Celebrating a Big Birthday


When Eula Bertha Colbert was born, silent movie star Mary Pickford was a leading Hollywood actress, ragtime music was all the rage and the hottest technology for playing music was the elegant but scratchy Victrola. Women could not vote; segregation was enshrined in the South, and the NAACP was in its infancy. Mrs. Colbert, who turned 102 on Friday, January 11, has been a witness to history—including two World Wars, the passage of women’s suffrage and of course, the Civil Rights Movement and the election of the country’s first African-American president.

But on Friday when she blew out the candles on her blue and white frosted cake, she simply enjoyed her moment, humming spirituals and the songs her late husband Leroy Colbert would sing to her, including BB King’s The Thrill is Gone.

Mama T, as she is known, sat in her wheelchair during the party and took it all in.

“This is beautiful!” she told her family. But she did have one request—instead of water she told her daughter Tami, “Well, I’d rather have a little shot of Hennessy.”

Her four children, Johnetta, Sandy, Tam and Aaron were on hand to mark the occasion, as well as Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who presented Eula with a scroll from the county. Chairman Ridley-Thomas also commended Eula for her active participation in helping foster care youth.

“There is something to be said for living to be 102-years-old,” he said. “Congratulations to you on this very special day.”

Eula moved to Los Angeles from Alton, Illinois in 1945 after a doctor prescribed the West Coast’s fresh air for her then-8-year-old daughter, Johnetta. She was a widow and settled into a rooming house on 108th and Central. It was there that Johnetta spotted a handsome young sergeant in an Army uniform and introduced the two.

“She is beautiful and you are handsome, and you are going to marry my mother,” Sandy recalled Johnetta saying.
And it was true; within a few months, they were married.

He was a carpenter. Eula was an avid driver, and so every summer she would pack the kids into Blue Heaven, a two door Chevy, and drive them across the country. They would spend the summer with relatives in Chicago, or Atlanta or St. Louis, where she would teach her children about their country’s history.

“We would run into a little discrimination in places and knew we would not be stopping,” said Tami. “But she would always just say people are different. She was not really negative and she knew things would change.”

Though her children don’t allow her into the kitchen anymore, her reputation as an outstanding cook lives on. Her meals were as good for you as they were good tasting. When her husband developed an ulcer, she changed the family’s eating habits, turning to vegetables, fruits, grains and fish, and within a year the ulcer was gone, Sandy said.

“My mother’s cooking was biblical,” Sandy said, noting that her recipes for eggplant and squash were particularly tasty. She could also make a scrumptious Apricot Delight.

But Eula’s menu is not limited to healthy veggies.

“On special occasions Mama likes to have her little somethin’ somethin’,” laughed Sandy, noting her mother’s affinity for Hennessy.

After retiring from working with the Bureau of Adoptions and then the Los Angeles County Probation Department, Eula has made it a weekly ritual to visit friends at the Graceful Senescence Adult Day Care center. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday she goes to the Graceful Senescence Adult Day Care center in Los Angeles to play bingo and poker. She is known, after all, as a “hot bingo player.”

After the party Friday at the Graceful Senescence Adult Day Care center in Los Angeles, Eula returned to her daughter’s home in Compton for another party but this time with her children and more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“She was fantastic as a mom,” said Sandy. “She gave us the opportunity as kids to know different things.”