Centenarians – United Methodist Communities at Pitman: Florence Ernestine Williams Thomas

Sassy, Sacrificial and Self-Governing

Florence Ernestine Williams, 106 years old, was born in a unique and historical place that later became Lawnside, New Jersey.  The land was purchased in 1840 by Abolitionists for freed and escaped slaves, as well as other African Americans and played an active role in the Underground Railroad.  Ironically, born at home on June 6, 1912 and the oldest of 16 children, she stands as the only survivor among them.

That history, prominently displayed on the borough’s website states, “On April 20, 1926, all who could, passed through the doors of the public school on Warwick Road to cast their ballot in the ‘Official Special Election’ of the Borough of Lawnside. Just one month earlier, on March 23, 1926, New Jersey Governor Moore signed into law State Assembly Bill 561, dissolved Center Township, of which Lawnside was a part, and incorporated the Borough of Lawnside. With that first election, Lawnside was propelled into the local and national spotlight and claimed a place in history, becoming the first independent self-governing African-American community north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

In the rural South Jersey town, six sisters and nine brothers played ball, hopscotch, marbles, jump rope, and hide-and-seek, and climbed trees.  They entertained one another and took turns on a shared bicycle.  Their parents worked on local farms and stayed socially connected to an extended family network of aunts, uncles and cousins in the area.  As a farm family, dogs and cats were always around and fed any leftover table scraps.

Ernestine didn’t know her grandfather, but remembers her grandma pinching her a lot “because she was a sassy child.”  Also a picky eater, she sometimes was made to sit for hours until she ate certain foods, such as oatmeal.  Today, she indulges in her favorite cuisine – any style of white potatoes, along with lots of green vegetables and fruit.

Haddon Heights Elementary and High schools set the venue for her education.  Remarkably sacrificial for a child, as Ernestine learned to read and write in school, she taught and shared the knowledge gained with her grandmother in the privacy of their home.  This loving gift of personal tutoring allowed her grandmother to become literate.  Mr. Williams, her father, bought chickens in Vineland, which he killed, cleaned and dressed.  They traveled 12 miles into Philadelphia in a horse and wagon where they sold the chickens as well as produce in markets.

Children walked or were transported to school via horse and wagon, jitney and very rarely, cars.  Ernestine walked with others.  Because she loved math and science best, Ernestine wanted to become a clerk and bookkeeper.  Over a lifetime, she has read a lot, especially the Bible.  Now, glaucoma inhibits her ability to do so; she previously exchanged books with fellow readers and belonged to a book club which sent books through the mail.

Ernestine landed her first job as a file clerk with the U.S. Air Force, a government-based position in New York City.  James Allen Thomas, a friend in her social group became her husband.  His marriage proposal came in a letter.  In 1934 the two married at the preacher’s house, followed by a reception at her parents’ home.

They lived with her husband’s family when first married and later bought a home, which she has owned for 63 years.  James loved woodworking, making bookcases and tables, which complemented his career as a bookbinder.  Because James did not like to travel, Ernestine visited areas throughout the U.S., Germany, France and the Caribbean. Thirty-one years and many promotions later, she retired as supervisor of finance.

Lawnside and Mt. Zion Methodist-Episcopal Church (now United Methodist) played a strong role in their lives.  Her dad helped fundraise for the bell at Mt. Zion, which was rung during his funeral.  She was baptized there and her whole family rests in the cemetery behind the church.  Her daughter-in-law is the organist.  Until age 97, she volunteered in the church office and also served as church treasurer, Sunday school teacher and member of the choir.  Self-described as “very religious,” Ernestine participates in UMC Pitman’s spiritual programs including Vespers on Thursday afternoons, church services on Sundays and a prayer group five times weekly.

Technology has come a long way since Ernestine’s childhood.  She attended her first movie during the 1930s at the Lawnside Firehouse, where they showed movies on Saturdays.  When she was in sixth grade, her school acquired a radio.  Her first car was a gray, four-cylinder Chevrolet.