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October 20, 2014

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Living Las Vegas:

Now 90, twin sisters back together under one roof, loving and living life

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Sam Morris

Twins Velma McKenney, left, and Thelma Woods celebrate their 90th birthday with family and friends Saturday, July 28, 2012.

Thelma and Velma: 90-Year-Old Twins

Twins Thelma Woods, left, and Velma McKenney celebrate their 90th birthday Saturday, July 28, 2012. Launch slideshow »

It was a simple question: Who is the prettier twin?

“Me,” Thelma Woods said without a skipping a beat.

“Oh, shoot!” said her twin sister, Velma McKenney. “Why you think that? And we look alike.”

Las Vegas residents Woods and McKenney, who both turned 90 on Saturday, share more than their appearance. The twins grew up during the Great Depression, followed the civil rights movement closely and lived to see the nation’s first black president.

They grew up in New Orleans during a time when the banks closed and finances were tight. But there would always be enough food on the table for family and friends.

“It could be beans and rice,” McKenney said of their Depression-era diet. “Or cabbage and rice, or meatballs and rice.”

Although they can afford more than rice now, the twins keep the tradition, making sure their home is stocked with food for people who visit.

At school, the twins were almost indistinguishable, wearing identical outfits every day. That also got them into trouble.

One day, the teacher directed a question to Woods but McKenney stood up instead to answer it. McKenney did not know the answer, and Woods received a zero on her grade. The teacher found out about the switch, and the twins were placed in separate classrooms.

Another time, McKenney’s boyfriend came over to her house. Mistaking Woods for his date, the boy gave Woods a kiss on the cheek and was surprised by the confused response.

Both twins married veterans of World War II. Woods would have seven children, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. McKenney had one child, two granddaughters and one great-granddaughter.

Growing up in the segregated South, it was unthinkable for the twins to mingle with white people. They would sit upstairs in theaters, where the heat would rise, while the white people sat below.

McKenney said she never owned a bathing suit, and by the time the beaches were desegregated, she no longer had the desire to go.

For the most part, the twins kept a low profile during the civil rights movement while keeping up with the news and hoping for change.

“We didn’t have trouble because we didn’t make trouble,” Woods said.

In 1951, Woods moved with her family to Basilone Homes, a veterans housing project in Los Angeles. McKenney and her family followed not long after.

The first election the twins took interest in was in 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran for president. The twins had not been allowed to vote in New Orleans, but as proud Democrats, they supported Kennedy. Finally, they had a president who supported black people, they felt.

McKenney remembers the day Kennedy died. She was working at a sewing factory, and the workers were let out for the day. She returned home to find her family by the television, distraught about the news. They later would hear about the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., pioneers in the civil rights movement.

In 1992, Los Angeles erupted in riots after the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King. Fortunately for the twins, their neighborhood was spared from the violence and destruction, and they stayed away from the rioting.

They see the same pattern emerging with the upcoming trial in Florida of George Zimmerman, who is accused of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. If Zimmerman is acquitted, McKenney said, rioting could occur again.

In 2004, the twins, who had already spent most of their lives together, decided to move to Las Vegas.

“We love Vegas,” Woods said. “The only thing I find fault with Vegas: Every morning you hear of so many accidents, so many killings, shootings.”

After their husbands died, the twins moved under the same roof. Their bond remains as strong as ever.

One day, McKenney went to the supermarket but felt terrible about leaving Woods. She returned early and found Woods, who is diabetic, lying on the floor. McKenney called 911.

“If I hadn’t come back in time, she’d be dead,” McKenney said.

Not everything about the twins is the same. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Woods supported Barack Obama’s candidacy from the beginning. McKenney was leaning toward Hillary Clinton and had to be persuaded to support Obama.

“Oh lawd, it was a thrill!” Woods said of Obama’s election. “It was really making history.”

Tears streamed down Woods’ face that night, but McKenney, less sentimental, just felt happy. Their only regret was that their husbands were not alive to see the day.

“We fuss, but then the next minute, we’re speaking,” Woods said. “We think alike. I can almost, sometimes, think what she’s thinking.”

The twins’ journey through life has been a study of parallels, from the Great Depression to the global recession, from Rodney King to Trayvon Martin, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama.

They credit their longevity to abstaining from drinking and smoking, as well as a diet rich in rice.

And most important, they have their family — and each other — to live for.

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