In a century of living, Donella B. Wilson has traversed the cultural and psychic landscape of South Carolina, moving from a poor plantation childhood to an urban life marked by professional and personal achievements.
Now, as she celebrates her 100th birthday today, Wilson relishes looking back on a life her mother and grandmother could scarcely have envisioned.
It is a life, she said, embellished early on by faith and by black educator Booker T. Washington’s admonition to "reach down and bring somebody up."
"Those generations are the foundation that we have to go on now," she said Tuesday. "I don’t think we as a race have told our children enough."
Never miss a local story.
Her earliest childhood memories are of life on the Calhoun County place known as Lang Syne, where black sharecroppers and day laborers gathered in "the yard" each morning so the boss man could assign the day’s labor.
In that first decade of the new century, there were a few old ones there, former slaves that included her great-grandmother, a midwife named Anniker Spann Bryant. Donella ’s grandmother, Mary Bryant Weeks, herself a child of former slaves, was a gardener there who served as the model for the central fictional black character in Julia Peterkin’s novel "Scarlet Sister Mary."
"I can’t tell you what a time we had out in the open, boiling clothes and making soap and canning in jars," she recalled. "You all can’t see that, you don’t know about that, so you can’t get the feeling of what we went through."
When Donella was 5, her mother, Minnie Brown Logan, brought her first to Charleston and then to Columbia. Separated from her husband, Minnie Brown Logan cooked and cleaned for white families, earning about $5 a week for seven days of work.
Her mother had only a third grade education, but fueled by the words of Washington and other turn-of-the century black activists, she determined that Donella and her sister Mary would be educated and have a better life.
"She said, 'Uh-uh, I don’t want you all to do what I have to do,’ and that’s how we got the
idea of going to school," Donella Wilson said.
By eighth grade, Donella was a card-carrying member of the NAACP, her 25-cent dues helping to pay lawyers "to fight our cases in court." That same school year, she learned the words to "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the James Weldon Johnson song known as the Negro National Anthem.
She earned a degree from Allen University and married her high-school sweetheart, the Rev. John R. Wilson Sr., whom she had met at Allen’s high school. The couple raised four children, all college graduates, on Columbia’s Heidt Street in the Waverly area.
For nearly all their working lives, the Wilsons taught in segregated primary and secondary schools, earning less than their white counterparts and challenging the system whenever they could. For years, John Wilson , as both minister and teacher, was a leading figure in black politics, the president of Columbia’s Ward Nine. He died in 1998.
To USC history professor Bobby Donaldson, Donella Wilson "serves as a window as to how black people in this post-Reconstruction era made themselves."
There was nothing in her rural background to suggest she would grow up to be a successful teacher and civic activist, he said. Yet she and others of her era accomplished slow but lifechanging civil rights progress, altering the landscape of the city and the state in the process.
"Mrs. Wilson is one of the few people I met who can speak about how Columbia has been transformed over the entire century," Donaldson said. "No one has been able to really speak about it with such depth."
Donella Wilson took the measure of the white power structure early in her life and, when necessary, accommodated herself to it.
While teaching in Orangeburg in the 1950s, she said she and other teachers were required to tell the white superintendent if they belonged to the NAACP, which was then illegal to join.
"I said, 'Now, they can control my job by not giving me a job, but they can’t control my mind.’"
Even though she was a lifelong member of the NAACP, she said no. "And in my pocketbook was the card. So the Lord, you know what, he’ll help you out."
A few years later in Lexington County, the Wilsons ’ teaching contracts were not renewed. They had dared to ask for a state salary supplement and sick leave.
She recalled how the white superintendent met with them and asked who was making the extraordinary request. Only John Wilson rose.
"All the teachers said they would stand up, but nobody stood up but Daddy," Minnie Wilson Bivins, one of Wilson ’s three daughters, said.
For the next 20 years, Donella Wilson commuted weekly to Holly Hill to teach in the black high school, finally ending her career in Pomaria.
Nevertheless, she was tireless in her Columbia civic work, belonging to a plethora of organizations, from teachers and church groups, to the Allen University Alumni Association and the United Order of Tents, J.R.G. and J.U., a black women’s fraternal lodge that began before the Civil War.
The long toil of "my people" has borne fruit, she believes, most astonishingly in the election of President Barack Obama, a political event that still amazes and elates her.
She has voted in every election since 1948 when, the whites only primary overturned, she stood in line with other African-Americans and cast her first ballot. She is pictured, in a crisp white dress, umbrella in hand to shield the sun, in Walter Edgar’s "South Carolina: A History."
"In my generation and in my mother’s generation, I’ve got to tell you æ.æ.æ. only they wanted us to have a better life than we were having," she said. "Not that we wanted anything the white man had."
No, her generation simply wanted the full opportunity to work for a better life, she said - "to work for it and, you know, be still us."