At 103, Le’Etter Bryant is the oldest resident at the Heritage Woods assisted living facility, 2800 W. Fulton St., in East Garfield Park. One recent afternoon, she drove in a power wheelchair down the hall to a reception area festooned with Tiffany Blue decorations and awaiting five generations of relatives who would gather to celebrate her birthday.
Holding the door open for Bryant as she rolled inside, this reporter was brusquely shooed away.
“Go ahead, I got it,” she insisted, the door nearly closing in on her approach.
When a niece showed up who was supposed to do her hair before the birthday party, Bryant jokingly reminded the room, “She was supposed to come cut my hair and she didn’t do it,” before she directed her niece back to her residence for a quick touch-up.
For someone who was born before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated president, Bryant is strikingly here, present, alert to the world of Barack Obama and Michael Jackson impersonators, one of whom, Bryant’s favorite, was scheduled to perform later on at the party.
Bryant was born Jan. 15, 1913 in rural Arkansas. Her father, Joseph Allen, was a preacher. When she was two years old, her mother died and Bryant was sent to live with her aunt. Her father would later have more children through another marriage.
Bryant said she lived on a farm until she was five or six years old, when her family moved to the small town of Holly Grove in Monroe County.
The year of her birth, “J.A. Walls erected a steam engine [in Holly Grove] just outside the city limits,” according to an online history of the town. But work in Holly Grove, other than as a field hand or factory worker, was still not easy to find.
When asked when she left Arkansas for Chicago, Bryant didn’t hesitate. The year was 1932, she said. She was married and she came to the city seeking a better life. Her husband was a bricklayer who, for work, would travel the country to places like Seattle, Alaska and Las Vegas.
She and her husband had no children of their own; rather Bryant would help raise her sister’s ten children.
“She would come and visit and she’d stay with us periodically,” said Dorothy Richardson, one of Bryant’s nieces.
In 1957, Bryant’s sister took ill, so she traveled to be by her side and to help with the children.
“By the time she left to go back to where she was living, she had a one-month-old baby — me,” Richardson wrote in a handwritten letter she prepared for the woman she considers her second mother and who she simply calls, “Mama.”
Just as her aunt adopted her in 1913, Bryant would adopt her niece as her own. At the time, she was in her early 40s. She and her husband would eventually divorce when Richardson was still a baby.
“I know I wouldn’t have taken a baby at that age,” Richardson said, laughing.
“She didn’t have a choice,” said Bryant’s brother, Leroy Allen, 73. “She had actually been asking God for many years and he finally gave her what she was asking for.”
Bryant worked as a waitress for several years before saving enough money to open her own restaurant on the South Side. She called it Lee’s Soul Food and for roughly six years, the place would employ many of Bryant’s nieces and nephews.
“She employed us all,” said her nephew Joseph Lewis, 55. “Everybody worked in that restaurant.”
When asked how her mother, a waitress, got the money to start her own restaurant, Richardson shrugged. It was a mystery and still is.
“I don’t know. She made it happen,” she said.
In her letter, Richardson writes that Bryant “is a very strong woman. I always thought we were rich when I was little. I didn’t understand that a waitress didn’t make that much money, but we had everything and she still was able to help [others] along the way.”
Another mystery is just how, exactly, Bryant’s lived this long. She’s had her share of health problems, including a heart attack many years ago, but she’s still rolling.
So how did you do it, Bryant was asked directly?
“I’m still trying to figure that out myself,” she said, before laughing quietly and wheeling herself to a table of honor that offered an unfettered view of Michael Jackson’s clone and, at one point during the day, a room of her relatives and friends doing the twist.