When Bernice King was born, Theodore Roosevelt was president. When she was 11, the armistice ending World War One was signed. In the time since, she has been a costume designer, a jazz enthusiast and a world traveler.
At an April party celebrating her 108th birthday at her current home, the Manhattanville Health Care Center on West 231st Street, she said she was happy to pause for a moment and enjoy her surroundings.
“I once was a singer. I once was a dancer,” said Ms. King, who was wearing a plastic diadem that evoked her glory days. “Today, I am just very happy to be with you,” she told a gathering of staff, family members and fellow residents — including two other celebrating centenarians.
Her nephew Henry Coshburn described Ms. King’s upbringing in Flushing on land that once belonged to a family farm. She attended St. George’s Episcopal Church on Main Street with her sister until her teens, in keeping with family tradition.
“It so happened that, right when they were about to complete their confirmation class, the director pulled them aside and told them, ‘I’m sorry, you’re black. You can’t be confirmed into the church here,’” Mr. Coshburn recounted.
The sisters left the church on the spot. Many years later, Ms. King joined the Methodist church.
“Going through life as a black American at that time, there would be things you were exposed to,” Mr. Coshburn, 79, said. “You can be traumatized or you can move on. My aunt belongs to the school of moving on.”
From Flushing, Ms. King moved on to the Pratt Institute, where she graduated with a degree in costume design in 1928. Although opportunities were few for women, especially African Americans, at the time, Ms. King had a successful 25-year run designing children’s clothing, Mr. Coshburn said.
She relished trips to Europe and Asia with her sister and worked on artistic sewing and painting projects. Her favorite subject was children, though she was unable to have her own.