A salute to seven noted women of Rosedale

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For this Women’s History Month, we introduce to many, and re-introduce to others, seven noted Black women of Rosedale. Although to many, seven is a lucky number, the number in this instance is based upon a corps of women who have been overlooked in a large sense, but who have loomed larger than life in their community. The writer is particularly honored to salute these seven because of his first-hand knowledge of how special each has been to his hometown of Rosedale.

It is somewhat ironic that they all grew up within five years of one another. They all grew up breathing the clear air of Rosedale and drinking purified water from the Mississippi River, causing the writer to wonder, “was there something in the water or something in the air” during those years that helped produce them. 

Regardless of the responsible agent(s), we present these outstanding women, knowing that there were others who have contributed in their own ways as well. We have presented some of them in an article saluting Black teachers, some in an article saluting Black health care professionals, and some as relatives and care-takers. Others will be presented in the future under other captions. The major point is this small delta town, nestled on the Mississippi River, has produced many of whom it can be proud.

The women whom we herein salute grew up or began their celebrated careers as Ella Brown, Gloria Green, Elnora Howard, Vera McCloud, Mildred Netter, Blanch Phillips, and Evelyn Shaw. That is how their families and classmates remember them. From this point forward, however, we will refer to them by their current names – Ella Johnson, Gloria Green, Elnora Littleton, Vera Moore, Mildrette White, Blanch Turnage, and Evelyn Williams.

We begin with MRS. ELLA BROWN JOHNSON, MRS. VERA MCCLOUD MOORE, and MRS. EVELYN SHAW WILLIAMS. This trio, along with one Black eighth grader and two Black first graders, marched their way into history through the single episode of de-segregating Rosedale High School. Their courage, intellect, and tenacity show these were no ordinary youngsters. They were indeed heroic young citizens. Their names should long be remembered in their hometown and wherever justice and the pursuit of equal educational opportunities are appreciated.

More than a decade after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, these young ladies and their families summoned the courage to desegregate the high school in 1965. At that time, Rosedale, like the rest of Mississippi and the South, was deeply rooted in racial segregation and all the rest of the baggage that characterized racism and Jim Crow. The KKK was quite active in the area; Southern politicians in Washington had issued the Southern Manifesto, vowing to never accept integration; Black adults were punished economically and physically for attempting to register to vote; white leaders, such as Rosedale’s own Walter Sillers, gained wealth and power, and made names for themselves by not just railing against the movement toward civil rights for Black people, but by actively exploiting and oppressing them.

When this trio – Ella Johnson, Vera Moore, and Evelyn Williams – entered the previously all-white high school as seniors, there were no teachers, administrators, staff members, or students displaying friendly faces. Their faces were stony and unfriendly. As a matter of fact, for the safety of these Black students, federal marshals were brought in to accompany them. They and their families were negatively marked both on and off the campus. Yet, they stuck it out day after day to complete the challenge as pioneering Black students.

Despite their successful efforts in the classroom, neither was accorded their due scholastic/academic recognition. For example, there is testimony and written records showing Johnson had earned the grades to be the valedictorian. The Black students, however, were denied honors because, according to the administrators, they had not spent four years as members of the graduating class. This kind of discriminatory treatment was experienced by other Black students in other school districts. It reflected the atmosphere that was existing. 

Just as badly as they had been treated at the all-white school, the heroic efforts of these Black students have been neglected in the city over the years. It is almost as if they never existed or made sacrifices for Black people there and everywhere. 

At other end of the timeline covered by this article stands MS. GLORIA GREEN. She attended and graduated from West Bolivar High School in Rosedale, which remained all-Black until Alexander vs. Holmes in 1969. From there, she went on to Tougaloo College and to the University of Mississippi law school. The mastering of these things, which may seem ordinary now, were quite unusual in the Black Rosedale of the 1960s. In those days there were usually only 12 to 20 students graduating each year from the entirety of western Bolivar County, some 17 communities. The vast majority of Black teenagers dropped out, got local jobs and began families, joined the military, or left for urban areas north, east, or west. 

