The Mary Walker Foundation

Supporting Literacy in the Chattanooga Community

Mary Hardway Walker accomplished an incredible feat despite being born into slavery and having to endure almost a century of persecution. She learned to read at the age of 117.

Walker was born in 1848 in Union Springs, Alabama, and was enslaved until she was 15 years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. She was married and had her first child by the age of 20. She had worked a variety of occupations by the time she was 68, including cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and selling sandwiches to earn funds for her church. Walker and her family then relocated to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1917. By the age of 114, she had lost all three of her children as well as her husband.

She enlisted in the Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement (CALM) in 1963, where she was taught by Helen Kelly, a volunteer teacher. She learned to read, write, add, and subtract in a one-hour lesson two times a week for more than a year, according to WRCB-TV.

Walker received a number of medals and accolades for her endurance and determination, including the key to Chattanooga. She was also designated Chattanooga’s Ambassador of Goodwill twice and was certified as the nation’s oldest student by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In addition, she was honoured by two US presidents, dignitaries from around the country and Canada, and even an aircraft flight in 1966. Following her death in 1969, the city of Chattanooga renamed her retirement home and built a memorial to honour her life.