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Good to Know: 'Icon of African American legacy' celebrates 100th birthday

Ida Harris raises her hands for friends and

Ida Harris raises her hands for friends and family as she celebrates her 100th birthday party at the West Jupiter Recreation Center on Oct. 10, 2019.  Credit: Palm Beach Post (TNS)/Richard Graulich

Idella Simmons Harris Connaway stood up from her makeshift throne and raised her arms.

A crowd of more than 50 roared. Those who affectionately refer to Connaway as “Ms. Ida” had plenty to celebrate at the West Jupiter Recreation Center in Jupiter, Florida. It was her 100th birthday.

Friends, family and local dignitaries — Rep. Brian Mast, state Sen. Bobby Powell and County Commissioner Hal Valeche among them — swapped memories and heaped praise onto Connaway, a near-lifelong resident of the Jupiter area and fixture of the community there, particularly its African American residents.

“I remember just always her serving the community,” said 29-year-old grandson Shaheed Stone.

Deep appreciation

Angela Rollins and Teresa Armwood recalled how Connaway touched their lives in a significant way. They were among the eight children she packed into her powder-blue Ford Mustang and drove to and from a day care in Riviera Beach in the mid-1960s.

There were no integrated day cares in the Jupiter area at the time, Armwood said.

“If it was not for her, we would not have gone to day care,” she said. None of the children were even related to Connaway, Armwood said.

The women have fun, lighthearted memories of their trips in the Mustang, but make no mistake: Armwood and Rollins said they have a deep appreciation for Connaway that sticks with them.

“She wanted us to be united,” Armwood said. “She wanted us to be together.”

Rollins quickly followed: “To have opportunity.”

Family friend Iris Etheredge, who MC’d the event organized by the Edna W. Runner Tutorial Center, described Connaway as a pillar of the local black community.

“This woman is an icon of African American legacy,” Etheredge said. “A matriarch of her family.”

That family has been a remarkable one in local history, said Jamie Stuve, the president and CEO of the Loxahatchee River Historical Society.

They were among the first black Americans to homestead in the Jupiter area, Stuve said. Connaway’s father, Phillip Simmons, bought the family property in the 1900s just north of the Loxahatchee River where some of his descendants still live today, Stone said. Connaway lives there, in a house that Stone owns in unincorporated Tequesta.

“I’ve always been like superclose with my grandmother,” he said. They’ve lived under the same roof for the better part of 17 years, Stone added.

Meaningful impact

Stuve credited Connaway with deepening the society’s understanding of local African American history. “Ms. Ida just opened her heart right away to me personally and us,” Stuve said.

Connaway’s mother, Rebecca Anderson Simmons, did the laundry for Charles Seabrook, the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse keeper from 1919 to 1947, Stuve said.

Connaway remembers helping out by pumping water. Her reward for finishing the work: She could go fishing, her childhood hobby.

“I loved to fish,” Connaway said.

Stone considers his grandmother to be an inspiration. He rattled off a couple lessons she’s taught him.

“More than anything, she taught me to always treat people right. … You can’t win mistreating people. That’s one thing that’s resonated in my own life.”

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