Inez Powell Dade walked grandly through the entrance of the U.S. Navy Yard Conference and Catering Center, leaning elegantly on a cane and the arm of an escort. As she entered the room, with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” playing in the background, hundreds of family members and friends rose in a standing ovation.
When she got to her seat, she removed her coat to reveal a beautiful silver gown with sparkly accents. Joining her at the head table were her younger sisters, Margaret Powell Harris, 97, and Vanilla Powell Beane, 93. Dade’s best friend, Sadie Harris, of Annapolis, who is 102, was also there for the milestone celebration.
Dade drew accolades from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Mayor Vincent Gray and City Councilwoman Muriel Bowser. She also received a commendation from President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama which was announced to a rousing applause.
The sisters Powell have been celebrating birthdays together since they were children growing up on a farm in Wilson, N.C. The last of seven children, each of the sisters has buried a husband; two have seen their children’s children have children. They attend church each Sunday and see each other regularly.
The sisters attribute their health and longevity to good genes and hard work. “We grew up working and we kept working and still work,” Beane said in a previous interview. “We have never been ones to sit around. There is always something to do.”
Harris was a seamstress and dressmaker for Washington’s well-heeled before arthritis forced her to retire a few years ago. Well into her 90s, she could no longer work with a needle and thread and she had never liked sewing machines. Dade worked until a few months ago when she retired from the Tiny Tots nursery and preschool on Rock Creek Church Road NW, which she founded 40 years ago. Beane still works at Bené Millinery, the hat shop she opened on Third Street NW four decades ago. Bene` is where she created the hats famously worn by civil rights icon Dorothy Height, the longtime head of the National Council of Negro Women who was 98 when she died two years ago.
When asked how it feels to be 100, Dade told the audience, “I don’t have any different feeling. All I want to do now is keep on cooking.”
Dade was born on Nov. 7, 1912, the same year the Titanic sank and Woodrow Wilson was elected the 28th president of the United States. Three years later, in 1915, little sister Margaret was born. The House of Representatives voted that year to deny women the right to vote, transcontinental telephone service started and World War I had started in Europe. Vanilla, the baby sister, made her debut in 1919, the year the Treaty of Versailles ended the war and the inaugural passenger flight took to the sky.
The sisters are the daughters of James Powell and Martha Hageans Powell. He was born in 1877, she in 1882. Dade, Harris and Beane were the fourth, fifth and sixth of the Powell’s seven children in birth order. James Powell farmed and worked as a carpenter, a craft he taught himself. Martha worked as a domestic and doted on her children. The sisters said life was happy in the Powell home, even though there wasn’t much money.
They milked cows and picked cotton and tobacco. They went to church on Sunday and attended a single-room school. Harris and Beane were the only ones to complete high school; the others had to help with the work.
Dade’s moved to Washington, D.C. in 1936, not long after her husband, John Battle, settled there.
“I did not like all the noise. It was too busy,” she said of the city. She went back home twice, but her father sent her back to her husband. She later married James Dade, a World War II veteran who later worked for the federal government.
Harris joined her older sister in the District in 1938 and Beane moved north in 1940. Harris worked as a maid and took classes in dressmaking at night. In 1942, she married Hugo Frizell Harris a barber and preacher. They had been married for 51 years when he died in 1993.
Beane worked in government, as well. Her husband was World War II vet Willie Beane, who worked as a butcher after leaving the service. They had three children. Beane has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
During the 1950s, she worked at a hat and bridal supply shop. When the owner decided to devote his business solely to brides, Beane took over the business and has been going ever since.
“It’s something that I always enjoyed,” she said. “It wasn’t like a job because I liked what I was doing.”
Longevity Has Its Place
The Powell Sisters are part of a growing trend in the United States, officials said—Americans who are living past the age of 85. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1950, 589,612 Americans were 85 or older. By 2010, the last year census data was collected, the number of Americans over 85 had skyrocketed to 5.5 million. There were so many people who were over 85 that the census in 2000 added a 90-and-over category for the first time. In 2000, there were 1.4 million Americans in their 90s. In 2010, there were 1.8 million.
People are also living longer in other countries. Last fall, the world’s population reached past 7 billion people, according to United Nations estimates, more because of people living longer than the birth rate. Improvements and access to health care, increased wealth and more positive attitudes about aging are the reasons why our population is aging, experts said.
Dade, the matriarch of a family that includes four daughters, 12 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and three great, great-grandchildren, opened her daycare center after retiring from the federal government.
Ann Morgan, whose children are now 15 and 18, said she cherished the loving environment Dade’s nursery provided.
“You felt comfortable leaving your child there,” Morgan said. “My children couldn’t wait to get to Tiny Tot. It was such a close-knit family feeling.”
The hard work kept her active, Dade said. “I don’t understand these young folks talking about being tired. What is tired?”
Her daughter, Rose Marie Osborne, said now that her mother is turning 100, she has to work harder to keep up with her.
“All she wants to do now is run around town,” Osborne said. “We have to fulfill the goal of keeping her going where she wants to go. That’s anywhere and everywhere.”
The importance of having a 100-year old matriarch is not lost on the younger generation of Dade’s family.
“I spent my high school volunteer hours at the daycare, my college application was on my Grandma and I’ve written a few papers about her,” said Anaka Osborne, 18, Dade’s great-granddaughter. “It’s so inspiring to have someone so close to you to look up to.”