A conversation with 101-year-old Pauline Holden Latta is living color of what we learn in black history books and lectures.
“Life was good to me,” she said. “I don’t have a secret to it. I just keep living. Just eat well; do the right thing; treat your neighbor right.”
Latta’s style has her in black dress slacks, paired with a white blouse and black heels. Her earrings are to die for, contemporary and dangling; her gray wig is a pixie cut. Her home, at first glance, is a storehouse of history, befitting a woman recognized from City Hall to the White House for living longer than most. A living room wall holds a throw blanket from President Barack Obama, personalized for her 100th birthday.
Her personality is magnetic. And she’s mentally sharp, too. Hearing and seeing aren’t as easy. And she moves slower than in her younger years.
“But at 101,” she chuckled, “I ought to be a little slower, don’t you think?”
During her lifetime, Latta has seen the invention or improvement of radios, telephones and televisions, and of cars, trains and planes. She warmed herself with wood, coal and oil, and remembers when it all became electric. She recalls the first moonwalk, and the first microwave ovens and computers.
“When I was a child, we were called Negroes,” Latta said. “Then, we were called colored. In the late ’60s, we were called black, and now, we’re African Americans.”
She has also endured the height of racial discrimination and inequality, and the struggle to change it.
Once, as a child, she didn’t hesitate to drink from both the “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” water fountains, just for fun. “We couldn’t tell no difference,” she said, noting her father’s horror.
“No, I never thought I would live to see a black president,” Latta said. “I’ve seen our leaders shot down in the street, you know. Those were frightening times.”
Life has brought other surprises.
“I never expected we would sleep and eat in the same hotels as whites like we do now,” Latta said. “I never thought black and white students would go to the same schools, or that white teachers would teach black students and that black teachers would teach white students.”
Growing up in Raleigh
Latta grew up in a house at 813 Blount St. She’s the oldest of Charles and Susan Holden’s seven girls. A sole brother was oldest. When her uncle died, Latta’s father took in his wife and four children.
“And believe it or not, I was born in an integrated neighborhood,” she said.
Children playing together was rare, although one Jewish neighbor, Eva, was allowed to play with them, she said.
Latta attended segregated Crosby Garfield Elementary and Washington High schools. When the students were 18, their teachers got them registered and took them to vote. “In a little dark room behind where the white folks voted,” she said. “I really don’t think they even counted our votes.”
After two years of studying elementary education at Shaw University, Latta went to work at a trade school for girls on Hargett Street, teaching child care and domestic skills.
Latta later worked as a cashier at J.W. Ligon High School’s cafeteria, followed by two years as dorm director at Shaw University and 28 years as dorm director at St. Augustine’s University, where she retired.
‘Doing the right thing’
Latta lives in Madonna Acres on the same street as two of her sisters: Mary Poole, 89, the wife of the late Hubert Poole, a Raleigh icon; and Addie Perry, 84, the youngest Holden sister.
Poole praises Latta’s influence when it came to education, appearance and, yes, “doing the right thing.”
Poole recalls repeatedly crying to stay home and play rather than go to school. “Pauline would say, ‘Stop that crying and come on and go to school. You need to learn!’
“Pauline always tried to make us learn to do things, and she wanted us to be clean and well-dressed,” Poole said. If her siblings got dirty, Poole said, Latta made them wash up and change clothes.
“She helped my mom out a lot,” Poole said. Latta would keep secrets of mischief, too, but “she’d scold me about it herself,” Poole said.
For 15 years until his death, Latta was married to Dan B. Latta. The couple raised two of Pauline Latta’s nieces, Cynthia Butler and Pauline Goza.
As a 15-year member of Martin Street Baptist Church, Latta’s presence is priceless. The Rev. Earl C. Johnson said he often points to Latta when he encourages young people to attend church.
“Mrs. Pauline Latta is 101 years old,” he said. “She gets up and shows up every Sunday!
“She has a very genuine presence and she’s a very outspoken person, as well,” Johnson added.
Latta represents a bygone era of “motherly coaching,” a time when a village raised children, and when elders were revered, he said.
“But I haven’t seen anybody who’s gotten away from the love and support that Mrs. Pauline Latta has to offer,” he said. “Her charisma and personality invite people to say and do the right things around her.
“Her presence demands your respect.”