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In Southern Illinois, Cairo's first Black librarian celebrated as she turns 100 years old

In Southern Illinois, Cairo's first Black librarian celebrated as she turns 100 years old

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Bertha Seavers (seated) waves to well wishers as her daughter, Karla Patton, looks on during a parade to celebrate Seavers’ 100th birthday on Friday in Cairo. Seavers was the first Black librarian in Cairo.

CAIRO — Bertha Seavers quietly inspired countless Cairo children to develop a love of reading and learning during her decades-long career as a librarian. At 100 years old, she continues to exude a spirit of love and kindness as a living testimony to the faith she so devoutly practices.

“You know, you find some people who are always going to say something negative about somebody. I’ve never, never heard her say anything bad about anybody. She always finds something good,” said Charlotte Mallory, a neighbor and longtime friend who considers Seavers a second mother.

Cairo residents spent the past week honoring Seavers. They posted pictures and memories to Facebook, held a special virtual Bible study night in her honor titled “99 and a ½ won’t do,” and on Friday — Seavers’ 100th birthday — showered her with appreciation in a drive-by parade while she soaked it in from the safety of her front porch with a few close family members by her side.

Seavers said it’s hard to fathom where the time has gone.

“I feel surprised to say I’m 100 years old,” she said. “I can’t believe it. So that’s what I’m feeling.”

Seavers started working for the Cairo Public Library in the 1940s, when Black children were not welcome inside its stately building on Washington Avenue. She was assigned to a branch office at Pyramid Courts, a brand new public housing complex for Black families built in the early part of the decade.

“They didn’t have a library at all for the Black kids at that moment, so the library was started out at Pyramid Courts,” Seavers recalled in an interview with The Southern on Wednesday. “And they were very nice. The kids came in to get the different books they wanted to read, and get ideas and things they chose to come and talk about.”


Bertha Seavers waves to well wishers as they pass her house during a parade to celebrate her 100th birthday on Friday in Cairo.

“We helped them to do whatever they needed as best as we could right then.”

After nearly 20 years of working at the branch office, Seavers was asked to move to the library’s main office, the A.B. Safford Memorial Building. Cairo’s library is not some ordinary benevolent building. It is one of the region’s architectural crown jewels, gifted to the city in 1884 by Anna Eliza Safford who had it built in memory of her husband, who had passed away seven years prior.

The Saffords were among the wealthiest families to ever live in Cairo, and the broken-hearted widow spared no expense. Resting in niches that flank the entryway are two statues — on one side Clio, the Greek muse of history, and the other Concordia, a Roman goddess of peace. The building, which houses more than 50,000 volumes, features stained glass windows, a wide, ornate staircase connecting floors and a rare Tiffany’s grandfather clock.

But for many years, the library — and all its assets — was an exclusionary club, available only to the town’s White people. When Seavers transitioned there in 1969, she became its first Black employee.

Seavers said she enjoyed her job at the branch office and main office. She especially enjoyed the children. And though the era was one in which many Black people in Cairo faced discrimination and violence in numous facets of life, Seavers said her supervisor was kind and welcoming when she made the move. “Mrs. Walker, she was wonderful,” Seavers recalled. “Just really nice and ready for me to start right then.”

Asked what she liked most about her job, Seavers said, “I enjoyed it all.”


Bertha Seavers (seated) waves to well wishers as they pass her house during a parade to celebrate her 100th birthday on Friday in Cairo.

Seavers retired from her job in 1985 after 35 years of faithful service to the Cairo Public Library system. “I don’t think my mother missed a day — maybe one when she had tonsillitis,” said her daughter, Karla Patton.

Seavers and her husband, Norman Seavers Sr., had three children: twin girls Karla and Karen, and one boy, Norman Jr. The couple had been married for 65 years when her husband passed away in 2007. Her beloved daughter Karen Adkinson passed away in 2001.

One does not become a centenarian without suffering some of life’s greatest losses. But it also is a rare achievement, especially considering that Seavers still lives at home and faithfully attends First Missionary Baptist Church.

Though more people are living longer, in the U.S. there are still only about 90,000 people over the age of 100, according to a PBS report on population changes, citing U.S. Census Bureau demographers. That’s about 0.03% of the total U.S. population.

Seavers’ long and fruitful life has offered Cairo a great gift, said Pastor Jimmy Ellis, leading Wednesday’s First Missionary Baptist Church Bible study class via Zoom. Ellis noted that there is an African proverb that teaches that seniors are actually Encyclopedias, and said he was humbled to get to sit down with Seavers the day prior in her home to ask her about her life.

Seavers has been a member of the church for about 90 years, and rarely misses a service. She was baptized in 1934 and has since held numerous positions within the church, including most lately that of “Mother.”

“I was just so captivated by her commitment to God and to the church,” Ellis said. “Mother Seavers is so rare — this is the God’s honest truth — she is the only person that I’ve ever met that nobody has anything bad to say about. I’ve never met anybody like that.”

Ellis structured Wednesday’s lessons around Seavers’ advice for a good, long life, rooted in biblical teachings. Her advice for young people, as relayed by Ellis: honor your parents, study the word of God, learn how to follow direction, especially the direction of God, and respect one another. Through Ellis, she also offered these keys to her longevity: find a church home, take relationships with God and each other seriously and learn to pray and “truly give it to the Lord.”

Ellis said that one of the things about Seavers that has impressed him so much is her ability to keep harmony in her life. Not only was she a trailblazer as Cairo’s first Black librarian, she is “a mother, grandmother, great grandmother, a wife and so many other things she seems to balance flawlessly.” Through Ellis, Seavers offered this advice for achieving balance: Teach principles and precepts to your children, make sure your family is always surrounded in love, be generous and have integrity.

During the virtual church service, participants were given time to deliver a message to Seavers. Gloria Wiggins wished her a “happy birthday” and thanked her for her service as a librarian.

“You were so patient with me when I was a little bitty kid running up in that library with you,” Wiggins said. “And as a grown-up, you’re still that same patient person.”

Tyrone Coleman, a former mayor of Cairo and president of the Alexander/Pulaski counties branch of the NAACP, said Seavers has blessed Cairo and everyone lucky enough to be in her life. “She’s just always been a beautiful person with a beautiful spirit. She always has a smile on her face. She’s been an inspiration,” he said, adding, “I call her the queen.”

She also received birthday wishes on Friday from state Sen. Dale Fowler and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth. "Individuals such as yourself provide an invaluable opportunity for others to learn of the history and richness of our nation," Duckworth told her in a letter. 

Mallory, her friend and neighbor, said that she knows few people who are as giving as Seavers, or as worthy of a town celebration. “She loves everybody,” she said. “She will give you the shirt off her back. Everyone is welcome in her home.” Mallory said there’s no question that when Seavers’ time comes, she will see her reward.

“If anybody’s going to Heaven,” she said, “I truly believe she’s going.”

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