Aunt Reva turns 100

'Stay young, don't get old,' the matriarch advises

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Pascal Sabino

Block Club Chicago

Across generations in North Lawndale, Reva Mason has celebrated so much.

On March 1, Mason, affectionately known as Aunt Reva, celebrated another milestone: her 100th birthday, making her one of the city's oldest residents.

With family and friends at the Lawndale Christian Health Center Senior Center, Mason has a melody to her. As she recalls her dearest memories from the century, speaking in a gentle voice, she claps her hands and taps her feet to the rhythm of her words.

Mason has lived on the West Side for so long some of her family believed she was born and raised here. But Mason was born in Atlanta and spent her first 19 years in the South.

In 1939, Mason's family was chased north by the Ku Klux Klan during the Great Migration. Her mother was light-skinned and part American Indian, and her parents' interracial marriage marked them as a target for hate crimes.

After fleeing from racial violence, Mason's family settled in the then-white community of North Lawndale, and it was there her love for music blossomed. Coming of age when many of the biggest names in jazz and the blues worked out of West Side recording studios and clubs, and as street performers played outside Jewish-owned businesses on Pulaski Road, Mason was surrounded by music.

Her favorite musicians were Marvin Gaye and Muddy Waters, and Mason remembers she used to dance with her sisters for hours in the dining room of their home on Cermak Road in K-Town.

"I used to love to tap dance," she said, patting out a syncopated beat in her lap. "I'm old now, so I'll leave that for y'all."

"They had a dancing club. I used to like to go there just to get my exercise," Mason said. "And that exercise really did me some good."

That club was known as the Boogie Woogie Inn, said Mason's younger brother, 91-year-old John Barner Jr., who remembers picking up his sisters in the early morning hours after dancing all night.

Seeing them tap together perfectly in sync was a sight to behold, Barner said.

"They used to have a ball with it at the house," he said.

On June 27, 1953, Mason married, continuing to live in K-Town. When she wasn't working at manufacturer Stewart-Warner in Cicero, she tended a home garden, where she grew sweet corn and cucumbers.

She remembers how much people smiled in Lawndale back in the day — they were proud of where they came from.

Although Mason never had children, she helped raise her sister's kids, which led to her nickname: Aunt Reva.

Besides dancing, Mason's other passion and source of nourishment was the church. She first met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s during the Chicago Freedom Movement at St. Paul's Church.

"He said, 'Let me tell every one of you in here, color don't make no difference with almighty God. He sees all and knows all. You can't fool God, so you might as well live your life,'" Mason recalled.

"When he would speak, everybody would really understand him," she said, drumming on the table. "I'll tell you the truth, I did everything Martin Luther King wanted me to do."

Mason attended church each Sunday like clockwork, calling it her a second home. Going to St. Paul's was the highlight of her week, she said, because she loved to sing and dance and shout in the name of God.

"I'm gonna tell you the truth," she said. "I love shouting."

She was able to live a long and happy life because of this spiritual fulfillment rooted in religion, she said, and it also kept her from fearing old age. She's carried gospel tunes like "Baptized in the Name of Jesus" with her all her life.

"Everything in my whole body feels like it just clears up [at church]. All that hate and cheating and lying, it just disappears," Mason said.

Even at church, Mason's musical spirit and tap skills took center stage. One time, Mason's infectious rhythm brought the whole church to their feet to join in with her, her brother remembered.

"I took her to church one Sunday. We had never been to that church before, but we tore that church up. People were dancing, everybody," he said.

Mason's centenarian status is impressive considering the average life expectancy in West Garfield Park, which neighbors North Lawndale on the West Side, is just 69 years, a staggering 16 years shorter than somebody living in Streeterville.

The disinvestment of the 1960s contributed to the West Side age gap, as the area is a food desert with few grocery stores for getting nutritious foods, the streetscape has little greenery and poor walkability and many folks struggle to access clinical care.

Looking back on her life, Mason said she has no regrets. But each time she visits with her family members of later generations, she leaves them with a piece of wisdom gleaned from her 100 years on earth:

"Stay young, don't get old," she said.

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