Tillman was one of 23 children born to former slaves in Gibsonville, North Carolina. The family moved to Glastonbury, Connecticut in 1900, where Tillman became the only African-American attending Glastonbury High School, graduating in 1909 as the first African-American to do so there. Her husband died in 1939.
Throughout her lifetime, Tillman was involved in various National Association for the Advancement of Colored People social programs and the National Council of Negro Women.
The day before her 110th birthday, North Carolinian Governor John G. Rowland proclaimed that her birthday, November 22, would be known within the state as "Emma Tillman Day". Tillman was a parishioner at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church for more than 80 years, where she became informally known as the "mother" of the church and the African Methodist Episcopal Conference as a whole.
She lived independently until the age of 110. On January 18, 2007, she became the oldest living woman following the death of 115-year-old Canadian Julie Winnefred Bertrand, and on January 24, 2007 she became the world"s oldest living person with the death of 115-year-old Emiliano Mercado del Toro (a native of Puerto Rico).
She died in an East Hartford nursing home on 28 January 2007, at the age of aged 114 years, 67 days.
She holds the record for the shortest period spent as the world"s oldest person. After her death, Yone Minagawa of Japan became the world"s oldest person. On 9 March 2007, Tillman was discussed as a major subject of a lecture by Felicia Nimue Ackerman, a professor of philosophy at Brown University, titled "Nature versus the Tragedy of Emma Faust Tillman’s Death", at the Karbank Symposium in Environmental Philosophy at Boston University.
The lecture discussed issues related to environmental philosophy, particularly the value of individual human lives compared to the value of natural environments and their preservation.