Minnie Wimbish sits in her Willis Street home surrounded by a wealth of memorabilia.
Her impressive collection includes the hundreds of salt and pepper shakers she has collected over the years; holy water she brought from Jerusalem; sugar from Alex Haley's farm and a straw basket full of corsages.
All the items represent the life of a woman who rose from humble beginnings to become a well-traveled public speaker, author and beloved Columbus matriarch. Wimbish was also the lone woman to sit on the platform when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Columbus in July 1958, and is now the only living participant from the historic event.
On Tuesday, "Momma Wimbish," as many in the community affectionately call her, will turn 100 years old. And today, about 125 well-wishers will gather at the Fort Benning Officer's Club to celebrate the momentous occasion.
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Columbus Councilor Jerry "Pops" Barnes is expected to read greetings on behalf of President Barack Obama and the council. Relatives and friends have flown into town from as far as Alaska.
In a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Wimbish said she's surprised she has lived this long.
"I worked hard and wasn't looking to make it to 100," said the woman who swept floors at the Bibb Manufacturing Company for 40- something years, while pursuing her speaking career. "I did a lot of public speaking and that took a lot of strength from me. Most every Sunday I was some place speaking."
Last week, Wimbish sat comfortably in her living room, decked in a green African-style dress, accented with colorful embroidery. Before the interview, she freshened her lipstick and fixed her dress just right. Then she told her life story, at times reciting poetry that she memorized since childhood, other times singing the Blues.
In her hands, she gripped a Bible, well-worn and held together with tape. At one point during the interview, she named all 66 books of the Bible with ease.
Despite loss and disappointments over the years -- having buried seven of her eight children -- Wimbish said she has lived a good life.
"I have spoken all over the United States at church programs and I've been to Jerusalem twice, where I was invited to speak in the upper room," she said. "You heard them talk about the Seven Churches of Asia? I went to every one of those places."
Wimbish was also the first black woman to serve as chairwoman of the March of Dimes of Muscogee County and was among the first black women to serve as a registrar in the Muscogee County primary election. She was the first woman to serve as historian of the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia, a position she held for 25 years.
During her travels abroad, she was baptized in the Jordan River and sailed on the Sea of Galilee.
According to a resolution from the city, she received the Goodwill Ambassador Award, the highest honor given a citizen by the state of Georgia. In 1991, she was recognized by the Secretary of State as an "outstanding citizen." She also served as president of the Harrison Avenue PTA and secretary of the PTA Council.
A native of Harris County, Wimbish was born April 27, 1915. She grew up at a time when the South was still segregated and most black women were relegated to farm, factory or domestic work.
She said her father left the family to escape the Ku Klux Klan when she was just a young child.
"Before we moved to Columbus, he passed the house with a white fella," she recalled. "They had a goat on the wagon, and he had killed the goat. I was just about 3 or 4 then, and I was holding my brother.
"My father said 'I'm going to bring y'all back some goat when I clean it,'" she said. "But I didn't see him (anymore) until I was grown and married."
Wimbish said Klansmen searched the family's home the day after her father disappeared. She found out later that they were angry because he refused to give the goat to the white man on the wagon. They got in a fight, and her father whipped him good, she said.
She said her mother eventually remarried and had a total of five children.
"I didn't get a chance to get inside a school until I was 10," Wimbish said. "I had to work, sweeping the yards for people, and making a quarter, (which) was as high as they went. But I brought every penny home and brought it for Momma."
Wimbish said she also baby-sat and washed dishes for white families. She wanted to go to school, but didn't have decent clothes to wear. Her first exposure to books was at Sunday school, where she learned to read the Bible.
One day a friend suggested that she save a dime from every quarter that she earned so she could have the $1.13 needed to enroll in school. Wimbish heeded the advice and saved enough money by the next school year.
The first day, Wimbish followed a group of neighborhood children walking to Claflin School, which had been established by the Freedmen's Bureau for black children. She said her mother tried to stop her from going to school, but she was determined. She showed up with no shoes on her feet and dressed in a frock she had worn all week.
