Norfolk at age 4. When an influenza pandemic temporarily closed schools and other public buildings in Norfolk in 1918, she said, it helped that she was able to land work cleaning houses for 50 cents a day and serving at a restaurant for $3 a week. A girl could buy a lot for $3 in those days; she never made it back to school.
“You just worked for an honest living,” she said. Later, life continued to intervene. She married at 22, and raised two children. She worked and cared for family members. She has survived her parents, her eight brothers and sisters, her husband, and her children. She is listed by the Gerontology Research Group as a supercentenarian (a person of 110 years or older), awaiting final verification of her vital records to confirm her status.
“I just thank God that he let me live,” she said. “I hope I’ll be here a long time.”
"Mrs. Burden has contributed to this community for 111 years," said Samuel T. King, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools. "She made sacrifices, but she never relinquished her commitment to lifelong learning. We are privileged to provide her with an honorary high school diploma, symbolizing the vital importance of a free and appropriate public education for all.”
State Del. Algie T. Howell, Jr., worked with Dr. King to recognize Mrs. Burden. Del. Howell had invited Ms. Burden in 2013, when she was 110, to visit the General Assembly.
“She inspired people so much that all of them wanted to take a picture with her,” Del. Howell said. “Her memory is astonishing. Realizing the discrimination that existed not only in the state of Virginia but the whole country when she was a child, and talking to someone who lived during that time and hearing about the difficulties she had trying to obtain an education was amazing. I just feel honored to be a partner with the Norfolk Public School system and Lake Taylor Transitional Care Hospital in bestowing this honorary diploma on Mrs. Burden.”