Henrine Lee used to tell her children a story about when she was a young girl in Starkeville, Mississippi. There was another girl in town who would tease her, until one day Lee slapped her. After that, the girl never bothered her again.
It is a standard story parents might tell their children about standing up for themselves. Except, in Henrine’s case, she was a black girl who slapped a white girl in the early 20th Century Mississippi.
Henrine Quinn Lee, born on July 27, 1904, recently celebrated her 106th birthday at her home in the Miracle Mile. All six of her children, all of whom are still alive, came to the celebration, along with many of her 13 grandchildren, 19 great grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren.
During more than 100 years, Henrine was a part of many of the landmark events of the last century. She remembered as a child hitching the horse to her mother’s buggy in the morning. And later, she was part of the great migration, when black southerners headed for northern cities millions at a time. After her marriage in 1927, she moved with her husband to St. Louis, Missouri, where five of her six children were born.
Yvonne Lee, who at 80 is Henrine’s oldest daughter, said that her father worked at a Siemens factory, and then as an auto mechanic, and always had work, even during the Great Depression. Henrine, who had been a teacher in Mississippi, worked on raising the children.
“She was very strong, my mother, always very strong,” Yvonne said. “She was very gregarious. She loves people, always did.”
Once their children had grown, Henrine and her husband followed one of their daughters to Los Angeles, sometime during the late 1950s or early 1960s, Yvonne estimated. Henrine has lived in the same house since 1977, where Yvonne now lives with her as well.
Once Henrine arrived in Los Angeles, she discovered horseracing, which became a great passion. Yvonne said she used to go with friends to races at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Hollywood racetrack. Occasionally, she even went to races in Mexico.
“She would catch the bus herself until she was into her nineties,” Yvonne said. “She would go to the races every day they were open. Friends would go with her, but most of her friends have preceded her in death. I think they’re all gone now.”
Henrine’s husband has died, as well — that is one of the perils of living to be older than just about anyone. Henrine, however, remains unimpeachably healthy. Yvonne said Henrine’s doctor, a “young guy in his fifties”, can’t find anything wrong with her, even though she takes no pills except one baby Aspirin every day.
“One thing about her, she does everything in moderation,” Yvonne said. “She used to have her highballs like everyone else. She loved rum and coke or bourbon and coke. And she loved sweets. But she still eats well for somebody who is a hundred-and-six years old.”
Yvonne thought that diet was, perhaps, why members of her family seemed to live so long — in addition to her mother, her siblings were all alive and well into their 70s and 80s.
Though no longer as active as she was during her spry 90s, Henrine still smiles engagingly, and sits out on her porch to get some fresh air. She doesn’t remember all of the details for her many years, but she remains perceptive. Several times during the interview, she commented on how fast I typed — and she asked about my pinky, which hangs out at a funny angle, a birth defect many of my friends take months or years to notice.
About an hour into the interview, she began to tire. “You think you should go now?” she said to me.
It was time for me to go, but after 106 years, Henrine Lee’s time to go still hasn’t come. Her family is planning on her 107th birthday next year.