Elizabeth Mae "Lizzie Mae" Lunsford: A Quiet Force
March is Women's History Month! Today, we are celebrating the life and incredible contributions of Mrs. Lizzie Mae Lunsford. Beyond being a wealthy businesswoman, she was a humanitarian and a philanthropist. When it would have been easier to leave, she made Columbus a better place. Principles were her family trademark.
This history spotlight is from a variety of sources, including: Lula Lunsford Huff,
Black America Series: Columbus, Georgia by Judith Grant, First Race YMCA Started in Columbus, Georgia for Fort Benning's 5,000 Negro Troops by Billy Rowe for the Columbus Ledger (1941), Red Clay, White Water, and Blues by Virginia E. Causey, Riverdale-Porterdale Cemeteries Foundation Brochure, 100 People to Remember by Richard Hyatt for the Ledger-Enquirer (1999), and Columbus Connections by Lynn Willoughby.
"Marcus Garvey wrote that a people without the knowledge of their history, origin, and culture are like a tree without roots. My family has a rich history. I am blessed to have been taught that knowledge of the past is one of the foundations of freedom. I was raised to be proud of who I am first, as a child of God, and second, as a Lunsford. What you learn, no one can take from you. You can enslave the body, but not the mind." Lula Lunsford Huff, granddaughter
Elizabeth Mae "Lizzie Mae" Lunsford (1889 - 1966)
Mr. and Mrs. Watson T. Lunsford operated a grocery store in “The Bottom,” located at the foot of Wynn’s Hill; near Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Quietly successful in their business affairs, they were generous in their support of the community. When customers gathered in the family grocery store, they counted on a little bit more than a pound, whether they shopped for fruits, vegetables, or credit. If someone did not have money for groceries, Lizzie Mae and Watson would allow them to bring in vegetables from their own garden and sell them at the grocery store. Mrs. Lunsford lived a life that many of her neighbors knew nothing about and few in the white community would have believed. She and Watson reared two children and helped people when they could. They knew the meaning of equality. They had dreams and they had disappointments.
Mrs. Lunsford and her brother, Richard Pierce, would come to play an even larger role in the growth of the Liberty District. Richard constructed the three-story Pierce Building, c. 1920 starting the development of Ninth Street into a commercial corridor. It was constructed on what came to be called, “Magic Corner,” Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue. Upon his death in 1934, Mrs. Lunsford continued the business affairs and operations of the Pierce Building. The first floor of the building housed a drug store, restaurant, and barber shop; the second floor a haberdashery and various professional offices; and the third floor an auditorium. During WW II, it was the main bus depot for Ft. Benning soldiers (24th Infantry – Black; 29th Infantry – white). The Lunsfords' son Walter, owned and operated the Fox Deluxe Wholesale Beer Distributing Co. and the Pierce Amusement Company. He would also found the city's first Black taxi companies. For the Lunsfords, it was all about building family, growing relationships, and supporting your community. You will see that principle was evident in everything that Mrs. Lizzie Mae Lunsford did throughout her life.
Above: Original taxi dome light for Walter Lunsford's first cab company, Red Bird. Below: Mr. Lunsford's first Checker Cab. Courtesy of Lula Lunsford Huff.
The Lunsfords began construction on their new home in 1941 on a piece of property that comprised a city block on Lawyers Lane. The city limits, at that time, extended to Washington Avenue, the street directly behind the house. It was built by J.D. Stillwell. The beautifully adorned two-story Georgian Colonial Revival is balanced with a sunroom on one side of the central structure and a porte-cochere on the other. Fireplaces warm the living room, foyer, and master bedroom.
Materials used in the home were the finest of its era with handcrafted moldings and hardwood floors throughout. For example, the window-bedecked sunroom is dressed with tongue and groove knotty pine paneling and a terrazzo floor. A hand-laid brick patio off the kitchen provides a nice respite and view of the tailored grounds. Unfortunately, Watson died before the home was completed.
When guests gathered around the dining room table, it was immaculately set with Chantilly silver, china, crystal water goblets and wine glasses, furniture from Hinson Galleries, and an exquisite chandelier. This was not a home you would say was typical for anyone - at the time, as well as now - not when people like Jackie Robinson were dropping in for dinner (he is pictured to the right with Mrs. Lunsford's daughter, Lula M. Lunsford). When African Americans traveled during Jim Crow, there were very limited choices to dine or to stay the night. There were no nice restaurants or private clubs accessible for African Americans. When important guests came to Columbus, there was no place to entertain them. That is when Mrs. Lunsford began to offer her home.
To accommodate these needs and other cultural activities, "the playhouse" was also built on the property. It was used as a meeting place for civic and social gatherings for organizations such as The Links, Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Jack & Jill of America Inc., and Junior Matrons. The playhouse was also a hosting place for notables, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Louis Armstrong, Dr. Thomas Brewer, and Dr. Benjamin Mays. (Below are photographs of the interior and exterior of "the playhouse," and the young ladies of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at Mrs. Lunsford's home in 1948, when the chapter was chartered.)
