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I Always Knew My Worth: A Tribute to Ethel B. Toy Gordon By Mae Catherine Godhigh

Say not in grief she is no more but in thankfulness that she was.” – Hebrew Proverb

A great queen fell asleep on January 28, 2022. Ethel B. Toy Gordon 96, of Greenwood, Ms. was the eldest matriarch in the House of Gordons. She was our family’s historian, lighthouse and library.

Ethel B. was born on the other side of 1619 Jamestown. Her birth post-dates the rise of the Cotton Industry, Nat Turner’s Revolt, Abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, the Dred Scott Case, John Brown’s Raid, the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction. Ethel B. was born into the era of the Post-Slavery (Jim Crow) South.

My grandson and I rode a train to the Mississippi Delta to attend her services. On February 6, 2022, her homegoing celebration was held at the Leflore County Civic Center located in Greenwood, Ms. This venue was selected because no local churches could accommodate the multitude of her family and friends.

On the day of her service, the temperature was springlike and the sun shone brightly upon my face. I paused to reflect upon my aunt’s worth and the exemplary family leadership she provided. As I approached the window of her white horse-drawn carriage, I placed my hand on the glass window and said thank you to our family’s national treasure. I couldn’t help but to look back once more to view her royal entourage. In that moment, this article was birthed and I promised to tell her story.

After a soul-stirring service, we headed towards the state line. We passed by a cotton field sprouting white buds. A cloudless sky provided a magnificent backdrop to the vast field. That day even the cotton appeared to salute my aunt’s well-lived life.

Cotton is as much of Black History as the black souls who labored for FREE in those fields. Cotton is symbolic of purity, white privilege and the horror that made it king.

Just imagine if the former planters could have witnessed her farewell. Today, Ethel B. Toy Gordon, the wife of a sharecropper rested in a white and gold casket just like the royalty she was. Escorted to her final resting place in an all-white carriage, driven by that white horse and black driver outfitted in a white tuxedo. I felt immense pride as I watched her being driven into the Mississippi sunshine. This was her final act of defiance to a system that could not enslave her mind, her body and her soul. A system she refused to allow to define her and her descendants. Here was a woman who was making a final statement to the House of Gordons: “I always knew my worth; never forget yours!”

Before her carriage departed for the cemetery, tears filled my eyes as I thought about what she must have witnessed during her 96-year journey in this realm. Here is a sample of her timeline:

1925 – Ethel B. Toy was born on February 11th in Holmes County, Ms.

1930- The Great Depression

1941 – Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she watched African- Americans march off to World War II to fight for a country that didn’t love them.

1947 – At 21 years of age, she celebrated Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play professional baseball

1954- Brown v. Board of Education

1955- The Lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till

1955- Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bud Boycott

1957 – The Little Rock Nine – Central High Integrated

1958- Loving v. Virginia Ruling (First Integrated Marriages)

1960 – Sit-In Movement in North Carolina

1961- CORE and Freedom Riders

1962- James Meredith became the first African-American to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

1963 – Birmingham Church 16th Street Baptist Bombed killing four young African-American girls, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the I Have a Dream Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King.

1964- Civil Rights Act, Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Burning Murders

1965- Selma to Montgomery March, the execution of Malcom X, the Voting Act and the Rise of the Black Power Movement.

1968- The Fair Housing Act, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.

1972- Shirley Chisolm runs for President

1978 – The Bakke Decision and Affirmative Action

1984 – Jesse Jackson Galvanizes Black Voters

1986 – Oprah Winfrey Launches Syndicated Talk Show

1992 – Los Angeles Riots

1995 – The Million Man March

2001 – Colin Powell becomes Secretary of State and the 911 attack on America.

2003 – The Iraq War


2012 – The killing of Trayvon Martin

2013 – Black Lives Matter Movement is birthed.

2020 – The public lynching’s of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the reckless killing of Breonna Taylor.

2021 – Kamala D. Harris becomes the 1st Woman and the first Black US Vice -President of the US.

2022 – Aunt Ethel B. Gordon closed her tired eyes in eternity.

My aunt was a staunch advocate of education. Despite the many obstacles, this widow provided love, education and strength. She lived long enough to attend endless parades of her children and grandchildren walking across ceremonial stages to receive their college degrees. This was the power of her legacy that racism could not stop her from elevating and empowering future generations.

We stand on those broad shoulders and in her strength. The House of Gordons is forever grateful to her. Ethel B. survived the night-riders, Jim Crow, Segregation, Voter repression, Integration and the twisted caste system which robbed her of black generational wealth. Yet she prevailed and lived a life of peace, love, integrity and class. In the end, she did win.

My aunt was a loving and devoted wife to my late uncle James Gordon. He preceded her in death in 1973. Today, five generations survive her great legacy: 13 living children; 8 daughters and 5 sons, 32- grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren, and 8 great-grandchildren.

Queen Mother Ethel B. Toy Gordon, your worth was indeed far above rubies. To the person reading this column, I ask you, do you know your worth?