Going dancing to Blues and Jazz music on Wednesday and Friday evenings at Grant’s Tomb, Saturdays evenings at various locations and Sundays afternoons at 150th Street and Riverside Drive, listening to Jazz and Blues music 24/7 on WBGO 88.3, going to senior centers and teaching painting, sewing, and jewelry making, may sound like a full plate, but it is the daily fare for 89-year-old June Terry, who will be turning 90 years young this Saturday, June 12.
Terry who lives in midtown Manhattan has done it all in her life. The FIT graduate and licensed practical nurse, was also the first Black woman to work in Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank as a financial analyst, the first Black woman sales person in 1957 in A&S Department Stores, a factory worker and a tailor. Terry designed African clothing adorned by celebrities including Tony Award winner Lillias White and Lena Horne. She also did costumes for the HADLEY Players and Black Wall Street for many years. Her clothing was also showcased in shows in St. Thomas. At 89 she is still creating clothing.
She developed a love for African clothing growing up in Washington, D.C. after seeing African women beautifully dressed in their dresses and headwraps. She was immediately captured by the elegance of their outfits. Seeing her first outfit, she sketched it onto a paper bag. In 1964 working as a practical nurse, she befriended a Liberian woman who was a dietician in the hospital, she lent her an outfit and Terry copied the design. In 1965 she got material from Sierra Leone and made another garment and then she just continued to make them. Terry made daishikis and African outfits for men and women, for weddings and all occasions. She sold them in Black and white communities. Terry was also a model, adorning her own beautiful creations, sporting a natural afro that included her hair coming to a peak. A style she still keeps to this day, after having a barber cut her hair in that way in 1968, after she saw a beautiful Ethiopian woman with the haircut.
1968 is also the year she opened her own store. Taking things to the next level, Terry created her own fashion show called, “Kings and Queens of Africa.” “I had 40 models representing different countries in Africa. We did shows from 1990 in New York until 2006, and we were part of the Gullah Festival in South Carolina for many years starting from 1992,” Terry shared. Encouraging her people to embrace the beauty of African clothing, Terry would often create African outfits for students to wear at school for Black History Month. “In school for Black History Month I would dress the little kids up in their wrap skirts and daishikis and the parents were pleased and would ask to buy the outfits. I gave them to them. I’m a giver. I love people. My African name is Serantun—it means love and sweet. I love my people and the sweetness is in my clothes,” Terry remarked. Terry is known to some as being in the 1960 edition of Ebony magazine, where she appeared in a hair ad, sporting her afro.
Terry was one of six children to Anna Turner and Avery Terry. Though her parents were born in Virginia, they relocated to Washington D.C. to raise their six children. Anna was a maid, while Avery was a tailor and taught the art to June, though she recalled he only had a 4th grade education and learned everything else on his own. Anna and Avery’s children were Geraldine, Albert, Lenard, Avery, June and Zina. June and Zina are the remaining children.
At 89 Terry has a very rigorous routine, “I wake up at 11 a.m., have breakfast––oatmeal and raisins. I eat greens and salads, do exercise classes on Zoom. I haven’t eaten meat since 1974. Then I go up to Grand Concourse and are with the seniors, teaching jewelry making and how to create clothing, I bring my actress friends to perform—singing, scenes, I have done 15 paintings and I teach painting,” she said. She also loves to walk to Lincoln Center and see their outdoor concerts.
Travel is something she also enjoys as she has been to France, Africa, Italy, Japan, Spain, and St. Thomas, just to name a few places. Dancing four days a week on Wednesdays, and Fridays through Sundays is something that Terry continues to enjoy. “I’ve had a pacemaker for seven years and it doesn’t slow me down,” she exclaimed.
Terry is the very proud mother of six children––Yvonne and Yvette-identical twins, Gerald Durant, Frances Maria, Royecca, and Kito. She also has six grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Considering the life lessons she wants them to learn, she shared, “Always stay positive, love yourself, don’t follow fades, dress the way you want to. Try to wear natural hair, read good books for culture, travel if you can. Be the best you can in life. Try to achieve your goal to understanding other people. Always keep the faith.”
The secret to a long life according to Terry is, “Stay positive, have faith. Spread love among people who need it. Recognize your culture. Get a job that will help pay for your education. In the olden days in the South one person went to college and then pulled up the next one. That’s something that should still be happening. We should still be pulling each other up.”
Discussing her life and family, Terry shared, “My life has been full. I’ve been blessed by God to spread love and arts. My daughters go dancing with me and I can hang with the young kids too. When dancing I can bop, do the chicken, and walk the dog. I wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and I say, ‘Hey your still here!’”
On Saturday, June 12, four generations of the family will come together to celebrate Terry’s 90th birthday. Terry proclaimed, “We’ve always been a happy, dancing, fashionable family. We all go to everything together.” She shared that she hopes to live to be 100 years old. I hope her dream comes true and Happy Birthday!