Ruth Sweeting Walkes, the oldest living graduate of Booker T. Washington High School and a longtime member of Christ Episcopal Church, died July 26 at Mercy Hospital in Coconut Grove. She was 103.
Her granddaughter, Vandalyn Allen, said the cause was complications from pneumonia.
A stalwart at Christ Episcopal, Walkes had essentially attended the church since birth. She occupied several roles within the church including working in the Altar Guild, which helped sew the shawls displayed on the church’s altar, and president of the Kate S. Dean Chapter of the Daughters of the King, an organization of woman committed to spreading the gospel through prayer, service and evangelism.
“She always went to church, every Sunday,” Allen said, adding that one time, when she was asked whether she wanted to relocate to California, Walkes responded: “’Would you move my church with you?”
Known for her benevolent spirit, Walkes emphasized caring for the less fortunate during her time leading the Daughters of the King. Prayer was always her first resort but she also sent care packages to the sick every holiday season and collected donations for the Feed the Children Outreach. She later started a soup kitchen in the church that served members who had fallen ill.
Walkes was born Dec. 1, 1916, in Miami. She walked to Dade County Training School in Coconut Grove from her home in Sweeting Town, now part of Coral Gables, until eighth grade.
Although there initially wasn’t a high school for Black children, that changed when Booker T. Washington opened prior to the 1926-27 school year. Walkes enrolled several years later, an experience she recounted in a 2017 interview with the Herald celebrating the school’s 90th anniversary.
“I was lucky that my parents could provide daily transportation to Overtown for me to earn my high school diploma,” Walkes said.
Upon her graduation in 1936, Walkes worked in Miami-Dade County Public Schools as a cafeteria manager, a position she held for a quarter of a century. During her more than 40 years with MDPS, she continued her pursuit of higher education first at Miami-Dade Community College, earning an associate of arts degree, then later at what is now Barry University. At 55, she graduated from Barry with a bachelor’s degree in home economics.
That degree landed Walkes a position as a vocational home economics teacher at Southwest Miami High, where she stayed until retiring in June 1982.
Walkes continued being an active member of Christ Episcopal up until her death. Through her time with the Altar Guild, she later discovered another passion: sewing prayer shawls not just for the older members but for graduating seniors on their way to college.
“She would always tell them not to forget [to pray] because they aren’t running away from God by going to college,” Thelma Gibson, a longtime Coconut Grove resident and Christ Episcopal member, recalled.
In her later years, Walkes became blind and partially deaf. Not even that could stop her from attending church, Allen says.
“She didn’t hear the sermon and she couldn’t see who was in the church [but] she still wanted to go regardless,” Allen said.
Walkes is survived by her three children, three grandchildren, five great grandchildren and one great great grandchild.