“Momma” Mack Makes Everyone Feel Like Family By Molly Crusen Bishop

On April 2, 1909, there was a little girl born named Mary Penn in the town of Terry, in Hinds County, Mississippi. Terry is a small town with a population of around 1,000 people, and is located about 15 miles south of the capital Jackson, MS. Settlers from Virginia came to Hinds County around 1811, and in 1867 a railroad was built through what became the town of Terry. Incidentally, the Terry Railroad Depot was built by the Illinois Central Railroad Company. Famed Blues musician Tommy Johnson came from Terry as well. Terry is approximately 2 and a half square land miles, and is divided pretty even racially.

Mary Mack and four of her daughters. Two passed away.

Mary married Isaac Mack and they had 12 children, six boys and six girls. Mary is lovingly called “Momma” Mack, and in telling a part of her story you will fall in love with this truly amazing woman. On a sunny and warm Sunday afternoon it was a blessing to meet her and her family. Mary, Leroy, Oscar, Geneva, Margaret, and granddaughter Karhmen were all there. Mary was quite the cook and baker as well. Her family raved about her fried corn, banana pudding, and sweet potato pie.

“Many black families left places like Terry, and all over down south for a better quality of life and job opportunities,” stated Oscar.

They spoke of remembering President Roosevelt serving 4 terms, and that Roosevelt started social security and the WPA. The WPA was the Works Progress Administration that was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal for America that helped employ many people during the Great Depression. It helped put millions of folks to work on projects of buildings, businesses, and even art, for infrastructure improvements across the United States.

Mary Mack and six sons

Isaac Mack was a sharecropper, and with Mary, brought their eight children to Peoria around 1945 for better job and life opportunities. They had four more children after moving to Peoria. “Many black families left towns like Terry, Mississippi, and headed to northern sections of the U.S., for better quality of life and job and educational opportunities,” said Oscar. “Momma” Mack spoke often to her children about the olden days down south, in Terry Mississippi. Life for her as a youth was surrounded by horse and buggies.

They lived in a small modest home. They used the fireplace as a stove, and owned an ice box refrigerator made of wood, several feet high with one handle on the cabinet door. They would receive the ice delivery and put the huge block of ice wrapped in potato burlap bags, to help make it last longer. They would then put the food in to preserve it. They got their water from a natural spring or a well and washed their clothes on a wood and metal scrub-board and would hang the clothes on a line to dry. They grew almost everything they ate, and remembered many varieties of fruit trees and gardens with fruits and vegetables. “We had a tin roof on our humble house, and I can still remember the rain hitting the tin and the sound it made,” said son Oscar.

Isaac and Mary first lived on Fourth Street, in a house that no longer exists, and he became employed at Caterpillar as an assemblyman. Isaac was a quiet man who taught his children his extraordinary work ethic. He worked at the East Peoria Caterpillar plant and would mainly walk to work every day and go pass the original police station downtown, and stroll on over the Cedar Street Bridge, and occasionally take the bus. Isaac was not the kind of man to sit around. He was always busy working on projects while at home. He would have a rare occasional beer and a Chesterfield once in a while as well, according to daughter Margaret.

They moved to 507 N. Shipman Street, and they attended church at Grace Baptist and mentioned Ward Chapel AME as well. The children attended Lincoln and Roosevelt Elementary Schools. The older children attended Peoria Central High School and then the city changed the school boundaries leaving the younger children attending and graduating from Manual High School. The area they lived in was an average working middle class neighborhood. After World War II, job opportunities were plentiful all around the country, as well as in Peoria, Illinois.

“I was around 10 years old when Mom and Dad brought us to Peoria. We attended church schools in Terry, MS. “When they growing up in Peoria, they said nobody locked their doors and that they always felt safe. Peoria was a wide open town filled with good people from all walks of life,” stated Oscar.

Isaac died of a heart attack at work at the East Peoria Caterpillar Plant in 1954 leaving Mary with many children still at home. She received some social security for the five minor children for a time, but they did not struggle. Mary began to babysit neighborhood children and this is what cemented her legacy as Mother Mack, or “Momma” Mack.

Oscar worked at the Creve Coeur Club in the early fifties doing anything from dishes, to cooking. When he came home from his days in the Army, a cousin asked him if he wanted to work with him at the Peoria Packing Equipment Company, the first week he was home, which he did. Oscar and the other children held a variety of jobs during their youth. Leroy worked for many decades at the Mapleton Caterpillar plant after arriving home from the Army. “Momma”

Mack babysat for several decades. She watched over fifty children, and many who live in different parts of the U.S. still come see their “Momma” Mack when they visit Peoria to this day. Mary was the voice to the quiet of her husband Isaac. She is known for being strong-willed and not afraid to voice her opinion. She is the oldest part of over 5 generations strong, with most of the family still residing in Peoria.

There are many descendants who have graduated from Purdue University, Bradley University, Drake University, as well as other schools, and hold a vast array of careers. Some have become teachers, nurses, Dialysis Medical Technician, Doctors, and granddaughter Karhmen is the Director of Advisement at Illinois Central College and an Adjunct English instructor.

Isaac and Mary’s legacy is long with living children, Leroy, Oscar, Austin, Charles, Lois Guyton, Margaret Allen, Geneva Mack, Carrie Givens, Marvin, and Kenny, all ranging in between the age group of 66 to 90. Two daughters passed away. Oscar and Leroy both spoke of having paper routes at the young age of 10 to 12 years old. Leroy also worked at the Jefferson Hotel for 35 cents an hour doing dishes. Oscar spoke of the street cars and that life was pretty wonderful.

Oscar and Leroy enlisted in the United States Army, and both served during the Korean War. Oscar became a Sergeant, while Leroy became a Master Sergeant. Leroy’s 24th Division was the first group deployed to do combat in Korea in the Peoria area. Oscar was in the 21st Regiment George Company. Both sons sent home an allotment from their military paychecks home to help their mother. Austin is very outgoing, and spoke of growing up with his good friend Richard Pryor. Austin is actually in the film based on Pryor’s life in Peoria called Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, filmed here in Peoria.

Life in the south in the United States in 1909 where Mary was born was extremely challenging. Dealing with prejudice and injustice, and racial inequality was real. Being a sharecropper held very specific limitations, where mind over matter could not prevail no matter the tenacity of the spirit. The North, while totally imperfect with prejudices of its own, still gave chances of better education, quality of living, and more job opportunities to thousands of black families who permanently moved to the northern half of the U.S. changing the dynamics of the north for the better forevermore. Life in Peoria was not perfect, and nor is it now, but the Mack family recalls such peaceful, wonderful memories of a beautiful quality of life both in Terry and Peoria.

The simplicity of the description of the family life in Terry held some pretty ornate and beautiful memories and lessons for us all that followed the family to Peoria over seven decades ago, that leave with it a legacy of too many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great, great grandchildren to count, as well as a heritage due to Isaac and Mary Mack; faith, family, excellence, a strong work ethic, and always moving forward. After spending time with the Mack family and Mary, you could feel and sense the strong bonds of devotion to their matriarch. The family is dedicated and proud to be taking care of her in her own home, and said that is how she raised them, to take care of family.

The Mack family gets together regularly at Mary’s home and take turns at other family member’s homes as well. As a family, they are devoted to surrounding her with a vast amount of love and consider each day to be a blessing from God. “Momma” Mack is 109, and every day she is celebrated, she is honored, and she is loved as the matriarch of the Penn-Mack family.