The Grassroots of Grassroots
The following event and interview took place on June 16, 2010:
The crowd gathers as music plays and banners are posted–all in anticipation of Mrs. Willie Mae Shirley’s arrival. This celebration is a surprise for a beloved woman who has lived at this very house for 85 years. Today, Mrs. Shirley turns 87, but as she arrives chauffeured in a Ford Crown Victoria, it is evident that she has the spunk and pizazz that could rival those 40 years younger. It is also evident that she is definitely surprised by this event. As she exits the car, the crowd draws near to hug and greet the birthday girl. She approaches a table that has been set up just for her. Right on cue, someone brings a huge birthday cake for her that reads “Happy Birthday Mother Dear.”
The program begins once the honoree is seated. The family explains the purpose of today’s gathering and offers many kind words to Mrs. Shirley. Mayor Harvey Johnson presents a City Council resolution that has been signed by Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman in honor of Mrs. Shirley and her neighbors present a proclamation of the same honor.
Next, Reverend Hosea Hines of Christ Tabernacle Church offers a blessing over the food. The crowd makes its way towards the food and I make my way towards Mrs. Shirley. I must learn more, and more is definitely what I receive.
Mrs. Shirley was born on Clifton Street. She only lived there for 2 years as her dad, Peter Davis, worked for Mr. A.L. Dixon as a mortar mixer.
In 1926, Dixon bought a brick yard. Mrs. Shirley’s dad switched from mixing mortar to making bricks. However, since Mr. Dixon moved the brick yard to West Jackson, Mr. Davis walked from Clifton Street to Sheppard Park every day to work–a walk that totaled four miles round trip.
After walking along the railroad track on his daily journey to and from work, Mr. Davis was inspired by God to pick out a plot of land and build a house near the brick yard.
He picked out the spot that Mrs. Shirley lives in today and built a 4 room house for her, her brother, and her mom.
Mrs. Shirley graduated from Lanier High School in 1941. Since this was the only high school for African Americans in Jackson during a time of racial segregation, she had to walk from Everett Avenue to Lanier every day.
Right after graduating from Lanier in 1941, Mrs. Shirley married Willie Shirley. She met her husband one day walking from College Hill Church after attending a Baptist Young People’s Unit (BYPU) meeting. BYPU is now known as the Baptist Training Union. He was coming from his grandmother’s house on Jones Street. His grandmother’s family had built there in 1891. Mrs. Shirley recalls her first encounter with her husband as follows:
He asked me, ‘young lady, what may be your name?’
I told him “my name is Willie Mae. What’s your name?’
He said “My name is Willie! Hmmm…Willie and Willie Mae. Mind if I walk you down the street?”
So he walked me down the street and from then on we started talking. And after I finished high school, in ’41, we got married. And we moved here with my parents. Then after three months he got an apartment, but I could not live in the apartment. He had to bring me back because everyday I’d come back down here–from Banks Street down here, and when my husband got off work, he’d have to come and get me every evening. And he said, ‘I may as well bring you back down here on Eerie Street where I got you from so you’ll be happy!’ We stayed married for 61 years right here at 1720 Everett Avenue.”
Mayor Johnson comes by to offer a kind goodby to Mrs. Shirley–being sure not forget to extend to her a warm birthday wish. “Thank you so much, love you baby” is her response and she continues with her story.
“My community is so precious” she warmly proclaims. Of course, her own deeds show how much the community means to her. She currently serves as Vice President of the Washington Addition Neighborhood Association. In the past, she has served as a poll worker where she was co-manager for her poll site for approximately 15 years before the location moved to Davis Temple where she worked for even more years.
“We try to keep the community up. We do things we think will help each other and stand by each other”
I ask Mrs. Shirley about a Community House located on Booker Street that I had heard of. She explains that the community house project is a result of an initiative started some years ago by Mayor Harvey Johnson. He requested representatives from different neighborhoods and she served as the representative for Washington Addition.
Just as she began to go into detail about the project, Will Shirley, her son, grabs a microphone to make an announcement to those present for the celebration. “All of you who want bar-b-que chicken, it’s in that black truck back there. All you have to do is go get you some bar-b-que chicken.” I look up and see the black truck that he was referring to. Attached to the truck was an enormous portable grill with more than enough capacity to feed the neighborhood–a challenge that this gathering would meet with delight. Mrs. Shirley resumes her story “they had money and I asked for money for Washington Addition to buy us a place to meet. So $15,000 was granted for Washington Addition. We bought a house on Booker Street [to serve as the community house].”
Just as she was completing her sentence, another voice was heard on the microphone. “May I have your attention for a few minutes?,” said Blonda Mack. “I would like to let everybody in the Washington Addition Area know that Washington Addition has been awarded a historical marker by the Department of Archives and History and we will be a State Landmark Community! [The marker will tell the history of] Gowdy, Mississippi and it will be placed on the corner of Valley and Lynch. I’d like to let everybody know that Mrs. Shirley and myself and Dr. Kimberly Hilliard went to the Department of Archives and History with all kinds of letters from Gowdy, Mississippi…I’m here to tell you that Mrs. Willie Mae Shirley has been a milestone in this neighborhood. If it weren’t for her…She’d have an idea and I’d push her and I’d have an idea and she’d push me!…This all led up to Mrs. Shirley and all of the archives that she had of Gowdy, Mississippi!”
This is great news for this community. Gowdy, Mississippi was a community upon which Washington Addition was built. The community was anchored by a cotton seed oil mill, an industry that was very common in Jackson in the late 19th century. This historical marker will tell this story of one of the early communities in West Jackson.
As soon as Ms. Mack completes her announcement, Mrs. Shirley joyfully shouts “LET’S CELEBRATE!” The crowd applauds amid the many prevalent smiles.
After the celebration subsides, Mrs. Shirley continues to explain the community house. Right now, the neighborhood is trying to rehabilitate the house. The structure was vacant when they acquired it.
Mrs. Mack approaches the microphone for one final announcement: “I’d like to have your attention one more time and I hope not to have to be at this mic again,” she pleads. “I’d like you all to know that at that corner where it is Shirley Avenue, it will be a memorial stone for Mr. Will Shirley!” The crowd cheers and applauds. More good news!
Amid the many things that she is proud of when it comes to Washington Addition and West Jackson, Mrs. Shirley does have one major concern. She would like to see more homeowners in West Jackson.
Mrs. Shirley’s great grandchild runs up to her and asks “when you gonna cut the cake?” Her response is a reassuring “we’re gonna soon do it, we’re gonna soon do it.”
Those are the words that I hope to hear from others when asked about moving to West Jackson–a reassuring “we’re gonna soon do it” followed by sold signs.
Photos from the event (Note: sorry, but the battery on my camera died early in the event so most of these pictures are from my phone):
I was at a fantastic 90th birthday party just the other day, here in the UK