Remembering a ‘Giving Woman of the Community,’ Mrs. Lela Florence Daniels Gelzer, an African-American Trailblazer Before Her Time


I grew up in a small community here in Colleton County. Two things I remember about our community, and that is the men and women were very giving, and they looked out for each other’s family. For this African American History Month series, this week I am recognizing my maternal grandmother, a giving woman of the community, the late Mrs. Lela Florence Daniels Gelzer, an African-American Trailblazer before her time!

She raised me from a toddler until I was 14-years-old, although I had close ties with my parents who lived in Florida and New York for a while. (It was the late 1950s when I was born, so my parents could not find decent jobs in Walterboro. Therefore, they had to move away to find work to support themselves and us.) My grandmother was born to Rentiss and Laura Rivers Henderson Daniels of Smoaks (Springtown), South Carolina. When my grandmother married the late Rev. Mack Gelzer of Dorchester, South Carolina, they moved to Walterboro, South Carolina and had seven children: Hallum Gelzer (Rothy), 1SG Willis Gelzer (Pattie), Lorraine Gelzer Memminger (Charles Timothy), Virginia Gelzer Thomas Henderson (Joseph/Steven), Evelyn Gelzer Stevens (Kalip) (my parents), Booker Gelzer (Lillian), and Estelle Juanita Gelzer Gerald (Robert). Aunt Juanita is the only surviving sibling now, and Aunt Lillian is the only surviving sister-in-law. I was raised in that house on Wiley Street with my Aunt Juanita. That is how we became so close until this day.

Lela Gelzer’s siblings were: James Daniels, Bennie Lee Daniels, Evelyn Daniels Taylor, Rennie Lee Daniels (known as “Shorty” throughout Colleton County), Nettie Mae Daniels Aiken, and Rena Daniels Singleton. Because she was the oldest sister, she was affectionately called “Sister” by her family! (Historical tidbit-In the African-American community at that time, it was customary to nickname the oldest girl “Sister,” and the oldest boy “Brother.”)

My grandmother was very strict, and she did not spare the Biblical or the physical rod! However, I feel that it was because of her strictness, etc., that was a powerful influence on several of her other grandchildren and me that got some of us where we are today. She had only a third grade education, but she had more common sense than most educated citizens of her day. With that third grade education, she raised seven children as a single parent, and the older ones got jobs to help her with the younger siblings.

Six of her children graduated from high school, one from technical college, one received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and another received a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. One of the daughters was a healthcare worker, school cafeteria worker, and a master cake designer. She baked cakes for many in the community and became known to some as “The Cake Lady! She did not receive formal training for this, but she was awesome at her craft. She prepared and wrote her own recipes. Further, she even designed and baked wedding cakes. One of Lela’s daughters became a mathematics teacher in both Colleton and Florence Counties in South Carolina, and later a guidance counselor, who remains very active in her community and church to this day. She was an instructor at Honda for a short period of time after retiring as an educator. Another daughter was a school secretary, bus driver, teacher assistant, and a pastor. She was a community activist as well. She could sing and play the piano, organ, and trumpet. Her oldest daughter was employed as a housekeeper, a foster mother to many, and owned an in-home daycare center. Lord, could she cook! Her house was the place where many in the

community would gather just to have fun, sit and talk, or enjoy a great meal. Further, she had a sense of humor that would make you roll!

Lela Gelzer’s sons were not lacking. The oldest son served in the United States Army in World War II. While living in New York City, he was a popular cab driver! After relocating to South Carolina, he became an entrepreneur, owning a small restaurant and then his own trucking company. He was the “jokester” of the family. His jokes were sure to be remembered! The middle son also served in the United States Army for 23 years, retiring as a first sergeant. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War and traveled all over the world. He had the most melodious baritone voice and could play the piano. One of his favorite songs that he loved to play and sing was “The Christmas Song.” My grandmother’s youngest son was employed in healthcare for a number of years, worked as a custodian at a bank, but most of his years were spent working for the Housing Authority, all in New York. He was the “quiet one,” but loved himself some professional baseball, especially the New York Mets. All of Lela’s children did well for themselves, considering that they ended up coming from a single-parent home! “It’s not always about from where you came, but about where you are going!”

