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Tribute to a Last Living Link to a Painful Past

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The faint smile on Mrs. Gertrude Baines face midway through my tribute remarks to her was literally a smile for the ages. I, and a small group of well wishers, admirers, hospital staff, and reporters that gathered to pay a birthday tribute to Mrs. Baines on April 6 were witnesses to history; a living, breathing history filled with much pain and promise. At 115 years of age, Mrs. Baines, an African-American, had once more earned the proud and breath stopping distinction of being the world's oldest person.

The Guinness Book of Records bestowed that title on her after a painstaking sift through stacks of official birth records. Along the way, it had discounted the claims from many worldwide of being the world's oldest. An official from Guinness presented her with a proclamation at the birthday tribute that acknowledged her age feat.

I did not, however, give my remarks honoring Mrs. Baines to the assembled group solely because she had attained that amazing age, but rather for what she represents. At her world record shattering age and despite being permanently confined to a convalescent hospital, Mrs. Baines is still a strong role model for health and positive living. She also has a passion for the fight for justice. She is a member and solid supporter of the Main Gospel Church in Los Angeles, pastored by Warren J. Smith, who is one of the city's top activist African-American ministers.

Smith is also a member of this writer's education and public issues group, the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. The church has worked closely with the Roundtable in campaigns against gang and drug violence, police misconduct, job and housing discrimination, for juvenile justice reform, and political empowerment. In November, Mrs. Baines spoke proudly of how she had voted for and cheered on President Barack Obama. She considered this one of her proudest moments.

But Mrs. Baines also represents something even deeper and more profound. Her father was born into slavery in 1856. She is the daughter of a slave. She is one of the few last surviving links to the horror of slavery which is still a divisive, contentious and bitter part of the African-American past. Mrs. Baines's life has spanned the near century of legal Jim Crow segregation, political disfranchisement, and racial brutality that followed slavery. Her life is a towering living reminder of and testament to the resilience, fortitude and courage of the many African-Americans who despite the odds overcame that terrible legacy and have done so much to enrich the social tapestry of America.

I was proud to say this directly to Mrs. Baines at her 115th birthday celebration. I was grateful when Mrs. Baines repaid me with her smile. Mrs. Baines truly lives as the eternal Mother Spirit of a people who have come so far against so much. She is a last living link to a painful part of the African-American past.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and nationally on blogtalkradio.com.