ST. PETERSBURG — They came from Georgia, north, central and south Florida. Well over a 100 relatives, co-workers and friends poured into the Enoch Davis Center last month to celebrate the life, legacy and birthday of 80-year-old matriarch Hattie Mae Smith, a 31 veteran of the Forest Hills Head Start program.
The festive occasion started with everyone who attended taking a picture with Smith, lovingly referred to as Ma Hattie. The program began with a prayer by Moore’s Chapel A.M.E. pastor Rev. James D. Sykes Jr., who talked about the Bryant-Smith family as one of the cornerstones in the history of the 92-year old house of worship.
“They’ve been here from the beginning, one generation after the other from the old white building to where we are now,” said Sykes.
Lynette S. Buchanan, the elder child of Smith introduced family members who shared their own special tale about their beloved Ma Hattie.
“She is the last aunt that we have,” said Pierce Bryant, the cousin of Buchanan. “She is the last aunt period that we have on my mom’s side and on my dad’s side. It’s just a blessing being here with her today, and I told her earlier that she’s lookin’ so pretty that she’s trying to make Leroy jealous. We’re just so proud of you auntie!”
Born April 6, 1935, in Pidcock, Ga., Ma Hattie and Leroy Smith, Jr. were married for 41 years before he passed away on August 27, 1997.
A mini oral history segment ensued as several additional family members shared special moments about Ma Hattie, who sat and listened patiently, quietly and attentively.
Miami native and nephew Rod Love, who now resides in Orlando with his wife and two daughters, recalled a coming-of-age experience with Ma Hattie.
“Out of five kids I was the one they had to knock in the head all the time to get the message,” said Love jokingly. “My aunt used to show up in Miami whenever she got ready to, not when it was convenient…and every time she would show up and my mom would say, ‘Come out here and get your aunt’s bags out of the car.’ I’d be the first to run and hug her and say, ‘Auntie I got your bags but when are you leaving?’”
Love went on to say with appreciation that the auntie, who would come to visit in the summertime and make them work, taught them that “at the end of hard work, you will see your labors.”
Although Ma Hattie did not have the opportunity to go to college and become a nurse as she once dreamed, she and her husband insisted that their three children — Lynette, Charles and Mark – completed college.
Buchanan stated that her mother may not have had the opportunity to go to college, but she intuitively knew every psychological way to deal with people.
“Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, extinction, behavior modification—she knows all that stuff they put in them books,” said Buchanan.
Although Ma Hattie’s compassion to care for others may not have materialized in the healthcare profession, her desire to help others was not extinguished but put towards helping children.
Her former supervisor Gwen Seay praised Smith for the way she worked with pre-school youngsters, especially those with disabilities.
“We had children who had problems, I mean physical problems, and Hattie would take care of those children,” said Seay.
Seay described several of the children that Ma Hattie took care of: one student who needed to have a tube put down her throat, another student who had only one eye and a missing socket where the other would be and a student with spina bifida. All of these students mentioned by Seay were in pre-school.
“And you’d never, ever hear her complain. She loved her church, her family and she was very devoted to her work,” Seay concluded.
Daisy Talbert talked about growing up with Ma Hattie and how the two became so close that they were treated like twins at home, at church, and elsewhere.
A self-proclaimed “bad child,” Talbert said, “Hattie was the good one.” When Talbert’s mother would leave the house and give directions on what and what not to do, she would make sure she got down the block and proceed to do what she wanted. Hattie Mae would always warn: “Alright Daisy, you gon’ get a whipping,” which never deter her.
Talbert brought the house down when she talked about Wednesday night happenings at Gibbs High School in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“They would ask me if we were going to the school game, and I’d say: ‘No, we’re going to Tampa girl…and we’d be right there in Moore’s Chapel in St. Pete!”
Sharon Mitchell who also grew up with Ma Hattie in Jordan Park talked about the project’s heyday. Mitchell talked about how the two families not only shared porches but protective dads who were friends and looked out for both families.
Sitting at the co-workers table, Valerie McGarrah, expressed how blessed they all are to see each other laugh. She also highlighted an injustice that was quite prevalent at the time when she talked about how teachers would treat light-skinned girls with long hair better than the darker-skinned girls with shorter hair.
The one thing that McGarrah loved about Ma Hattie is that she treated all children the same and would take them anywhere with her.
“No matter what the girls looked like, I never saw Hattie treat any of the girls differently,” said McGarrah.
Despite all the wonderful comments about Ma Hattie’s kindness, generosity and compassion, she was not a pushover and would push back if anyone decided to take her to that point as exhibited in a story told by Myra Wilson, her oldest granddaughter.
Wilson and her cousins Wesley and B.J. used to stay over at Ma Hattie’s house after school. She would always make sure that they had plenty to eat. One day her husband was home while Ma Hattie was making the sandwiches! He complained about how much meat was being used. That’s when Ma Hattie flipped the script.
According to Wilson, her grandmother responded to her husband by saying: “If you don’t like the way I’m making the sandwiches then why don’t you come make them yourself!”
Both Buchanan and her brother Charles Wesley Smith thanked the individuals who have helped in the caregiving phase of Ma Hattie’s life. Minerva Evans who was the local daytime caregiver for six years and Fannie Mae Smith (Leroy’s little sister) who rode on the bus many times from Miami to help care for her big sister. Smith thanked his wife Angela for her unselfish dedication and healthcare experience since Ma Hattie moved to Texas with them in 2011.
With so much more that was shared about Ma Hattie, she witnessed from the lips of many people that her life on this earth has been and will continue to be cherished.