Commentary

Born in the Delta, she died the grandmother of St. Paul | Remembrance

July 5, 2021 6:30 am

The late Thelma Battle Buckner. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

I met Thelma Battle Buckner because her church was just a block from my house when I first moved to St. Paul six years ago. I figured if I only had to walk a block to church, I might just go.  

We walked into the small, bland, brick church with a yellowing sign out front proclaiming “Jesus loves you.” 

It was a Black church with a congregation so small that everybody knew everybody and newcomers — especially white ones — sorta stood out. In fact, it was a “family church,” meaning it was primarily composed of Battles and Buckners of some sort. They let us in anyway; welcomed us, even.

I was instantly drawn to the towering presence sitting behind the preacher, a woman I would come to know as “Granny.” 

Thelma Battle Buckner was listed on the church bulletin as pastor emeritus, but she dominated the room, and not just because she was 6-foot-1.

When the pastor — her son, Dwight Buckner — would say something inspiring or thought-provoking or conscience-pricking, Thelma would respond by saying “Well” in her booming contralto and clasp her cane as if to punctuate the point.

When Patty Lacy would sing one of her jaw-dropping solos, Thelma would sometimes grab a microphone and join her, even though Thelma’s daughter sang backup for Luther Vandross for years and hardly needed the help. Thelma could sing, too. 

I wanted to know more about Thelma after she gave me a book she wrote about her life called “The Battle of a Daytime Nightmare.” She agreed to meet with me weekly at a little quilt shop in a large brick building a few blocks from the church. I took notes, thinking maybe I’d write a book about her one day.

She was in her mid-80s, but still went to her Piece by Piece Quilt Shop two nights a week to teach children to sew and quilt and make mittens and blankets that she gave to homeless people and police officers to comfort victims.

“It’s my therapy,” she said of the quilt shop she ran for more than 30 years. “This is my favorite place to go.”

There, week by week, I got to know Thelma. Her story was emblematic of the struggles of Black women during the past century, marked by the grinding poverty of sharecropping, the liberation of church, music and the Great Migration, and yet the quieter but still persistent inequities of the north. 

Still, there’s only ever been one Thelma. 

She was born in the Delta, and told me about growing up in Mississippi as the ninth of 13 children who worked together in cotton fields. Her father, a preacher, would get the kids to compete against each other, singing while they worked. Sometimes cars would stop on the road to listen, she said.

“There wasn’t a bashful bone in any of us,” she said. “All we needed was a mic. That was our rehearsal room — the cotton field.”

They’d start working at 6 a.m., take an hour for lunch, and work until 6 p.m.

“Work was fun to us,” Thelma said. “The time went so fast ‘cause we were acting crazy, having fun … singing.”

Her father’s grandparents were white, and she would later come to believe her real maternal grandfather was a white man. Thelma was light-skinned, and talked about being “yellow” in a “totally Black world.”

“Non-Christian Black people treated us like we had a disease,” Thelma said. “We stood out. They called us yellow-black. … I hated to be yellow.”

The family would visit her maternal grandma Ida in Stateline, Mississippi, who was “jet black,” twice a year. Ida would often tell the family they would never suffer or want for anything.

“Grandma was the height of our life,” she said.

For a long time, they suspected Ida’s boss, a white man, fathered Ida’s baby. Ida began working for the man and his wife when she was just 16, and had a baby soon afterward. 

Ida continued to live in the couple’s nine-bedroom house after he died and his wife went to a nursing home. She had money hidden all over — Mason jars, lard pails and mattresses were filled with money, Thelma said.

“I thought every grandma in the world had a houseful of money,” Thelma said. “We tell that story and nobody believes it.”

When her grandma died, nobody told Thelma’s family for weeks. She believes a neighbor killed her and stole her money, because it was all gone by the time the family arrived. 

Thelma said relatives of the man she suspects was her real grandfather made her parents take $300 for 80 acres of land, which she thinks sat atop an oil field. 

Despite it all, she “never disliked the South,” even if she disliked “the behavior” there. Some of her siblings won’t even fly over Mississippi to this day, she said. 

‘That’s my life — kids’

Thelma married at age 18, moved to Minnesota at 20 and would go on to have eight children, including three sets of twins.

She and her husband bought a big house on a corner in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood in 1951, and she worked at a garment factory, sometimes working three straight shifts (with a break before the third) to support her family. 

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter spoke at Thelma’s recent funeral, saying he grew up a few blocks away and always wondered about that big house on the corner. “How many people live there?” he wondered, because there were so many people coming and going all the time.

Thelma and her preacher husband divorced in 1959. She supported her considerable brood, but when her sister Ida Mae Jackson died, she also took in her eight nieces and nephews.

When her kids were old enough to work, they were expected to help pay the bills.

“There was a time (when) all the kids brought a check home,” Thelma said.

She and the kids began singing at church, and then around the cities, as “Thelma Buckner and the Minnesota Gospel Twins.”

Once her children were grown, she took in foster children and ran a child care center and an emergency shelter out of her big house for decades, until age 75. She also ran a camp near Grand Rapids from 1972 to 1984, plucking kids off the streets and inviting them to a bit of wilderness.

“That’s my life — kids,” she said. “I didn’t expect my kids to turn out perfect. I’m just glad they’re still alive.”

Even in confidence, in the sewing shop, she said she didn’t have a favorite child.

“I like ’em all for eight different reasons,” Thelma told me.

Gospel Temple tentacles

Gospel Temple Church of God in Christ opened in 1949, and “went big” for about 30 years, Thelma said, before hitting a slump.

She was assistant pastor to her brother, Walter Battle, for 20 years, and later became head pastor for 15 years. She said she was never really accepted as a minister.

“I didn’t care because I was hired by God,” she said.

By the time I arrived, the church was down to a dozen or two most Sundays. Her son Dwight was in his second year as preacher.

“Right now it’s in a valley,” she said.

She reckons eight churches in St. Paul and 17 churches nationwide sprang out of Gospel Temple, tiny as it is.

One day after Thelma turned 84, she told me she couldn’t believe she’d lived so long.

“I never dreamed I’d get there,” she said. “Never planned on it.”

She was battling health problems, and figured she would die “When I get completely where the Lord wants me.”

“God’s been working on me 84 years,” Thelma said. “I still ain’t there yet.”

On June 11, 2021, she got there. Early that morning, she told her friend she would die that day. And then she did. In that big old house, with a couple of her children nearby. Just as she would’ve wanted.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

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