By Felicia Farnsworth
This is National Women’s History Month, and this week we are honoring Mrs. Mary Hardway Walker and Helen Claire Rosenstihl. These ladies lived long, eventful lives. Mrs. Mary Hardway Walker was born into slavery in Union Springs in 1848. She lived in bondage until she was freed at the age of 15 following the Emancipation Proclamation’s passing in 1863.
Ms. Walker was married and had her first child by the age of 20. She had moved to Chattanooga in 1917 with her family and worked odd jobs to make ends meet. By the age of 68, she worked as a cook, babysitter and sold sandwiches to raise money for her church.
Ms. Walker lived such a long life that by the age of 114, she had outlived all three of her children and her husband. This did not stop her. In 1963 she decided she wanted to go to school and enrolled in the Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement (CALM). Her teacher was a volunteer named Helen Kelly, who taught her to read, write, add, and subtract.
She accomplished this by attending class two nights a week for more than a year. Because of her determination, she earned several honors and accolades.
She earned the key to the city of Chattanooga and was certified as the nation’s oldest student by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She was also named Chattanooga’s Ambassador of Goodwill twice and recognition by two U.S. presidents and dignitaries from across the country and Canada.
She took her first ride in an airplane in 1966. Ms. Walker was purportedly one of the last surviving American former-slaves when she passed away at age 121 in 1969.
Ms. Walker’s story so moved Rita Larraine Hubbard that she wrote a children’s book about Ms. Walker called The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. Her book was published and released on Jan. 7, 2020, and is geared towards children ages four through eight.
Helen Claire Rosenstihl was born in Union Springs on Oct. 18, 1911, to Col. and Mrs. Henry J. Rosentsihl. Miss Claire was an experienced monologist at the early age of three. She grew up in Alabama and had quite the southern accent.
Many said she wouldn’t make it as an actress because of it. She graduated cum laude from Randolph Mason Women’s College, where she received her B.A. and was a Phi Beta Kappa Society member.
She then enrolled at Columbia University in New York, where she received her M.A. in psychology.
During her time at Columbia, she met Dr. Milton Smith, the head of the drama department. They met while she took a class to help diminish her southern drawl.
They were married May 22, 1941, in White Plains, New York. She later went on to attend Feagin School of Dramatic Art. She made her debut in New York in 1929 as the second twin in the Civic Repertory Theatre production of “Peter Pan.” Miss Claire had many roles in several radio programs, including; Backstage Wife.
She portrayed the role of Virginia Lansing, Dr. Christian, where she played the recurring role of Jody, and she played Mrs. Jordan in The Story of Bess Johnson, to name a few. She worked as a commentator on women’s news and fashions for Fox Movietone Newsreels for over 12 years, 1937-1949.
On Dec. 13, 1929, she made her Broadway debut as Romo in “Michael and Mary.” She went on to play in nine more Broadway plays. Her most tremendous success was in Clare Boothe Luce’s “Kiss the Boys Good-bye,” in which she played Cindy Lou Bethany.
This particular play opened at Henry Miller’s Theatre on Sept. 28, 1938, and had a long run. She received a certificate of merit, as narrator, related to the Sylvania Award “for outstanding individual variety performance on the Ford Show” that Mary Martin won in 1953. On Jan. 12, 1974, she passed away in Birmingham and was buried in Union Springs. She was 68 years old.