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Turning 103 – the journey of Jannie Louise Rucker Winfrey

Ask Jannie Louise Rucker Winfrey what should happen next after she celebrated her 103rd birthday, she will tell you, “Start making plans for the 104th birthday.”

When you live 103 years, your life is filled with stories – happy and sad, well-earned accomplishments and hurtful disappointments. In Winfrey’s case, you watch your children grow into successful adults and mourn the child who left the world too soon.

“Mother turned 103 on the 23rd of May, but we had her party on Saturday (May 27),” said Pastor Jairus Winfrey of Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church. “There are three living generations of college graduates. And we’ve got a fourth generation coming up in school. I think Mother is most proud of that.”

Mrs. Winfrey, a retired educator from (the legacy Memphis City Schools) still presides over the Greater Mt. Zion Missionary Society.

Her memory and articulation are as sharp and exact as they ever were, Pastor Winfrey said.

“Mother continues to be quite effective as president of the Missionary Society. I want to allow her to hold that office for as long as she is able. I promise you, Mother is the busiest 103-year-old you ever saw.”

Mrs. Winfrey reads and writes all day, according to family members.

She relishes a time when people communicated through letters. Sending and receiving mail from friends and family is a major delight for her. 

“You should see the penmanship,” said Pastor Winfrey. “It looks like calligraphy. It’s art. Those who receive a note from her cherish it. They save it like a rare treasure because it is.”

Jannie Louise Rucker Winfrey is the proud matriarch of three living generations of college graduates. Her rule is, “If you are in this family, you are going to finish college.” She turned 103 years old on May 23. (Courtesy photo)

Winfrey said family history reaching back into the days of slavery might have something to do with his mother’s strength and longevity.

“Mother’s family is from Rutherford County (Tennessee),” said Winfrey. “That’s Murfreesboro. We still have 60 acres of land, and the house is still there. We keep up with the taxes and take care of the property, but no one has lived in the house since Mother’s sister, Annie, died.”

Winfrey told an intriguing story of the family’s past in Rutherford County.

According to family lore, their ancestors were enslaved in that same area. Inside the house is a photo of Jannie Winfrey’s grandmother, who was called Mary Lawrence. 

Mary is notably posing with one arm behind her back. That is because her owners cut off her hand after she was accused of stealing. 

The family doesn’t know the circumstances about what she allegedly stole. However, numerous stories of slaves taking extra food to feed their children are documented. But the family has no confirmation of details.

Mary Lawrence came from somewhere in North Carolina and ended up in Rutherford County, possibly sold further south as punishment for her alleged theft.

After Emancipation, the family stayed in Rutherford County. Ms. Jannie’s father was Council Rucker, a sharecropper. Her mother, Fannie Rucker, worked alongside her husband in the field and took in washing and cleaning jobs from white families.

“My grandmother, Fannie, raised white children along with her own, working every kind of job she could for her family,” said Pastor Winfrey. “There were three daughters: Annie, Jannie, and Bertha. Council Rucker sent all three to Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University). All three graduated, and all three did well.”

Council Rucker is legendary in the family because of where he took his family. Through the years, he acquired 60 acres of land. According to the family, Rucker would dress in a suit and go down to the courthouse and observe proceedings.

He gained the respect of both African Americans and white citizens of Rutherford County for this practice.

Mrs. Winfrey is the oldest, living graduate of Tennessee A&I, according to her family. Annie graduated in 1943; Jannie finished in 1948, and Bertha graduated in 1950.

Two of the daughters became educators, but Bertha became head dietician at Meharry Medical College for many years.

While at Tennessee A&I, Jannie met her future husband, Wesley James Augustus Winfrey at American Baptist College, which still operates in Nashville. 

They married two years after graduation. In 1949, the family moved to Shelby County, where Ms. Jannie taught in Memphis schools for 38 years.

“The Winfreys” had two sons and one daughter, Angela. One of Mrs. Winfrey’s great heartbreaks was the death of Angela in 2007. Angela had earned a doctorate in neuropsychology.

“We don’t speak of Angela’s death, even today,” said Pastor Winfrey. “It was just so traumatic for our family, especially for Mother.”

Wesley James Augustus Winfrey II, Ms. Jannie’s other son, is an accountant.

Children born into the family understand at an early age that they will attend college, Pastor Winfrey said.

Mrs. Winfrey is looking forward to her 104th birthday party, according to Pastor Winfrey.

“And I’m not even kidding,” he said. “She’s got to have something to look forward to. Maybe that’s the secret of a long life – always looking forward to some upcoming event. Anyway, it works for Mother.”

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