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Zellar Gaines, 96, sips tea at the Golden Girls Luncheon at Mount Mariah United Methodist Church on Tuesday.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Zellar Gaines, 96, sips tea at the Golden Girls Luncheon at Mount Mariah United Methodist Church on Tuesday.

Rewarding
golden girls

Races, cultures come together as church honors senior members, other women of the community

By Ronnie Thomas
rthomas@decaturdaily.com 340-2438

TALUCAH — Tucked amid oaks and scraggly pines, the old tin-topped, wood-framed church building crumbles about 100 yards off the road.

Some of the letters spelling the proud name of Mariah are barely detectable on a rusted metal sign attached to the front. A small cross is visible at the bottom of the sign.

Mount Mariah United Methodist Church, established in 1888, replaced that building with a brick sanctuary in 1981. It rests out front of the decaying structure on Mount Mariah Circle, which rests on a bend of the Tennessee River in northeast Morgan County.

At a recent luncheon in the fellowship hall, the church honored its three senior members, who attended services in the old building. They overcame incredible injustices as their country turned its back on them, but they marched with defiance and dignity through the civil rights era.

Arine Looney, 86, and Millie Jordan, 84, sat at the head table, on either side of the oldest member, Zellar Gaines, 96.

The day's organizer, Charlene Gaines, invoked an African proverb, "It takes a village ..." to praise the women plus other women who support the church community.

She called them golden girls, a name taken from the luncheon title. The luncheon drew white and black women. The Rev. Kelvin Jones called the occasion a coming together of races and cultures.

His wife, Gwen Jones, president of Mount Mariah's United Methodist Women, said the women were more than golden girls. In her welcoming address, she aligned their service to the church — and their struggles for themselves and their race — with patriotism.

"We honor you for the patriots you have been," she said.

Zella Gaines was involved with sit-ins in Huntsville and recalls that a department store refused to let her get Easter clothes.

"I loved to buy for Easter," she said, "and I had a lot on lay-a-way and couldn't get it. But a friend finally went in and got it for me."

Of the honor, she said, "It means everything with God. I can't leave him out."

Jordan, who now lives in Somerville, was born and raised at Talucah.

"We had to walk to a little school and to church here, the old one out back. We had Sunday school every week and church services twice a month," she said. "I was 15 when I joined. At one time, they talked about restoring that old building."

Jordan recalls drinking at water fountains labeled "Colored Only" and waiting for a doctor in separate rooms. But she said it was a trend that Dr. William Block of Hartselle ended in his office.

"He said we'd all sit together, and we did," she said. "And he was a white doctor from Mississippi."

The church also honored white residents, Marie Crowder and Margaret Henderson, both 81, known in the community as longtime friends and supporters of Mount Mariah.

"I grew up close to Marie and Margaret," Jordan said.

Area native Roxie May Gurley, 86, lived through the ugliness of both the North and the South during the Civil Rights struggle. She worked as a cook in a cafeteria in Detroit for 39 years and witnessed the horrific riot.

"I watched houses burn," she said. "You never forget that."

And even today, she recalls the start of that tragedy with painful personal memories of another. On the same day — July 20, 1967 — she lost her nephew, Pfc. Thomas Gurley of Somerville, in Vietnam.

She returned to her roots in 1998.

"I'm glad to be home," she said.

Looney doesn't hear well and doesn't talk much anymore, said her daughter Rezella Chatman. But Looney said from the car as she prepared to leave, "It's great to think of old people this way."

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