Jasper's Sarah McElrath has worked hard over the years to make life better for African Americans in her community

By LEA RIZZO, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 2/15/17

asper resident Sarah McElrath has spent the majority of her life working to make things better for African Americans in the county. Her efforts have inspired others, including her daughter, to continue the same kind of work.

Originally from …

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Jasper's Sarah McElrath has worked hard over the years to make life better for African Americans in her community

Posted

asper resident Sarah McElrath has spent the majority of her life working to make things better for African Americans in the county. Her efforts have inspired others, including her daughter, to continue the same kind of work.

Originally from Marengo County, McElrath moved to Jasper when she was a teenager.

After reaching the age of 21 — the voting age at the time — McElrath became involved with the Voters League before becoming a founding member of the Walker County chapter of the NAACP. Both groups were made up of most of the same people.

The voting problems facing African Americans were what inspired McElrath to become involved with these groups. Since then, she has served in leadership positions for both groups, being the president of the local NAACP chapter and treasurer of the Voters League.

“When black people were fighting to vote, it was just so hard,” she said. “We had to pay a poll tax. They’d ask you crazy questions, like ‘how many jelly beans are in this gallon jug?’ It was stuff you couldn’t know.”

“Across the train tracks, you didn’t have anything,” McElrath continued. “The NAACP just did wonders because we didn’t have paved streets — everything was so muddy — no streets lights, no telephone.”

McElrath described fighting for telephone lines as “the hardest job.”

“So many houses were getting burned up because there was one telephone downtown on the corner,” she explained. “If one house got burned, we’d have to run to that telephone booth. I don’t know why we were running because it wouldn’t help any. By the time we got down there, the house had burned up.”

As part of the NAACP, she also fought against African Americans being required to enter through the backdoor at the doctor’s office and participated in a sit-in at a 10 cents store where African Americans were not allowed to sit down and eat.

“We sat in there a whole week, because as long as we sat there, no one was going to come in and eat. So [the owners] had a lot of food wasted. Then they decided to serve us,” she said.

During this same time, McElrath was also raising her children and working.

“It was hard because, as a single woman, I was taking care of an elderly person, I had 11 kids and I had an invalid child,” she said. “But I worked for all my kids. They finished school and the ones that wanted to go to college, they went.”

While her first husband would “go and come when he got ready,” McElrath said the Lord later sent her a “good husband.” The couple remained together until his death a few years ago.

“A lot of people ask how I did it. And I couldn’t have done it without the Lord and without some help,” she continued.

Now, her children are spread out across several states, where they live and work with their own families. But she looks foward to special occasions like Mother’s Day, Christmas and birthdays that allow the family to get back together in one place again.

While McElrath has received numerous awards in her life recognizing her work with her church and in the community, she received the most recent one at the Martin Luther King Day program in January.

The award honored her more than 60 years of hard work and dedication as a founding and active member of the Walker County chapter of the NAACP.

“That was a joy because they had my grandkids and kids there and they had participated in the march beforehand,” McElrath said. “I didn’t even know they were going to do it.”

McElrath is still active in the Walker County Democratic Party, attending meetings on the second Thursday of each month at Victoria’s Restaurant, and has acted as the superintendent of her Sunday school at Wright’s Chapel AME Church for several years.

She also serves as the reporter for the Energizers, a group of Alabama Power retirees, which she became involved with after her late husband retired from Alabama Power.

“It’s a wonderful thing to be in,” McElrath said of the Energizers. “I enjoy that and my church work.”

“Now my daughter, Shirley [Mitchell], she does a lot since she retired. She’s stayed busy, just picking up where I couldn’t go,” McElrath said.

“She’s been involved in this, that and the other,” Mitchell added with a laugh. “Then she passes it on to me.”

Indeed, Mitchell is involved with the NAACP and the Walker County Democratic Party and helps organize the Martin Luther King Day program each year.

McElrath and Mitchell both want to encourage young people to get involved with their community and with voting on important issues.

“We’re trying to get young people involved to know that where you are, didn’t just happen. People gave their lives to give you the opportunity to enjoy life a little bit better,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also encouraged people to become involved in the local chapter of the NAACP, to give back to the community and help others.

Despite all she’s seen and been through, McElrath is quick to laugh and reflect on all the happy times she’s had with her family.

“It’s been such a good life,” she said, with a smile.