Berryville’s supercentenarian Viola Brown dies at 110 years, 229 days

BERRYVILLE — Mary Viola Roberts Lampkin Brown was born on Oct. 4, 1911, when William Howard Taft was the nation’s 27th president. Aviation pioneer Orville Wright piloted a non-powered glider for 9 minutes and 45 seconds that month, setting a world record that stood for years. And, the National Urban League was organized that same month to help African-Americans migrating to cities find jobs and housing.

Brown, who was born in Hume, Virginia, died of natural causes on Saturday in the Berryville home where she had lived since 1936. She was 110 years and 229 days old. Before her death, she was Berryville’s oldest resident and was also believed to be the oldest person in Virginia, according to the online site Gerontology Wiki .

The youngest of James and Maria (nee Hosby) Roberts’ 13 children, Brown — who always went by Viola — was born when her mother was 43. In 1918, she and her parents moved to Clarke County where they and her brother Harrison worked as laborers and domestics at Springfield Farm. She was 7 years old when she began her life as a domestic service worker.

Springfield had indoor plumbing, but the Roberts family, being Black, obeyed the custom of the times and did not use it. They lived in the basement.

A few years ago, Brown recalled the move to Springfield took place toward the end of World War I. “I waited on tables, mopped the floor and washed dishes,” she said. She also received her elementary education at Springfield as there was a schoolteacher on the premises.

She married John S. Lampkin on Dec. 28, 1936, in Webbtown, an unincorporated community in northeast Clarke County. They built a home in Josephine City, another unincorporated community south of Berryville. The primary structure of their home was a livery stable that Lampkin, a church deacon, moved seven blocks from Berryville’s Main Street to Josephine Street.

Josephine City was established by former slaves and free Blacks in the early 1870s, when they purchased 31 one-acre lots for $100 each from the owner of adjoining Clermont Farm.

The Lampkins raised a son and a daughter in Josephine City while Viola worked as a cook at the Knoll, a home on South Church Street in Berryville. She returned to work at Springfield Farm in the early 1960s.

After her husband died in 1982, Viola married the Rev. Paul Brown in 1988. He died 10 years later. She carried on as the matriarch of the family that grew to include grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

Brown saw so much in her lifetime. World wars. Medical and technological advances. Two pandemics. The Civil Rights Movement and the election — twice — of a Black president. Asked in 2016 about all those changes, she offered, “The biggest change is that you can eat anywhere now and go into any store.” That was not the case until she was in her 50s, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination.

While working at the Knoll one day in 1960, the stove exploded, injuring Brown’s legs. A doctor said she might not walk again. During her recovery, she managed stairs by “going up and down on her bottom.” Before long, she was walking, too.

Aside from the medical attention she received for her injury, Brown was always extraordinarily healthy. When she was 101, she began taking medication for high blood pressure, and she began using a walker at 102.

Until recently, she rose each morning, dressed, made her bed, and went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. She washed the dishes and kept herself busy. “I guess I’m full of nervous energy,” she said. “I can’t sit still. I see things that need to be done.”

Throughout her life, she maintained a daily routine that included spiritual reflection. She often said, and frequently signed greeting cards, “God is love.”

In a 2016 interview prior to her 105th birthday she said, “I owe everything to the grace of God. I get up every morning thanking Him for this day, and I don’t worry about tomorrow.”

Berryville’s Town Council officially proclaimed Oct. 4, 2011 “Viola Brown Centennial Celebration Day.” Ten years later, the Clarke County Board of Supervisors presented her with a resolution proclaiming Oct. 4, 2021, “Viola Roberts Lampkin Brown Day,” and former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam sent a letter in 2021 welcoming her to the “small, yet elite club of supercentenarians.”

Following her 106th birthday, Brown received a signed letter from President Barack Obama. It read in part, “Over the course of a century, you have made extraordinary memories and woven your own unique story into the American narrative. As you reflect on your contributions to our nation, we trust you take tremendous pride in all you have accomplished.”

Brown was preceded in death by her son, Shelby L. Roberts Sr.; and grandson, Larry M. “Mike” Roberts.

She is survived by her daughter, Vonceil L. Hill; daughter-in-law, Dorothy J. “Dot” Roberts; grandchildren, Sandra DeCarlo Gladden, Donna “Mo” Roberts White (Howard), Shelby L. Roberts Jr. (DeLinda), Gary S. “Chick” Roberts, Cheryl D.L. Roberts, Charles C. “Chucky” Davis II, and Charceil D. Davis; and more relatives and friends than one can count.

Arrangements are by Enders and Shirley Funeral Home, which will announce funeral service and burial details. Face masks will be required at the service.

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