"For 100 years, she has been a blessing to all who have known her," the Rev. Roxana Atwood told more than 200 friends and family members of Marion Sidonia Bryant Friday night at the Tysons Marriott.
The gathering was a celebration of Bryant's 100th birthday, which fell on Sunday, Sept. 17. Bryant has lived in Vienna with her daughter, Doris Mabrey, since suffering a stroke in 1997.
She was born Marion Sidonia Pendleton in Louisa County, Va. and spent much of her life in Fort Valley, Ga., where she lived with her husband, Henry Bryant, and worked as a high school math and science teacher.
Her youngest daughter, Sylvia Lane, noted that when Bryant was born, a black female in the segregated South, neither blacks nor women of any color could vote. Most doctors did not have a college education. The average life span was 20 years shorter than today's average.
But Bryant went on to defy both social constraints and life expectancies.
She never knew her father, and her mother died when Bryant was 15, but her aunts sent her to the Hampton Academy in Hampton, Va., a private school created for blacks and Native Americans by the Freedmen's Bureau. She then attended the Hampton Institute, where she graduated in 1931 with a degree in math and chemistry, a rare commodity for someone of her demographic at that time.
At Hampton, said Mabrey's twin, Deloris Bryant-Booker, Bryant was "a skinny, shy little girl," so underweight that she was sent to the infirmary daily to drink a glass of milk. Her husband would later tease her about this story, Bryant-Booker recalled. "We remember her being — not underweight."
Following her graduation, Bryant worked in schools, first as a chemistry teacher, then as a "Jeans supervisor" and for 31 years as a math and science teacher at H.A. Hunt High School in Peach County, Ga.
"WHEN I THINK OF MAMA, I think of love, and I also think of education," said Bryant-Booker, adding that Bryant was named Peach County Teacher of the Year for the 1955-56 school year. About a third of the crowd gathered for the birthday celebration had traveled from Peach County, where many had been students of Bryant's.
One of these was Evelyn McCray, who read a few lines from a speech Bryant gave at McCray's 30th high school reunion in 1978. "'The education system places too much emphasis on teaching the 'disadvantaged' and the 'deprived.' Label me dumb, and I'll act dumb. Label me smart, and I'll succeed,'" read McCray. "'The value of not having comes in the challenge to attain.'"
"She never lectured when you strayed, nor experienced anger," recalled George Hamilton, another former student. Instead, he said, Bryant only looked on the deviant with a disappointment that "reflected her high expectations."
Al Walker remembered falling asleep in Bryant's physics class. "Next thing I knew, my mother was walking in the door," he said. Without waking him, Bryant had fetched Walker's mother, who was also a teacher at the school.
John Lane, Sylvia Lane's husband, recalled being intimidated by the prospect of meeting the woman who would become his mother-in-law. However, he said, he was met with "full acceptance and love" from Bryant. "I married up, but she loved me anyway." Lane said he first attributed her affection to his own charm. "Then, I found out that, you know, she loves everybody like that."
Following a round of speeches, Bryant said a few words. "I'm not sitting down because I'm old," she began from her wheelchair, explaining that it was only the stroke that made mobility difficult. "On Sunday, I'll be 100 years old," she went on. "If I live to see Sunday." And she concluded, "All I can do is say, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'"
AT MABREY'S HOUSE on Cedar Lane, Bryant recalled her own early schooling at the Union Baptist Church in Louisa County. The school was attended by 25 to 30 students, she said, and housed grades one through seven. Two of her aunts taught there, and she remembered walking to get kerosene for her aunt to fill the church's lamps.
Bryant said she never figured out how her aunts learned to read and write at a time when much of the population in the South — white and black — was illiterate.
At Hampton, said Bryant-Booker, a majority of her mother's class of 300 or so students had been women.
"A lot of people felt that the ones to be educated were the daughters, not the sons," said Mabrey. Men could get work on farms, and black housemaids were vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Later, as a Jeans supervisor in Georgia, she worked with the communities surrounding about 60 schools in two counties to meet the schools' needs. County boards of education were of little use, she said, and interested parents provided most of the support for schools. "That's how rural schools got things done," she said.
She and her husband also helped other black citizens with voting at a time when they had to be able to read passages from the Constitution and pass other tests in order to vote. They offered literacy classes and often picked people up and drove them to the polls. "We did a lot of things other than teach people in the school," she said. "We taught them any way we could."
Just before her retirement in 1971, Bryant's husband, who had been "principal of negro schools" for Peach County became the county's assistant superintendent. This was at the time when there ceased to be white and black schools in the county. Previously, the decision of which school to attend had been "voluntary."
"Change came very slowly," said Bryant-Booker, who had attended school in Peach County.
Mabrey noted that, following integration, a county's black principal often became the assistant superintendent, while the white principal became principal of all the county's high schools. However, the black principal may just as easily have become the assistant principal or been left unemployed.
She said her father took many extra college classes but never pursued a doctorate degree because he knew it could cause trouble on account of the white principal not having a PhD.
Henry Bryant died in 1993, shortly after his and his wife's 60th wedding anniversary.
BRYANT SAID SHE COULD NOT attribute her longevity to "any special activities for health."
"As you live, you learn to eat the right food and not waste energy over things that are not going to mean anything to you," she said. She also noted that, because she never knew her father, when she was young she was told that God was her father. "So I figured, being a child of God, I had to do right by everything," she said. "You know how old people will tell you anything just to make you shut up."
Her daughters, however, cited Bryant's positive attitude, religious faith and active lifestyle as possible contributors to her health. Mabrey noted that Bryant and her husband built an addition to their house when they were in their mid-80s, around the time that she also began classes in computer science.
She also cited her mother's love for her family. "She'll stay until we're ready for her to go."