The gift of memorization
Wimbish said it was there, at Claflin, that she discovered her knack for public speaking.
"I memorized my lessons all the way through the second and third grade and by the time I got to the fourth grade, I had learned to read," she said. "Everywhere I saw a piece of poetry I memorized all that, then I would say it with expression."
One poem that came to mind during the interview was "The Man Who Thinks He Can" by Walter D. Wintle.
"If you think you are beaten, you are," Wimbish said with intensity. "If you think you dare not, you don't.
"If you'd like to win, but think you can't, it's almost a cinch you won't."
Ethalyn Kirby, 73, Wimbish's only living child, said her mother went from Claflin to Fifth Avenue High School. She later attended night school and then went to Booker T. Washington School of Nursing, where she graduated. She was the speaker for her graduating class and the following class.
But instead of working as a nurse, Wimbish decided to keep her job at Bibb Manufacturing, where in 1945 she made about $27 a week.
Kirby said her mother liked working at Bibb because the work was light, which allowed her to pursue her speaking career. The job also provided her with flexible hours so she could travel to speaking engagements.
"All she had to do was sweep, empty a few garbage cans and she was gone," Kirby said. "Naturally, she caused a lot of jealousy with that because she was a traveling public speaker that they allowed to develop her talent.
"She used her nursing qualities often in her speeches," Kirby added. "Like she would take the heart and compare that biblically and the different bones and stuff like that."
Moving up in life
Wimbish and her second husband, Sam Williams, were among the first blacks to purchase land in Willis Plaza, where she still resides. She paid the landowner, Pauline Willis, $50 a month for the land, which cost about $600, Kirby said. Her husband saw nothing but woods, but Wimbish said, "Baby, one day it's going to be a community."
When they finished paying for the land, she borrowed money from Willis to build the house. The residence was completed in 1956 with the help of local ministers who were also brick masons. They built a barbecue pit and a well in the backyard, which became a hangout for neighborhood children.
"I don't know where I got the money," Wimbish said. "But I fed them all and they still remember me. That's how my salt and pepper shakers accumulated. I didn't buy them all by myself."
Kirby said most of the furniture at the house was purchased before the house was completed in 1956. At the time, they lived in a three-room shotgun house. But her mother always wanted better and purchased the furniture piece by piece until they could afford to move.
Wimbish also served at Rosehill Memorial Baptist Church for 54 years and is now a member of St. James Missionary Baptist Church, according to Kirby. She was also an active member of the Order of the Eastern Star, which is under the jurisdiction of the Prince Hall Masons. It was her affiliation with that organization that led to her participation on the platform when King came to town.
The iconic civil rights leader spoke at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple despite bomb threats from local segregationists. Wimbish's husband was among the masons who stood on the rooftop guarding the building. Later that night, dynamite exploded at the home of a black woman in retaliation for King's speech.
In an interview earlier this year, Wimbish described it as both a beautiful and sad day.
Wimbish is also co-author of a book titled "Through the Looking Glass," which she wrote with Kirby and Gracie Bonds Staples of Atlanta.
Wimbish had eight children, most of whom died at childbirth. One son died at 2 and another son died in his twenties. Last year, one of daughters died at age 82.
Today, she has six grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and 10 great-great-grands. When they visit, she shows them the salt and pepper shakers, which are all arranged on shelves dedicated to a story. One shelf tells the Biblical story of Creation and the fall of man. Kirby said the youngsters treat the house like a museum.
She said Wimbish has been in hospice for four years. Her medical problems began in 2011 with internal bleeding. Doctors thought she only had a few days to live, but she survived. The problem reoccurred in 2012 and in 2013 she had a stroke.
She recuperated and is functional, but still requires hospice care.
Kirby said her mother is a woman of faith who has spent countless hours in a private prayer room that sits in the back of the house.
"I have not known a day in her life when she didn't read her Bible and I haven't known a day when she did not pray," Kirby said. "You find her sometimes up at 3 o'clock in prayer."
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.