Someone was working on the computer in Zell Long’s office at City Hall in Tupelo, so she led me into another office. “I don’t like a desk between us,” she said, sitting down in an armchair directly beside my chair.
We talked about a couple of her children, then, breaking into a broad, warm smile, she reminded me that she had eight children, and one grandchild.
Q: Do you come from a large family yourself?
A: (Big smile.) I am the youngest of 18 children, all by the same mother and father. There are 14 of us living.
People say I’m trying to keep up with my mother. But I have one sister who has 10. Ten of my brothers and sisters still belong to the same church where we were raised. They eat together every Sunday after church.
Q: Do you see them often?
A: No, but I get so excited about going home to be with them. I hate packing, and there’re so many of us now that we can’t go in one vehicle, but I do go home for special days. We’re close.
That’s what I try to instill in my children. Family. We can always be there for each other.
Q: You lived on a farm?
A: Yes. My mother loved to tell my boyfriends I could drive a tractor. I had to feed the hogs, pull corn, chop cotton, milk cows, pluck chickens.
I tell my children they don’t know what work is. I tell them if I had a wish, I wish they could spend two weeks on a farm doing what we did.
Q: How do you manage meals?
A: We eat when I finish cooking. It seems like at my house, the kids are always eating.
Q: Did you grow up Holiness?
A: No, I grew up in the Methodist church. Church was always a part of our lives. My mother was the church secretary until she died. As long as I can remember we went to church every Sunday morning and night and Wednesday night.
Q: When did you become Holiness?
A: J.B. was Baptist, and I joined his church when we got married. There was a lady who began to show me some Scriptures. Acts 19 was what convinced me. “Have you received the Holy Ghost since you believed?” I really wanted that assurance that when I died I would go to heaven. One night I came home from church and said, “Guess what?” J.B. said, “I know. You got the Holy Ghost.”
Then he started going. That was in 1976 when both of us received the Holy Ghost. Now he’s an evangelist.
Q: Can all your children sing like you?
A: Juan is the only one who can’t sing. And he’s the only one gone from home.
Q: Do y’all ever sing together?
A: When J.B. goes to minister some place, he’ll call me and the kids to come sing. At home, my brothers and sisters make up the majority of the choir at home right now. My dad had a great love for music. He would watch Lawrence Welk. That’s when first saw the Mills Brothers.
Q: Do you sometimes sing by yourself?
A: Yes. And, I like listening to gospel music. Shirley Caesar is one of my favorites because she’s not strayed from the traditional.
Q: When did you start working for the city?
A: In 1976. I got saved in January and got hired in March. It all flowed together. They interviewed me on a Saturday morning. I came back later and met with Mayor Whitaker. I learned later they “had” to hire a black, a minority. I started out being the first. It will be 20 years the 26th of March.
There were disappointments over the years, but I always really believed the Lord placed me here. I do my work as unto the Lord first. And if it pleases him, it should please men.
I use my salvation in every aspect of life, and I try to treat people how I want to be treated.
Q: Did you attend segregated schools growing up?
A: I didn’t go to an integrated school until I attended ICC and Ole Miss. Basically, when I went into the workplace, I was for the first time with a lot of whites. But my parents taught me I could attempt whatever I wanted to. So I didn’t feel intimidated. When I grew up, we had some white neighbors, and I played with the daughter. So I didn’t feel the pressure.
One thing that bothered me growing up was that I had to call my friend’s parents Mr. and Mrs., but when she came to my house, she called my folks by their first names.
Q: Did you experience any prejudicial action against you?
A: Not really. But I was in the band when I was in college, and I carried the state flag. We went to Detroit and blacks were yelling at me, cursing me, and saying, “Why you carrying that flag?”
(Big smile.) I remember once my white friend came to the house and called my mother “Gillie.” (That was her name.) My sister and I told her she had to say “Miss Gillie” and she did.
I guess my mother did things she had to do to survive, but she taught us we could do better. She was very special.
She was also a licensed midwife. People didn’t have very much to pay her. They gave her what they could. No matter what time day or night she’d go out. We never heard either of our parents refuse to help anyone.
Q: Do you see your children being as close as you are to your siblings?
A: Yes, they’ve got that camaraderie. Jason, Carman and Juan, they sit up to the wee hours of the night laughing and talking together.
Q: What’s the secret of having a good family?
A: I think the most important thing is just loving each other. We pray together. I give the credit to the Lord. We try to teach them how to love and respect each other, to laugh at themselves. I tell them if they can laugh at themselves, it won’t hurt so bad when others laugh at them.
One thing that’s helped with me and J.B. working full time is that they have to take care of each other. When Juan learned to drive, he was the chauffeur for the rest. The older ones take care of the younger ones. That’s the way it was when I was growing up.
Q: Do your children always want to go to church?
A: It’s not a matter where they want to go to church. They just go. Juan isn’t at home and I can’t make him go. But he goes.
I don’t think the Scripture gives us parents a choice. It says to bring up a child in the way he should go. It puts that responsibility on the parents.
Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our community, particularly the schools?
A: I’m very optimistic. J.B. finished at Carver so when Juan went to the ninth grade we paid the tuition for him to attend city schools. We did the same with the others.
Five were in gifted classes, and six are on the honor roll every time. Their daddy tells them there are no obstacles. And, if a C is the best they can do, okay. But, if they can make an A, that’s what we expect.
We’re just so proud of them all. And that’s important. Letting them know we’re proud of them.