GAFFNEY, SC — Lillian Genner Bonner-Sutson loved to dance.
At 96 years old, she cut a rug with her great-great-grandchildren at a family reunion in 2010. In a home video, Sutson, a housekeeper by trade, said she always wanted to be a dancer.
“I’m still the best dancer,” declared the woman, who at the time of the video was well into her 80s. “But I loved to dance. That’s what my mother used to whup me about.”
Sutson’s dancing feet came to a final rest July 29 when she died in a nursing home in Saugus, Mass.
At her funeral Tuesday, members of her sprawling family remembered the feisty matriarch’s quick wit, outspokenness, and passion for life and those she loved. The family chose to honor Sutson’s life with a celebration instead of mourning, with several family members paying tribute through song, dance and prayer. The assembly greeted their remembrances with rousing applause and cheers.
“She never wanted to miss a party,” her grandson Marcus Jones said. “She probably would’ve loved this.”
Sutson’s bold and colorful character were legendary in the family. Rosalind Bonner Tate, remembered Sutson as the “fun-loving auntie.”
That bold character led Sutson to more than fun, however. In 1940, Sutson became a civil rights activist when she, her mother, and three other women tried to register to vote at Cherokee County Courthouse in Gaffney. At the time, Sutson was 27 years old and pregnant with her second child. Decades later, she told her grandson Marcus Jones the confrontation left her uncharacteristically frightened. Shaken but undaunted, the women returned to the courthouse several more times to register, but were rebuffed at each attempt.
In 1942 with the help of the NAACP, Sutson and the other women brought criminal charges against the county’s election board in federal court. The case was lost, but its significance was not and it was cited in several other successful civil rights cases.
The details of those historic events were almost lost to family memory when Jones conducted a series of recorded interviews with the aging woman in the 1990s as an attempt to preserve her knowledge for future generations.
“I always liked excitement,” Sutson said in a clip of an interview played at the funeral. “We couldn’t get no men to go with us … Not only were our civil rights violated, but they made threats. Threats. We proved they made the threats against our lives, saying they were going to burn our houses down.”
Jones said his investigation of his grandmother’s story led him to Washington D.C., where he discovered a file about an inch thick of correspondence related to the case.
“The original documents are still there in the Library of Congress,” he said.
Sutson moved to Lynn, Mass., in the 1950s where she became a housekeeper and her husband worked in construction. For the rest of her life, Sutson reserved her spunky character for family and friends, but Jones said the discovery left a lasting impression on the family.
“The whole family just kind of beamed,” he said. “You want to know you’re connected to something of significance. You like to think you’re from stock that stood up when other people thought about it but didn’t have the courage.”
The woman who was refused the right to vote in 1940, later went on to proudly vote for the first black governor of Massachusetts, and the first black President of the United States, Jones said.
When her time was over, Sutson died quietly. Her granddaughter, Regina Sutson, was by her side in her final moments.
“Before she passed we were praising God,” Regina Sutson said. “I was singing and she was listening … I want her family to know today, she was at peace. The look on her face, I knew God was with her … Jesus carried her home; I will believe that until the day I die.”
Sutson was returned to her Gaffney birthplace to be buried beside her mother, father and siblings.