To know Ruth Bell Watkins-Pritchett is to hear her sing. She was born on October 27, 1916 in Vineland, Alabama, one of six children — three boys and three girls — who comprised a country sextet known as the Watkins.
They would travel dust roads — dressed to the nines while riding on top of a wagon pulled by mules — to perform at local churches. They would sing at home. They would sing in the fields while their young hands parted cotton from its bolls and their small eyes looked out for snakes and bugs.
On a recent afternoon in November, three generations of Watkins and Pritchetts, all women, gathered in the basement of the JLM Abundant Life Community Center, 2622 W Jackson Blvd, for what amounted to a small appreciation of the 99-year-old Austin resident who they say is a serial life-saver and a model survivor.
“We celebrated her birthday on Oct. 27. This was just something the Lord put on my mind to do because [Ruth] has been so good to me all my life,” said Reva Pritchett, who organized the Nov. 19 get-together, where state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th) stopped by to present her with formal state acknowledgment.
But if you ask the spunky senior about her life up to now, or her motivation for taking in a steady stream of relatives and friends seeking better lives, she’ll likely start singing.
One of her strongest memories of the South are of her father’s brother, Uncle Elmore — a colorful man who, after service on Sundays, would invite his fellow congregants into the church yard to drink homemade moonshine.
“Old Uncle Elmore was something else,” Watkins-Pritchett recalled. “He’d always say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ Sometimes he’d leave and go down in those woods with the birds and everything else. After a while, you’d see him coming out from down there.”
Watkins-Pritchett paused before belting out a blues her uncle would sing as he emerged out of the woods (“When you [unintelligible] find a puppaaay / Giive meeee a spot-ted hooouuund”).
Some of the song’s lyrics, and its reference point, were unclear, but the timbre of her voice — its sacred high-pitch and ringing authority, tuned weekly at the Inspired Body of Christ Church, where, as the church mother, she’s often called upon to sing — vividly brought Uncle Elroy and his Vineland exploits back to life. Watkins-Pritchett would sing Uncle Elroy’s song several times that afternoon and each time the room of women would light up in laughter.
Indeed, her voice recreates an entire world, and a historical era, that Watkins-Pritchett left behind in 1946 when she moved to Chicago.
A year earlier, her husband, Percy Pritchett, left his life as a farmer to seek opportunity in the city. He would eventually land a job at a foundry. A few years after Ruth arrived with her two daughters, Mary Pritchett-Hampton and Gleece Harris, she found work as a presser at Mt. Sinai Hospital, straightening the uniforms of the hospital’s employees.
The family settled at 2914 W. Walnut, where the girls would often hear their mother sing some of the songs she learned in her childhood.
“She sings all the time,” said Harris, 76. She moved her mother into her home several years ago and is now her primary caretaker. “She’ll strike out and start singing. She likes old hymns. Sometimes she makes the songs up herself.”
At the small get-together held in her honor, Watkins-Pritchett unexpectedly called out several times, transporting her friends and relatives to those cotton fields back home — the sweat of her brows felt in each note.
“Jeesus is my doc-tor and heee writes out all of my prescriptions and heee giiives me allll of my medicine,” Watkins-Pritchett suddenly started singing as the room fell silent, her lyrics laced with hummed moans and improvised accents. “It’s in the rooom. It’s in the room y’all.”
‘She saved my life’
Roughly a decade after Watkins-Pritchett settled in Chicago, she got a phone call from her cousin Lizzie Mathis, 83, who had been living, unhappily, in Gary, Indiana. Mathis said she was so dissatisfied in the city that she was thinking about going back to her native Alabama. Then along came Ruth.
“If it hadn’t been for her, I probably wouldn’t have been here. She opened the door for me in 1955,” said Mathis. “She brought me from Gary, Indiana that year and gave me a place to say and helped me get a job. She even used to take me to the job until I learned to find my way on the bus.”
Watkins-Pritchett even opened the door for Mathis’s close friend, who she considered a “play sister,” to move from Alabama.
“I had a room in Ruth’s house. My girlfriend in Alabama wanted to come to Chicago. Now, I don’t have nothing but a room, so I went to Ruth and told her my play sister wants to come up here from Alabama. Ruth said, ‘Well, where she gonna stay?’ I told her she wants to stay with me and Ruth said, ‘You ain’t hardly got nowhere to stay yourself!’ But she said, now if you all can share that room and get along together in that room, she can come.”
Both Mathis and her friend would eventually get married and start families of their own, buoyed along by Watkins-Pritchett’s generosity.
“I tell everybody, Ruth doesn’t have to call me. I just go over there and see what I can do,”” Mathis said. “People like that can’t be forgotten.”
When her daughters became adults, Watkins-Pritchett decided to move again — this time to New Haven, Connecticut. She says she moved to find work, but Reva Pritchett would find New Haven to be something of a sanctuary from her troubled young life in Chicago. She was a 22-year-old mother of an infant whose recent marriage had gotten off to a rocky start.
“Ruth saved my life a long time ago,” Pritchett said. “She saved a lot of people’s lives. I was going through a whole lot. I’d just had my baby and gotten married, and I was going through some changes. Ruth told my mother to send me to her. I had never been out of state, never been on a plane.”
Pritchett said the five months she lived with her aunt were transformative, helping to usher her to maturity.
“That time away was so important to me,” she said.
Quite a while after Pritchett came to visit, another niece, Beverly Pritchett, went off to New Haven for the same purposes.
In 2002, after living in New Haven for roughly four decades, Watkins-Pritchett returned to Chicago, because several loved ones — namely her husband (who had stayed behind when she went to New Haven) and her sister — who were sick needed to be taken care of.
Now, in Chicago, the people who Watkins-Pritchett saved are taking care of her. Mathis stops by frequently, bearing food and whatever else the 99-year-old songstress needs.
“Lizzie comes by my house and brings me food. I don’t have to buy it. If she got something, I got something,” said Watkins-Pritchett.
Harris said her mother has high blood pressure and has lived with a heart pacemaker for decades, but outside of those complications she’s in good health.
“She has a home physician who comes every month and he says, ‘You’re in better shape than any patient I got,'” said Harris.
When she’s inevitably asked about the secret to her having lived so long, Watkins-Pritchett sometimes allows her close relatives to provide the answers for her.
“We have a praying family,” said her niece Bonnie Seal Watkins, 71. “My aunt is still here because she believed and trusted in God. Sometimes, when I come over to visit her, I’ll see her in the bedroom by herself and she’d be done struck up a hymn. She sings everything but the one I like,” Watkins said though laughter before reciting the first line.
“It’s getting late in the evening and the sun is almost down.”