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Edna L. Middleton, a centenarian who worked as a wartime shipyard riveter and supported civil and women’s rights, dies

Edna Middleton explored her African heritage.
Edna Middleton explored her African heritage. (Handout / HANDOUT)

Edna L. Middleton, a centenarian who worked as a World War II shipyard riveter, maintained a deep interest in African history and her ancestry, and was a lifelong supporter of civil and women’s rights, died March 15 from complications from a broken hip at a daughter’s home in the city’s Washington Hill neighborhood. She was 102.

“Edna was so full of life and loved life,” said Alison Velez Lane of Northwest Baltimore, a longtime friend. “She was never mean and was a sweet spirit. She was a hero who lived for decades.”

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The former Edna Leola Clinton, daughter of the Rev. Joseph Cornelius Clinton, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and his wife, Martha Wilson Clinton, an oyster packing house worker, was born and raised in McClellanville, South Carolina, a small fishing village on the Atlantic coast in rural Charleston County, about 35 miles from Charleston.

Her maternal grandparents were Prince Wilson, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War as a soldier with the U.S. Colored Troops, and his wife, Kate Wilson, a homemaker.

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“She lived through two pandemics,” said a daughter, Emma L. Middleton of Sandtown-Winchester. “Her mother had the Spanish flu when she was carrying my mother. When my mother broke her hip and was in a rehab center on Boston Street in Canton, she came down with COVID-19, but had no fever and was asymptomatic, so, at 102, she survived another pandemic.”

“Mother Middleton was the picture of resilience and had been in her mother’s womb and overcame death,” said the Rev. Dr. Patrick D. Clayborn, the pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Druid Hill Avenue, where Mrs. Middleton was a member for decades.

Mrs. Middleton began her education in McClellanville at the Lincoln Graded School and was a 1938 graduate of the Avery Normal Institute, founded in 1865 in Charleston as the first accredited secondary school in the city for African Americans.

While at Avery, she met and fell in love with a classmate, John Marion Middleton, whom she married in 1943. Prior to her marriage, she worked during World War II in the Charleston Naval Shipyard.

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“She was a regular Rosie the Riveter,” Ms. Middleton said.

Mrs. Middleton’s spiritual life began early as she attended Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in her hometown, where her father was pastor, and after her family moved to Charleston, she was a member of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Black churches in the country, where she was a member of the senior Sunday school class and sang with the junior choir.

In 2015, the church gained national attention when a gunman entered the sanctuary and killed nine African Americans who were attending a Bible study class.

Her husband, was an executive with the Boy Scouts of America, and after he was transferred in 1954 to Portsmouth, Virginia, she joined the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she was a member of the Chancel Choir. Founded in 1772, the church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The couple and their family moved to Baltimore in 1964 when her husband accepted another assignment with the Boy Scouts and settled in East Baltimore near Patterson Park.

Mrs. Middleton joined Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church and later Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she remained an active member until her death.

“Mother Middleton was a kind woman and a hardworking churchwoman and a stalwart here for a very long time, as is her family who are very dutiful members,” Reverend Dr. Clayborn said.

During the early 1970s, Mrs. Middleton was an office worker for the Social Security Administration in downtown Baltimore and then took a job at Johns Hopkins Hospital as a nursing assistant, until retiring in 1980.

Mrs. Middleton maintained a lifelong interest in history.

“She was always interested in history and collected articles about African American history long before it became popular,” her daughter said. “And she always had been very supportive of the civil rights movement and women’s movement. Her real passion was history.”

Interested in her family’s African ancestry and at the urging of a cousin, Dr. William Jenkins, she agreed to be tested after she celebrated her 100th birthday. Results revealed that she shared genetic ancestry with the Fula people of Guinea-Bissau on West Africa’s Atlantic coast, and also had genetic connections to the Mende people and Temne people, both in Sierra Leone, and the Mandinka in West Africa.

Mrs. Middleton, who drove a car until having an accident and then gave it up, enjoyed taking auto trips with family and friends, her daughter said.

In earning centenarian status, she attributed her good health to following no one particular regimen.

“Her mother was a master gardener, and she grew up eating vegetables from her mother’s organic garden and eating lots of seafood. She also took long walks down to the Atlantic Ocean,” Ms. Middleton said. “She did not drink or smoke, ate modestly, and there were no extremes. She also liked walking and exercising regularly in Fells Point.”

Mrs. Middleton was thought to be a lifelong Democrat, her daughter said, with a laugh. “My father was a Republican.”

“One of the last things she did was vote. She never missed a chance to vote,” Ms. Middleton said. “She remained mentally active until her fall in December.”

Mrs. Middleton’s husband died in 2003.

In recalling the long life of her friend, Ms. Lane cited a proverb from Mali, West Africa: “When an old woman dies, a library burns to the ground.”

“Edna had so much joy and wisdom, and now she has a place in the earth. She has gone back there,” Ms. Lane said.

Funeral services will be held at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at March Funeral Home East, 1101 E. North Ave., Baltimore.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two sons, Henry J. Middleton of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and John Earl Middleton of San Diego, California; another daughter, Sherrilyn E. Moore of Washington Hill: three grandchildren; two great-granddaughters; and many nieces and nephews.

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