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Black History Month: 'God won't help us if we don't help each other.'

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By Becky Cassell, Editor

"When he was here, he made rocks, trees and mountains that are high.

He even made valleys that are deep and wide.

He made rivers and lakes and oceans to flow.

He sent sunshine and rain, even stormy winds that blow.

Sometimes in winter he even sends snow.

Can't you see? God did all this for you and me."

—Excerpt from "What God Did," by Ella Mae Edwards

Editor's Note: This is the first of four stories published in the Central Kentucky News-Journal's special Black History Month series.

At the age of 88, Ella Mae Edwards retired long after most people. But then Edwards is certainly no stranger to hard work.

As a child in the 1920s, one of her daily chores was to churn the family's butter before she left for school.

"We had everything," she says. "We were rich and didn't know it."

Edwards' family, the Atkinsons, had a large garden and grew or raised most of their own food - greens, tomatoes, corn, beans, potatoes, molasses, milk and meat.

"We might go to town and buy flour or a loaf of bread, but that was it," she said. "Not like now, where you have to buy everything at the store."

Edwards' mother died when she was just 10 years old, and she was raised by her grandparents and her aunt. At age 14, she graduated from eighth grade and went straight to work.

Over the years, she has sold Avon products, but she has spent most of the past seven decades doing domestic work, cleaning, catering and caring for children.

In fact, she has helped to raise the children of at least seven local families over the past 74 years.

"I treated them just like my own."

However, decades ago when she was a teenager herself, Edwards ran into two boys who she didn't quite treat so kindly.

"I was walking across town to my cousin's house and these two boys saw me," she said. "They called me a 'white nigger,' and it made me mad so I cussed them.

"But then I took off running 'cause they came after me."

Edwards said she ran all the way to her cousin's house, which was when the boys stopped the chase.

"They quit chasing me when they saw the other colored people."

As for the boys' name-calling, Edwards said she supposed it was because her maternal grandmother was white.

"It didn't bother me," she says. "I just went right on."

In all of her 89 years, Edwards says that was really the only time she personally experienced racial prejudice.

Edwards continued to live at home, working and helping to care for her grandparents and aunt - just as they had cared for her - until her early 30s. Her paternal grandmother had been a midwife, her father a brick mason who helped to build many of the buildings still standing on Main Street today.

And even though she's not working anymore, Edwards still stays in touch with the children she helped to raise.

Beverly Elzy said Edwards began working for her mother, Nora Lee Baldock, in the 1950s.

"She worked for my mother for over 40 years," Elzy said. "They were wonderful friends as well. Ella Mae is a very loving, Christian person. She's dependable, honest and a hard worker."

Edwards says she has always attended church regularly and, when she was young, she enjoyed going with her friends to parties.

Laughing, Edwards said that for several years she had too much fun to think about settling down.

"Oh, I loved to dance!" she said, clapping her hands together.

Then, one evening, she met a man named Bloyd Edwards, who had been serving in the military.

"Finally, I thought I might settle down," she said. "So I picked him."

Their daughter, Debra Miller, was born on the couple's second anniversary. She, in turn, gave them two grandsons, Terrence and Devin, and a step-granddaughter, Tosha.

Even though she quit working last year, Edwards still stays busy with her church, Bethel AME, where she has been a member since the age of 13. She has done missionary work, been a stewardess and sang in the choir.

"God is good," she says. "And it makes me happy to know that he loves me."

Today's children have it easy, Edwards says.

"They've got buses. They pick them up at their door and they bring them back to their door ... and they still don't want to go to school.

"I loved school."

Children need to go to school, respect their elders, go to church whenever they can and not be jealous of other people, she said.

"They need to treat people the way they want to be treated."

While Edwards says she only remembers the single instance of prejudice toward herself, she knows it's still present in the world today.

"It's still in Campbellsville," she says. "We still need to work on that.

"God won't help us if we don't help each other."

- Editor Rebecca Cassell can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 227 or by e-mail at editor@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.