What Lizzie Mae and Watson built was for their family and for their community. This legacy would continue through both the joys that life would bring and the pain. Within the span of one year, Mrs. Lizzie Mae Lunsford would endure the untimely death of her dearly beloved Watson, husband and partner, complete the construction of her family's home, and finance the world's first Army and Navy YMCA for African Americans.
When America entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt envisioned a civilian organization that would allow ordinary citizens to show their concern for the troops by creating "homes away from home" for service men and women. These "USOs" (United Service Organizations) could provide a place for soldiers to relax in their off-hours, meet other young people, and ward off homesickness. In 1941, when the Columbus Chamber of Commerce sought to expand Fort Benning, the Army asked locals to create a USO for both white and Black soldiers, but the need was more extreme for Black soldiers since there were very few respectable places for African Americans to congregate in the day of segregation.
E.E. Farley, the only African American in the employ of the Army and Navy Department of the National Council YMCA at the time, brought this need to the attention of Mrs. Lunsford. She answered the call and donated the entire amount of $15,000 needed to build a fine, new building on Fifth Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Streets for the Black soldiers of the 24th Infantry Regiment and other African American troops based at Ft. Benning.
It would contain offices, canteens, a library, social rooms, and adequate facilities for dances, games, educational programming, and recreational activities sorely needed by the more than 5,000 Black soldiers of the 24th Infantry. The operating funds were furnished by the Columbus Defense Service Committee and the Army and Navy Department of the YMCA. Money for the equipment was raised entirely by the African American community. The groundbreaking ceremonies were made impressive by the attendance of more than 300 soldiers (24th Infantry) and the 24th Infantry band, several thousand white and Black spectators, high ranking military, and city and county officials. Reverend T.W. Smith, a Black minister, was handed the first spade by Col. James M. Locket, commanding officer of the 24th Infantry. Reverend Smith shoveled the first spade of dirt from the site that would house the USO building.
In July 1941, the two-story building was dedicated. The Colored Army and Navy YMCA/USO was adjacent to the back of the Pierce Building at 841 5th Avenue. Participating that day were publisher Maynard Ashworth, members of the Columbus Defense Services, H.J. Sims, Secretary of the Army and Navy YMCA; Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, President of Morehouse College; Elizabeth M. Lunsford, Dr. Thomas Brewer, Walter Richards, Rev. W.A. Reid, Pastor of Shady Grove Baptist Church; Lt. Col. Frank Lockhart, Commanding Officer; Dr. R.K. Paschal, Pastor of Friendship Baptist Church; and the 24th Infantry Band.
While the new building was a great accomplishment, there was still much more that needed to change. Through the 1940s, African Americans were denied the right to vote in Georgia's Democratic primaries, which at the time was tantamount to election. In 1945, Primus King, a local minister and barber, showed up at the polls and was turned away. A lawsuit was filed, and ultimately a federal judge in Macon abolished the all-white primary.
Mrs. Lunsford did not want to just give money to help make the lawsuit possible, she knew it was important to be there. Lula Huff said her aunt would drive her grandmother to Macon every day until the verdict. But, Mrs. Lunsford's commitment was not without a price.
Crosses were burned in her yard, and she along with many other African Americans were threatened. The antagonists wanted her to leave town. Fortunately, Mrs. Lunsford did not leave Columbus. The wives of many of Columbus' leading white citizens, like Mrs. Walter Richards, visited Mrs. Lunsford and convinced her to stay. They assured her they would do what was necessary to protect her and her family. And, they meant it - Lula Lunsford Huff recalls being walked to school with plain-clothed protection. (Pictured to the left: Mrs. Lizzie Mae Lunsford and her granddaughter, Lula Lunsford Huff in front of her home, c. 1950.)
Increased African American activism triggered white fear and the KKK would continue activities in the Columbus area for the next couple of decades. Continued segregation and exclusion from so much of white Columbus meant that Black communities like The Bottom and Liberty District became bustling residential and commercial centers. Mrs. Lizzie Mae Lunsford and her family were instrumental in providing needed businesses and services to the African American community in Columbus.
When the community needed money for a YMCA/USO for Black soldiers, she wrote a check. When people were needed to stand up in court so Black people would be allowed to vote, she was there and she helped finance the lawsuit. When the Tuskegee-Morehouse football game was in financial trouble, she stood behind it. When there was a shortage of housing for Blacks during WW II, she used her family savings and built apartments. Mrs. Lunsford never sought recognition. What she did, she did from her heart, that was her legacy.
SHARE YOUR STORY
Historic Columbus is celebrating Women's History Month by sharing some of our community's history through the stories of individuals in our town. There is so much history that needs to be shared, and what you will see this coming month is just the beginning. More stories will continue to be shared each week throughout the year. Our community and our people have incredible stories, and Historic Columbus certainly doesn't know everything. We hope you will help us learn the rest of the story...your story, your family's story. Please consider sharing these stories with HCF to help create an oral history collection. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org. And don't worry, we will keep asking for your stories each month!