Hope carried Henry Jenkins from the cotton fields of Mississippi to Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood. He arrived here in 1939, part of a historic migration of African-Americans who moved North in search of a better life.
Today, the 106-year-old enjoys sitting on the porch of his home, where he’s lived since 1971.
In many ways, his life has been a microcosm of African-American history. Moving North. Finding employment. Owning a home. And years later, witnessing the economic decline of his neighborhood.
In the South, Jenkins worked for 50 cents a day picking cotton and peanuts. Growing up in Mississippi during an era of legal segregation, he didn’t learn how to write his name until he was 25 and married.
“They started me working around 6 or 7, walking behind my mama picking cotton and putting it in her sack,” Jenkins said. “We couldn’t go to school. There wasn’t no school (for African-Americans).”
He experienced discrimination throughout his life in the South.
“When whites came down the streets,” he recalled, “you had to step out of the sidewalk.”
Despite the immense hardship he has faced as a black man who grew up under Jim Crow laws, his soft voice shows no hint of resentment. He tried to stay positive as he searched for ways to support his family.
“I said, ‘I’m going to get out from there because I want my kids to have a better life than I did,’” Jenkins said. “Thank the Lord he helped me survive.”
Jenkins saved enough money to purchase his home, and all nine of his children grew up in better circumstances than he did.
His wife died in 2012, and he has outlived most of his family. Still, he’s thankful for the life he’s lived and the neighbors who treat him like family.
“Sometimes I lay in that bed and pray,” Jenkins said. “‘Lord, why are you so good to me?’”
Also: Listen to Henry Jenkins’ thoughts about: