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Daughter of former slave celebrates 100th birthday with family, friends gathered throughout lifetime

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By Alice Du Pont

Mersey Mae McGill made her way into the world Feb. 26, 1909. Family and friends say her eyes have been wide open ever since, and reflect her inner beauty, while her arms are always open to give and receive love.

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This past weekend, family and friends gathered to celebrate her 100th birthday and to make it special, they had to resort to planning the big event without her knowledge. With the help of family members, church members and others, over 125 people showed up at St. Paul AME Church in Midway for the celebration.

Two of her granddaughters, Patricia Braziel and Robin Williams, came to town last week from Detroit, Mich. Other relatives secretly came to town from Atlanta, Ga., Orlando, Alabama and all over Florida. Everyone stayed out of sight until Saturday. Braziel and Williams had been staying with her all week to help monitor phone calls and to prevent anyone from blurting out the surprise.

The mission was accomplished when they told her to get dressed because they were all going to the cemetery to place flowers on the graves of family members.

"We got there about 11:20 because I wanted to give people time to settle down. To throw her off, I asked her why there were so many cars at the church that time of day. She said she didn't know, so I said that we were going inside to find out," Braziel said.

That's when she heard the voice of Jeb Munroe as he was opening the door. Before she could ask him anything, the doors swung open and people yelled, "Surprise!" Bell said she was so nervous that all she could to was sit down. Grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, old friends and acquaintances were all there to help her usher in another century.

"I was happy to see everybody there and I am so thankful that they came," she said Monday night as she relaxed in the company of her two granddaughters in her Havana home.

Bell is the 14th of 17 children born to Catherine and Pompey McGill. Her mother was born Oct. 9, 1860, one year before the start of the Civil War. She recalled her mother telling her about sewing stockings and growing up during and after the Civil war. Bell has no awful stories to tell, she never witnessed lynchings nor does she have horrible memories of others to share.

"We were sharecroppers and we worked hard. My daddy grew just about everything you could name: tobacco, cotton, corn, peanuts and potatoes, and we had hogs, cows, chickens and turkeys. I could plow and did everything the rest of them did," she said, laughing.

Several siblings, as they grew older, moved to Bradenton and to Daytona Beach. One brother, Willie, opened a store on Daytona Beach's Second Avenue, the black business district. Bell proudly showed off a newspaper clipping featuring a picture of McGill's Grocery Store, taken by world-famous photographer Gordon Parks. Another sister, Helen, owned a cafe in Bradenton's black community and also worked at the then-famous Geneva Hotel.

"I wish I had a dollar for every time I went down to the train station in Midway to ship my brother chickens and turkeys for him to sell in his store," she said.

Eventually, Bell joined her older sister in Bradenton, where she helped out in the cafe and worked with her sister at the hotel for $7 a week.

"That's where I met my first husband, Archie Butler. My sister left Bradenton to move north and Mama told her to send me back home. He followed me here and we got married on the front porch. I wore a white satin dress with a pin at the top," she said.

The couple had two children, Mary and Edward, both of whom preceded her in death. Her son, Edward J. Butler, held several top-level county positions following a successful military career. The Edward J. Butler Municipal Complex, the county's administrative building, is named in his honor.

She left Gadsden County a few more times, but never stayed away for an extended period to time. She made the best of what life had to offer a young black women in the rural South. She worked in the fields beside her father, brothers and sisters. She could do what everyone else in he family did and maybe a little more.

She could, she said, make sour mash and moonshine with the best. She won't talk too much about her role in the alcohol business, only that she had a good recipe which included rotted orange peels, meal and syrup leavings after cane grinding. The concoction was boiled up in her daddy's smokehouse, the excess skimmed off, and left to ferment.

"You could tell where the "buck" was on Sunday. That's where the men were," she laughed.

At some point during her adult life, Bell went to work for the Munroe family. She did what women of that era did when they worked for wealthy white families. She cooked, cleaned and cared for the children.

The Munroes were there in en mass for the party Saturday. Pictures of the Munroe and Woodward families are prominently displayed throughout Bell’s living room, along with pictures of her children and grandchildren. A photo of Mayo Woodard and his family sits on the shelf next to her favorite chair. He has a special place in her heart.

"That boy was 6 weeks old when they left him with me and went to the mountians. I took care of him ever since," she said. Woodward was at the birthday celebration and, Braziel said, was too overcome with emotion to to complete the words of reflection he planned.

More than 20 people, many of them shedding tears, reflected on the influence she has had on their lives.

"There were so many tears and hugs and pictures, it was just wonderful," Williams said.

At 100, Bell is self-sufficient and attributes her longevity to a sense of humor, loving family and friends, and a good work ethic. She keeps her mind sharp by keeping up with current events. Her eyesight is good but sinus problems cause them to tear up regularly.

"Other than that, there are no (medical) problems. I go to bed around 11 and I get up around 8. If I wake up earlier, I lie there for a while," she said.

The centenarian prepares herself a full breakfast each morning which is accompanied by one cup of coffee, summer or winter. Then the telephone starts ringing. People from all over Midway, Havana, Quincy and Tallahassee check in to make sure she's fine and to chat. Not a day goes by, she said, when her granddaughter Robin doesn't call.

"I say to her 'How's it going down there?’ And she says, 'I'm sitting on it.’ Then I know she's OK," Robin said.

If you call Bell during the day, she will talk, but she keeps an eye on the television judges. Her favorite is Judge Mathis. She said that he doesn't play with people who come through his courtroom and he tells it like it is, a trait she admires. But if you want to get ignored, call her on Monday or Friday nights between 8 and 9 p.m. That's when wrestling is on and she has been an avid and loyal fan of the sport for as long as anyone can remember.

But on Jan. 20, neither of those distractions kept her from paying attention to the reporter who came to spend the day with her. The journalist wanted to get her reaction, as the daughter of a former slave, to the inauguration of the first African-American president.

"He wanted to know how I felt about (President Barack) Obama. I voted for him that's how I felt about him. He kept asking questions and I kept looking at Obama. Before I voted, I prayed he would win. That night I went to bed, the same as usual. When I woke up, he was president," she said.

For her birthday, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist sent her a letter congratulating her on her 100th birthday, along with an 8X10 color photo signed, "Best Wishes." Eugene Lamb, chairman of the the Gadsden Count commissioners, presented her with a framed proclamation.

She has been told to expect a letter from the president as well.

"Now that,” she said, "would be something."