ST. PETERSBURG – Lucy Toms, née Sheppard, was born April 2, 1916, and 100 years later to the day she celebrated her birthday a Chief’s Creole Café surrounded by family and friends.
Born in Colquitt, Ga., she moved to Winter Garden, Fla., before relocating to St. Pete at the age of 17. For years it was just Lucy, her mother Rachel and her son Willie until after World War II when she married the love of her life, Sylvester Toms. They settled into a house on 15th Avenue South and lived together there until his death.
She worked as a maid on the beach in luxury hotels to help support her family during a time when blacks were prohibited to be in the area unless they were working.
For more than 60 years, she’s been a member of Macedonia Freewill Baptist Church where she sung in the choir, was a deaconess and is the church mother.
Suffering from dementia, Mother Toms had to be placed in a nursing home five years ago. Although her memory comes and goes, she knew she was celebrating her 100th birthday last Saturday with four generations of her offspring.
“I was the only kid so I did what I wanted to do. Plus I was a boy and she couldn’t find me half the time,” said her only son Willie, who now resides in the house on 15th Avenue.
Willie left St. Pete in the 1950s to find work and only just returned in 2007 to help take care of his mother. From him, Mother Toms has four grandchildren.
Her grandchild, Derwin Sheppard, read acknowledgments from Mayor Rick Kriseman, Governor Rick Scott and one that made the whole room clap.
“Your generation has shown the courage to persevere through depression and war and the vision to broaden our liberties through changing times. We are grateful of your contributions to the American story,” wrote President Barrack Obama.
Mother Toms’ granddaughter, Deborah Sheppard-Brooks, said she was so thankful that her grandmother lived to see an African-American president. She told the story of when President Obama was first elected and Mother Toms’ reaction.
“I said, ‘Grandma, this is our president,’ and I placed his picture on top of the television. She said, ‘That colored man?’ and I said, ‘Yes grandma, that colored man.’”
Sheppard-Brooks, who arranged the 100th birthday party, said her grandmother could not believe it when she and her husband took her to their new home on Madeira Beach.
“It made me feel good to know that she worked out there and couldn’t live out there and now we live out there. Times have really changed and she got to see it,” she said.
Scores of people showed up to help Mother Toms celebrate a century of living.
Lucious Powell said he didn’t have any relatives in town so he adopted the Toms as his parents. “They’ve been like a mom and dad to me,” he said.
Beverly Smith recalled how she would take her lunch break from work and eat at Mother Toms’ home at least one day a week. “My lunch was from 12 to 1 o’clock; if I got there five minutes after 12 she would wonder where I was,” she laughed.
Annie Holtzclaw said Mother Toms was one of the first people to greet her when she attended Macedonia Freewill Baptist Church. “She taught me a lot of things about church work. She’s a blessing to me and I’m so thankful to be invited to celebrate her 100th birthday.”
She was my riding buddy on Saturdays,” said Oradell Price. Every Saturday morning Mother Toms would call her up to take her to the store, and if she arrived a few minutes late, “she’d be walking up the alley.”
Sheppard-Brooks thanked all of Mother Toms’ friends who continue to look after her in the nursing home since most of the family lives out of town. “You have to have somebody there to be your eyes and ears at those nursing homes,” she said. “I appreciate you. You just don’t know how much.”
The Spirit of Tampa Bay Community Choir blessed the event with several songs that both young and old in attendance thoroughly enjoyed.