By Maxine Gross
More than a decade ago, a group of neighbors in College Park’s Lakeland community had a conversation which birthed the Lakeland Community Heritage Project and the Lakeland Digital Archive. Over the years, these projects have collected images, documents and oral histories to tell the story of a small community experiencing devastating change. Using some of that material, we bring you Women of Lakeland.
While women have been formally recognized since the first International Women’s Day, in 1911, Women’s History Month was established in the U.S. by President Jimmy Carter, in 1980. As we mark and celebrate Women’s History Month each March, many of us think of prominent women in society, politics and education. But women walking among us are also everyday heroes, women who make a difference in the lives of their families and communities. The women of Lakeland are surely members of this worthy group.
Lakeland was founded around 1890, along with neighboring communities that later incorporated, in 1945, as the City of College Park. Our region was strictly segregated into the 1970s, and Lakeland was the Black community in a city with an overwhelmingly white population. It was a community of working-class people. The first generation of Lakeland women were homemakers and also worked as laundresses, cooks and cleaners. Their daughters were teachers, tradespeople, clerks and government workers. These noble, industrious women built a safe and secure community to raise not only their own children, but a whole village of them. They worked to nurture and shield those children from the world around them while preparing them to enter that world as strong and capable young adults.
Lakeland’s earliest generations were religiously observant, gathering regularly in each other’s homes for prayer meetings. They soon went on to found First Baptist Church of Lakeland, in 1890, and Embry African Methodist Episcopal Chapel, in 1903; notably, both congregations still exist today, as First Baptist Church of College Park and Embry African Methodist Episcopal Church. Lakeland’s first school opened in 1903 as well. Just as these institutions — church and school — were the cornerstones of the community, women were an essential and sustaining force, a force that made things happen. As they nurtured a village of children, they also taught young and old, served as administrators, facilitated ceremonies, organized celebrations, prepared feasts and raised the money to support congregations. They did all these things —and uplifted spirits — with a special style and flair. In the outside world, many of these women were housekeepers and cooks. In Lakeland, they were titled nobility.
Many of Lakeland’s women served their church and community throughout their lives, and the most respected were honored, in their golden years, with the title, Mother of the Church. This role is unique to the Black church, and a role that exists to this day. A Mother of the Church is at least 70 years old and is appointed by the pastor. She is recognized for spirituality and character as well as her years of devotion to faith and to the good of others. The Mother of the Church is a treasured diamond and serves as a role model within the community. She is mother to all, with the rights and privileges of a parent to love, nurture, encourage and admonish. While some congregations may have a number of women serving at the same time, Lakeland’s churches more typically have a single woman serving as mother. Amy Potts, Agnes Randall, Audrey Smith, Elizabeth Adams, Harriett Morgan, Hattie Sandidge, Julia Pitts, Mary “Mamie” Weems, Rose Cager Adams and Vera Claiborne have all been honored as mothers of Lakeland’s congregations. You will meet some of them and their sisters in these images.