Many people in the South had to grow their own food. My grandmother was one. She raised chickens and planted a garden. Every year in the spring, one of the well-known community farmers, Mr. Cephus Bright (my husband’s paternal grandfather) of our community, who had one arm and his own horse and buggy, would come and “till” my grandmother’s soil. This had to be done so that she could plant her garden for her family. I worked in that garden many days whether I wanted to or not. The scary part for me was going in the chicken house to get the eggs! She shared her eggs and vegetables that she grew with the community.

Mrs. Gelzer was very actively involved at Wesley United Methodist Church in Walterboro. At one time, she was neighbors to one of the pastors and his wife, the late Reverend Nathan W. and Mrs. Marian Jones. Rev. Jones was also a principal, and Mrs. Jones was an elementary school teacher. My mother use to babysit their only child, the late Faye Andrea Jones-Bennett. As a member of this church, my grandmother served in the missionary society, the stewardess board, and the benevolence committee. Further, she was an avid fundraiser in the church. She frequently sold potato and coconut pies in the community to help the church financially. She also sold fried chicken and chitterling dinners. I was the grandchild whom she would send around the community to take the orders at least a week before the sale. Then I would deliver the orders the following Saturday. Did I drive to deliver these orders? A resounding NO! I was not old enough at the time, so I walked to get the orders and walked to deliver them! It was fun because I met so many people in our community.

Not only did she sell pies and dinners, she would also have wiener roasts. Those were the best hotdogs, which sold for 10 cents only, that you wanted to wrap your lips around! Along with those famous hotdogs, one of her dear friends and missionary sisters, the late Mrs. Evelina Phillips, would make delicious homemade hot chocolate and cookies. All of the food was yummy!

I give my grandmother EXTRA, EXTRA CREDIT for two things that she taught me how to do, above so many other things. I credit my ability to write and to speak in public to her. She could read and write to the best of her ability. However, with some things, she needed my help. When she wanted to write letters to her children, among others, she would dictate them to me, and I would write them for her. Therefore, I had to use good sentence structure and grammar so that they would understand her intentions in the letters.

Each year she had to present a report at church during the charge conferences. She would get me to help her fill out the report. We would go over it, and I would go with her to the conferences to give the oral report. I can remember the late Mrs. Rachel Grayson, an outstanding soloist at our church and in the community, referring to me as “Mommy’s Little Secretary.” In the very first report that I presented, I can recall the District Superintendent, the late Rev. Mack McCollum, complimenting me on the way that I presented the report. He had only two corrections for me: the pronunciations for “personnel” and “benevolence.” I will never forget those two words! Little did I know at the time that my grandmother’s having me to write letters and speak for her at the church would lead me to the writing and speaking that I am doing today! As a result, I have used my writing and speaking skills to teach, inspire, motivate, and encourage many others in and out of this country. “Sister,” I owe it all to you!

My grandmother was a singer, also. She would sing off and on almost every day. One of her favorite songs was “Time is Winding Up!” I didn’t know what that song was all about then, but I know now. I guess I take my singing ability after her and my mother. I was also told that my grandmother was of Native American descent. Some of her features, such as the high cheekbones, light brown complexion, and wavy hair, clearly showed that. However, I don’t recall if that was ever proven, but I plan to research to find out.

The neighbors in our community to whom she was closest were Mr. and Mrs. James Edward Newton. They lived next door and were educators. He was a principal, and she was an elementary school teacher in both Walterboro and Cottageville. They were neighbors true to their calling. They were always there for our family in more ways than one. The Newtons were among the few who had telephones. When family members would call from the North, they called us on their phone. Mr. or Mrs. Newton would come to the fence to get us to receive the calls. They had two daughters: Linda Newton (Jim Gooden) and Dr. Sonia Newton. Linda is a historian, and Sonia is a pathologist. Linda and I are still very close friends until this day.

To my maternal grandmother, had you still been alive, you would be 113 right now, as you were born August 10, 1910. You went home to be with the Lord on May 25, 1971. I will never forget that day when I was walking home after school with friends and saw all the cars lined up at your house. I knew something was wrong. Although I did not understand it then, you were very sick, and God saw that you were getting tired. So He gave you rest from your earthly labor. This was a very challenging time for our community because the day before your passing, my art teacher, Mr. Fred Aiken, was tragically killed in a car accident in front of his house, as he and his wife were returning home from Sunday morning mass. His father was standing on the front porch, helplessly looking on. However, we all made it through all of this by the grace of the good Lord.

“Sister,” we salute you on behalf of the Gelzer and Daniels Families and Colleton County. You were a “Trailblazer” before your time. Thank you for this great legacy that you left behind!