Biography of Centenarian Charlie Smith

About the American centenarian Charlie Smith biography and history, diet and advice for longevity.



Ex-slave Charlie Smith was 23 years old when the Civil War ended, 61 when the Wright Brothers first flew, and 130 when the soaring price of Coca-Cola forced him to close down a soft-drink-and-candy stand he had owned for 20 years. At last report, he was 136 and living in a home for the aged in Bartow, Fla., acknowledged widely as America's oldest citizen ever.

At age 12 Smith, born Mitchell Watkins in Liberia in 1842, was lured aboard a slave ship bound for New Orleans. A Texas planter named Charlie Smith purchased him there and took him home to Galveston, where the youngster was treated with singularly unslavelike respect. "He give me his name, raised me right in the house with his other children," Smith says. "I wasn't never bein' no slave."

After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Smith stayed on at the farm as a cowherder until planter Smith's death in 1874. Over the next century, he worked as a bounty hunter, ran with Jesse James's gang, and was at various times a logger, bootlegger, gambler, oilworker, and owner of a dance hall. He was picking oranges in Auburndale, Fla., as late as 1955, his 113-year-old frame hardly bent under the 20-lb. crates of fruit. In 1955 Smith retired and was placed on the Social Security rolls. He left the citrus fields to move into a rented shack in a run-down section of the Bartow black ghetto, where he earned a meager living selling candy and soda pop. For a short time he traveled with Ripley's Believe It or Not! exhibitions, billed as the world's oldest working person.

As recently as 1975, Smith was in astonishingly good health. About 5 ft. 8 in. tall, he then weighed 132 lb., did not require cane, eyeglasses, or a hearing aid--although he was bowlegged and a bit farsighted--and had a blood pressure reading of only 120/70. Researchers and journalists who interviewed Smith reported that while some of his recollections were a little blurred and his mind sometimes wandered, he was on the whole quite sharp-witted and could reminisce and sing old ballads for five or six hours at a stretch.

Smith was married at least three times, although his only living relative in 1978 is his 73-year-old son, Chester, who visits him often at the convalescent home.

"When you gits real old," Smith says, "as old as I is, you feels bad all over sometimes. You never feels that when you're young. When you're young, you either hurts or you doesn't. But when you gits real old, sometimes you feels bad all over though you don't hurt nowhere."

Diet: Charlie Smith was always a light if idiosyncratic eater who just might lunch on a hamburger patty doused liberally with sugar. An unrepentant smoker and drinker, he says, "I never made no big joy off my food. If I was hongry and it was eatable, I et. I enjoyed beer and whiskey better than my eats, anyway." Well into his 120s, he was starting each day with a couple of shots of straight vodka. Not surprisingly, he avoids exercise. "I don't do much now. I just sit here, and when I get tired of sitting, I get up, and when I get tired of that, I sit down."

Advice: Smith demurs when asked for the secret of his longevity. "I ain't got no special secret for how I live so long. I just live." Still, he is vocal about his own formula for happiness. "Don't wear no raggedy clothes. Don't go barefeeted. Anything you got to have, don't never let it give out; befo' it give out, git mo'. Enjoy your money while you livin', 'cause you sho' can't enjoy it when you day'd--'cause you can't carry none of it with 'im. Do he?"

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