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Centenarian Bennie Fleming reflects on her dedication to a life of service


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: Finally tonight, as Women's History Month comes to a close, the next in our series, Hidden Histories. Tonight, Michelle San Miguel of Rhode Island PBS Weekly introduces us to a woman who embodies what it means to live a life of service, even when that service wasn't always welcome.

Michelle San Miguel: At the age of 100, Bennie Fleming knows by heart all the notes to "Over the Rainbow," a song that, much like her own life story, embodies hope. But the life that Fleming's created for herself in Providence is one, she says, she never could have imagined as a child.

Bennie Fleming: That's the family home in San Antonio, Texas, which was just sold four years ago.

Michelle San Miguel: Growing up in South Texas, Fleming dreamed of being a nurse, but she learned it wouldn't be an easy path for a black woman.

Bennie Fleming: There were no hospitals in San Antonio that would hire a nurse, a black nurse. The only thing I could do was private duty, and that was very expensive, and you're doing private duty for black patients, so, you know, you didn't have a lot of people who could afford a private nurse.

Michelle San Miguel: It was 1945, the United States was engulfed in World War II.

No Name Given: Noble women doing a hard job and serving their country in time of need.

Michelle San Miguel: Fleming's friend had joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, and she decided she wanted to do the same. Fleming was 21 when she enlisted in the Army as a second lieutenant. At the time, the armed services were still segregated.

Bennie Fleming: You lived in a black dome while the nurses lived in a white dome. You were separated that way.

Michelle San Miguel: When she was stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, she met the man who would become her husband, Lieutenant Theodore Fleming, a doctor in the Army. The two went on to witness an historic moment. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order banning segregation in the military.

By 1946, Fleming had left the Army and relocated to Providence, Rhode Island, and eventually took a job working full-time at Rhode Island Hospital's School of Nursing. But after two years --

Bennie Fleming: Somebody came into my husband's office and said, I see you've got your wife working. That was it. I had to quit.

Michelle San Miguel: Because, your husband did not want you working?

Bennie Fleming: No, he wasn't too happy about it anyway. My husband is just so -- he was of that era. That's my daughter Jackie. My son, Theodore.

Michelle San Miguel: Fleming became a stay-at-home mother for a few years, raising her two children, and then made a career change.

Bennie Fleming: I decided, well, maybe if I went into public education, maybe that would help. Because I would be out the same time that my kids would be out.

Michelle San Miguel: For more than four decades, she served in various roles, from teaching to overseeing the district science curriculum. She also made history as the first black nurse to teach at Rhode Island Hospital. Service, she said, is in her blood.

Bennie Fleming: I was taught that you give something back.

Michelle San Miguel: Fleming remains sharp and mobile at 100. She still drives and goes for a two-mile walk in Providence three times a week. She lives with her 75-year-old son. She credits him with being able to maintain a high quality of life.

Bennie Fleming: I'm so lucky because people my age are stuck in nursing homes, nobody to see them, nobody to do anything for them, but yet I still have people around me, and I have young people around me.

Michelle San Miguel: As you reflect on your life, the people you've met, the experiences that you've had, what is the most important lesson you think that you've learned?

Bennie Fleming: You have to be kind. I try not to hurt people's feelings, and I know my kids don't think that. And I try not to get into people's business.

Michelle San Miguel: She says she remains focused on enjoying her own.

Bennie Fleming: At this stage in my life, happiness is all I'm looking for.

Michelle San Miguel: For "PBS News Weekend," I'm Michelle San Miguel in Providence, Rhode Island.

John Yang: And that is "PBS News Weekend" for this Saturday. I'm John Yang. For all of my colleagues, thanks for joining us. See you tomorrow.


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