Emma Tillman was born in Gibsonville, North Carolina on 22 November 1892, to parents Alphonso Faust and Martha Gibson, who had Native American ancestry. Both of her parents were born into slavery and worked on a plantation before the Emancipation Proclamation. In total, she was one of 23 children, and a few of her siblings were also very long lived: in addition to two sisters who reached 102, and another who lived to 105, one of her elder brothers, Eugene, died in 1996 at the age of 108, giving them the distinction of being the longest-lived sibling pair in recorded history for over a decade.
In 1900, wanting to escape Jim Crow legislation, the Faust family decided to move to Connecticut, where they settled on a farm in Glastonbury and grew tobacco. They were one of only a few black families living in the area, and Emma was the only nonwhite student at her high school when she graduated in 1909. Despite this, she insisted that she never felt discriminated against due to her skin color. “In Glastonbury, I didn’t know if I was white or black,” she later recalled. “People were just fine, even way back then, to me. They treated me just like everybody else.”
In 1914, she married Arthur Tillman, and had two daughters, Dorris (died 1987) and Marjorie. The couple were married for 25 years before Arthur’s death in 1939. After moving to the city of Hartford in 1918, she initially found work as a cook, maid, and party caterer, before beginning her own baking and catering business. One of her regular customers was Dr. Thomas Hepburn, father of actress Katharine Hepburn. She also baked a cake for Martin Luther King Jr.
She never drank or smoke, and had a lifelong hobby of playing cards. Up until the age of 110, she lived on her own, and visited a local senior center most days to play bridge and socialize. Her 108th birthday was celebrated at a casino, where she refused the aid of a wheelchair and walked around the entire night with just a cane. She would later celebrate her 112th birthday at the same casino.
On her 112th birthday in 2004, she was in good physical and mental shape for her age, although her health would begin to decline over the following two years. By the time of her 114th birthday in 2006, she was wheelchair-bound and less talkative. In December 2006, she became unable to eat on her own, and required intravenous transfusions for a few weeks, although she regained her appetite in her final days. Following the death of Julie Winnefred Bertrand of Canada on 18 January 2007, she became the oldest living woman in the world. Just six days later, following the death of Emiliano Mercado del Toro of Puerto Rico, she became the world’s oldest living person overall. This reign would be short-lived, however, as Tillman herself would die just 4 days later, on 28 January 2007. Following her death, Yone Minagawa of Japan succeeded her as the world’s oldest living person.