CAIRO, Ill. >> 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 a week honoring Seavers. They posted pictures and memories to Facebook, held a special virtual Bible study night in her honor titled “99 and a 1/2 won’t do,” and on July 10 — 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, according to The Southern Illinoisan.
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. “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.”
“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, donated to the city in 1884 by Anna Eliza Safford, who had it built in memory of her husband, who had died seven years prior.
The Saffords were among the wealthiest families to ever live in Cairo, and the brokenhearted 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 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.”
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 died in 2007. Her daughter Karen Adkinson died 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 First Missionary pastor Jimmy Ellis, leading a 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.”
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.”
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 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.”