By graduating from high school, college, and law school, she became indeed an exceptional Black Rosedalian. It made her the first Black female from Rosedale to become an attorney. Due to her ability to immediately become licensed, her success as a young attorney and the area’s tremendous need for legal representation, Green was hired by North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. After a successful stint with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, first as a paralegal and then as an attorney, she was chosen as an assistant attorney general, serving under Jim Hood until his unsuccessful run for governor. Her service in the Jackson office of Hood made her one of the few Black females to serve in that capacity. She was also first Black Rosedalian to occupy such a position. These accomplishments entitle her to be listed among the noted individuals from the city of Rosedale. She stands head and shoulders above most of her contemporaries. 

Joining the four women above is REV. ELNORA LITTLETON. After graduating from college, she returned to Rosedale and began working for the Bolivar County Head Start Program. The importance of the head start program for western Bolivar County can hardly be overstated. At that time there were no educational opportunities for Black children who were below school age. They therefore often entered first grade with little to no academic preparation. Similarly, many Black children were without adequate nutrition, making it difficult to concentrate and learn even if they were at a “teaching” day care. The Head Start programs attended to both of those deficiencies. 

Fortunately, Littleton had a love for the work and was gifted in the delivery of the needed services. This resulted in her being quickly appointed as the program’s executive director where she was able to help develop it into one of the largest and most effective programs in the state. That accomplishment assured her a place in Rosedale and Bolivar County history. 

Beyond that, even as she served the county, she went on to become a minister and soon developed one of the largest Black religious congregations in the county, Changing Your World Ministries. For years now, she has pastored the church and continued to direct the head start program. Although she was not Rosedale’s first Black female pastor, she has made quite a name for herself in that capacity.

Then there is MRS. MILDRETTE WHITE, who left Rosedale for college at Alcorn State University. While at Alcorn, she built on an exceptional record from West Bolivar High School as a sprinter. While in high school, she set quite a few state records as a sprinter. At Alcorn, due to the state of its facilities, she trained with the track and field team at Tennessee State University in the hope of earning a spot on the U.S.A. Olympics team. Because of her abilities, she was selected for the 1968 Olympic Track and Field Team.

Watching footage of the event in 1968, it is clear that she was a star on the women’s track team. With that team she won a gold medal for the 4 x 4 run. During her leg of the run, not only did she make up for the distance lost by the runner before her, she put her team ahead for the last leg of the run. She went on to several other international meets where she won other medals, although that gold medal assured her place in history. 

It happened that during the time of the 1968 Summer Olympics there were Black protests against American racism. Black sociologist Harry Edwards had proposed a Black boycott of the Olympic games in Mexico City. The idea was widely covered in the media. The team itself discussed it at length, with individual athletes being pressured to boycott their event(s). It was in the midst of the tension of those efforts that she made her mark.

As we write this article there is a bit of irony in the fact that one of her sisters in law, MRS. BLANCH TURNAGE, is also among the seven Black women saluted in this article. Mrs. Blanch Turnage graduated from West Bolivar High School in 1966 and headed to Coahoma Community College that Fall. Then after receiving a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University, she returned home. 

Back in Rosedale, she immediately became involved in the civil rights movement as a campaigner and organizer. This was a time when the Black Power Movement was very popular. It was in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. One of her friends and a candidate whom she supported, Johnny Todd, ran for mayor and became the first Black mayor of Rosedale. (During his college days at Jackson State University, he had been called “Little Stokely” because of his militancy.) Based upon her activism and the new atmosphere, she was elected as a city council woman during his second term. That election put her in history as the first woman to ever serve on the city council. Later, during the J.Y. Trice administration, she was appointed as the first-ever vice mayor, another history-making achievement .

