Ella Bea Surratt, one of a handful of African Americans remaining in this Sierra foothills town, looks forward to celebrating her 100th birthday Saturday with about 200 friends and relatives in the green wooden house where she has lived for more than 60 years.
Five generations will be on hand to honor “Mother,” or “Miss Ella” as she’s widely known in these parts. The crowd will include nearly all of her eight remaining children, 23 grandchildren, 45 great-grandchildren and 16 great-great-grandchildren.
“People of all races stand in long lines at Calvary Bible Church to get her hugs,” said one of her daughters, Pene Anderson, who came down from Homer, Alaska.
“She just loves all people and doesn’t see race, and she raised us that way, too,” added another daughter, Barbara Fields of Oakland.
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Surratt still has a twinkle in her hazel eyes and isn’t shy about dispensing plenty of smiles and “pearls of wisdom” she’s gathered over the century, many from her own aunt Ella.
“Don’t let anyone be nicer to you than you are to them,” she advised as she sat on the front porch of her 1-acre property Wednesday. “Don’t do evil to evil, and never lie or steal. There’s no such thing as ‘you can’t.’ Nothing beats failure but a try.”
Surratt, whose husband, Howard Surratt, died in 1997, lives with her youngest daughter, Brenda, and still enjoys working in her garden. “I was out picking cherries and eating them this morning,” she said. “They make good jelly, too.” She’s mighty proud she’s made it to 100, and likes to waggle her finger and declare, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. You never in your life saw what this old lady saw!”
She arrived in Foresthill with her husband and seven children in 1946, driving a black Chevy with a two-wheel trailer. Surratt recalled her awe at the sight of the canyon looming just below the winding road.
The couple went on to have three more children, and for 24 years in a row, a Surratt child attended Placer High School in Auburn.
“They all finished high school and went to college,” she said, noting that she had struggled to get a decent education as a girl in Arkansas. “I learned how to read, write and count my money, but I had a hard time learning how to spell, even though I practiced all day.”
Part of her challenge was fitting school in while she hauled water and chopped and picked cotton on a plantation run by her uncle Cannon Hunter and his wife, Ella, in Woodson, Ark. Surratt was born Pearl Hunter on June 7, 1916, in Waskom, Texas, but her mom died when she was 9 months old. “I never knew my mom,” she said tearfully. “I drifted from here to there until Uncle Cannon and Ella took me.”
Her aunt Ella changed her name to Ella Bea, and used a peach tree switch or a belt to impose her will on the little girl. “A hard head makes a soft behind,” Surratt often says. “In my day, I didn’t get no love because they didn’t know what love is.”
She raised her kids with the love she wished she’d gotten and credits her aunt with teaching her important life lessons, including daily prayer. “She’d say, ‘whatever you do Ella Bea, do your best.’ ” From cleaning and hanging drapes to making beds, “she didn’t allow me to do nothing halfway,” Surratt said. “She told me, ‘One day when you go out of this house to get a job, you’ll appreciate me for making you do it right.’ ”
She remembers going to the cotton fields at 7:30 a.m. with a sharp-ended hoe and picking up to 300 pounds a day. Her uncle Cannon “was a good man, a hardworking man, you didn’t fool with him.” During the Great Depression, her aunt and uncle gave work and food to poor people without regard to whether they were black or white.
At 17, she married a young man she’d met at school, Howard Surratt. “I told him, I don’t know how to be no wife. He called me Sugar Babe and said, ‘We’ll learn together.’ ” She got a job washing diapers, then cleaning houses.
Times were tough, and they jumped at the chance to move cross country when they heard African Americans were being hired to work at a sawmill in Foresthill. They lived in company housing with other black families.
The community pitched in to help them build their house and put in a road. The Surratts founded Calvary Bible Church, where Surratt’s grandson Roy Stevens Willis serves as pastor. They were charter members of the town’s Safety Club Ambulance Service and Rescue Team. “The white people didn’t know anything about black folk,” she remembers. “They had a lot to learn.”
When she took care of their kids and cleaned their houses, one woman repeatedly tested her honesty by leaving money on the floor. “I put it where she could see it when she came home,” Surratt recalled. “I heard her tell her friend, ‘This n---r don’t steal.’ ”
She said she put up with nasty treatment by whites, but her daughter Betty became the Rosa Parks of Foresthill. “When they told her to go to the back of the bus, she said, ‘I ain’t gonna take this s--- no more, I’m going to sit where I want to,’ ” Surratt recalled. “If somebody called her the n-word, she’d hit ’em in the face.”
While the roller skating rink was segregated, there were never any crosses burned in their lawn.
Along with their 10 children, the Surratts raised two of their grandchildren and a youth who badly needed their help and love. She washed dishes and worked in the cafeteria at Foresthill Elementary for years. Thursday, the Placer County Board of Supervisors presented her with a certificate of recognition citing “your contribution to the county as a wife, a mother, cafeteria support at Foresthill Elementary School, a member of the community for over 75 years, and for your beautiful smile and sense of humor. Congratulations on 100 years of life and for being known as a friend to all.”
Jeff Jones, the pastor at Foresthill’s Calvary Chapel, called her “a sweetheart, an inspiration to the whole community. She and her family are part of the fabric of Foresthill.”
Surratt remembers voting for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She also voted for President Barack Obama, although she was afraid he’d be assassinated. She’s seen the face of Placer County change, too. There were only 62 African Americans listed on the 1940 census – there are now 4,400. Foresthill has gone in the opposite direction, though. In 1970, 57 African Americans lived in her census tract, making up about 5 percent of the population. Only eight were left by 2010.
Surratt, who enjoyed eggs and bacon for breakfast Wednesday and went back for seconds, said she thanks God for letting her live to 100. She said there’s really no secret to it. “I like just about everything,” she said. “I wasn’t lucky to get to be 100 years old, I was lucky to get to be 10.”