Years after her service on the city council, she organized for the first time in history the West Bolivar County Ushers’ Association. The ushers’ group serves at funerals across most of Bolivar County, being based in Rosedale, but traveling as far south as Lamont and as far north as Round Lake. In between her service as a political activist and the ushers’ association leader, she served as a social studies teacher and education consultant.

These seven Rosedale women were all history-makers in their times. We would do well to remember and honor them for the noted accomplishments above. 

 At the same time, it is noteworthy that these capable and accomplished women continue to remain active in and around Rosedale. Turnage continues to serve as a major political activist for local, state and national candidates. She has worked to help elect each Democratic Presidential candidate from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama to Joe Biden; both Mike Espy and Bennie Thompson to the House of Representatives; and the occupants of various state Senate and House seats. Her organizing has also led her to champion ballot initiatives such as changing the state flag, fully funding MAEP, and extending Medicaid. This, along with heading the West Bolivar County Ushers’ Association and serving as the first female head of the Gospel Temple Baptist Church Board of Trustees, keeps her quite busy.

Similarly, White is very active in the Alcorn State University Alumni Association, both locally and nationally. Additionally, as a result of remaining physically fit and enjoying sprinting, she has won gold medals in the senior category of runners in the Memphis, Tennessee, area several years in a row. Meanwhile, Alcorn State University has named its track in her honor and enshrined her in the Alcorn State University Hall of Fame. The West Bolivar School District has erected a historical marker on the grounds of the high school in her honor and the city of Rosedale has named a street in her honor.

Green continues to practice law in the Jackson area. She is now with the law firm, Walker Group, PC. Serving with that firm, she has been catapulted into the Jackson political spotlight. Earlier this month, she won the praise and admiration of many by the way in which she has represented Richard’s Disposal, Inc., as it sought the original contract to collect garbage in the city of Jackson and repeated that feat twice, despite vocal opposition from several council persons. In the midst of the controversy, which was most persistent around the effort, she has received only praise for her knowledge and composure in the process.

As indicated above, Littleton remains active both with the Head Start program and the church which she pastors. Her political influence is also recognized in the town and the county.

Finally, rather than resting on her laurels as a pioneer in the Rosedale school desegregation effort, Johnson studied accounting at Delta State University and became a very competent bookkeeper and accountant. As the racial conditions changed in Rosedale, she was one of the first persons appointed by Rosedale’s first Black mayor, Johnny Todd. He appointed her as the first Black city clerk in Rosedale’s history. In that position she did such an impressive job until she was retained throughout Todd’s tenure and that of his successor. As a matter of fact, she perhaps would have continued to remain in the job but for the fact that she was lured away by a gigantically increased salary by the city of Greenville. She remained the city clerk for Greenville from 1998 until her retirement in 2004. After her retirement, Johnson moved to the Jackson Metropolitan area, where she continues to utilize her training and experience in finance, bookkeeping, and accounting. She is an entrepreneur and tax consultant. Since 2008, she has filed Compliance Reports and Financial Statements for the Office of the State Auditor.

Again, we are pleased and honored to salute these women not only because this is Women’s History Month. We are also pleased because we are hereby counteracting the manner in which they have been neglected. 

After searching “Rosedale, Mississippi” via Google and Wikipedia, it was most disappointing to see that not a one of these women was mentioned among the noted individuals from Rosedale. There were two Black athletes and two Black musicians listed. There was one Black minister and politician listed. There were four white men who were cited for their economic and political stances, some of which had negative racial overtones. There were two white women listed, both of whom were somewhat standard-bearers of white supremacy.

By contrast to those 11 listings, in the case of the seven Black women saluted above, each was saluted because of what they did to advance democracy, racial progress, and human relations. Hopefully, this can help to end their being neglected and others will add to the stories and also bring forth other positive individuals who have been neglected. 

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A salute to seven noted women of Rosedale

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
April 1, 2024