Longtime friends (from left) Mary D. Godfrey, Gloria L. Sheppard, Alfreda I. Jenkins, Norma H. Moore, Merlyne R. Schley, and Cary D. Holt pose outside Paschal’s, where they recently met for lunch. While in their 20s, the women formed a club called the Unique Ones, and they still meet all these years later. Contributed
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This Life with Gracie: Friendship that’s stood the test of time

On a Thursday late last month, Gloria Sheppard and six of her girlfriends gathered at Paschal’s over plates of fried chicken, fried fish and ribs to catch up.

They have been meeting this way – for lunch, a movie or just because — as part of some unspoken ritual established more than half a century ago when they were in their 20s, and they cheekily call themselves the Unique Ones.

Now approaching 80, the thought has occurred to them to rename themselves Unique something or other but they haven’t yet decided.

Here today with Sheppard, a retired social worker from Decatur, are Marva Hackney, Alfreda Jenkins, Willie Pearl Roberts, Merlyne Schley, and twin sisters Cary D. Holt and Mary D. Godfrey, who in the beginning were drawn together as much by the need to keep up with their male counterparts as their own longings to create community.

“Back in the day, it was quite popular for the guys to have social clubs,” Holt said. “They’d have dances and parties and you’d go and have a good time.”

Gloria, Cary and Mary, who grew up in and around Atlanta’s Edgewood Community and attended Greater Traveler’s Rest Missionary Baptist Church, had long been good friends.

“We go way back,” Sheppard. “We’re like triplets.”

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After graduating from David T. Howard High School in 1955, Cary and Mary headed to Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, and Gloria headed to Fort Valley State College, where she met Marva, Alfreda and Willie Pearl. They each graduated in the ’60s and, except for Mary, who left for Texas with her military husband, then returned to Atlanta, where they took jobs in the Atlanta Public Schools.

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Their memories are fuzzy now but Holt, a retired public school administrator, believes it was Sheppard who suggested that they start their own club, and the two of them set out recruiting.

The “triplets” began reaching out to other young women they knew in the community and their church and by early the next year the Unique Ones social and civic club was born. They gathered to play board games, for Friday night fish fries and blue light basement parties and weekend jaunts to Calloway Gardens or the World’s Fair.

“We were enjoying life and having fun just like the guys,” Holt said.

More than anything, the Unique Ones looked forward to their annual dance at the Wallahaja Hotel, which they financed with weekly fish fries and monthly yard sales.

“If you were in the Wallahaja you were big time,” Holt said as the others shook their heads in agreement. That they could afford to add a band like Bill Odom’s group to the mix made the dances even more memorable.

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They credit Sheppard’s mother, Ms. Agnes, for much of their fundraising success. Not only did she open her home to them, she’d do much of the cooking after having worked all day doing hair.

In many ways, the Unique Ones and other African-American clubs were born out of necessity.

With Jim Crow Laws requiring separation of blacks and whites in public facilities such as movie theaters, African-Americans here and across the country did the next best thing. They organized their own clubs, civic groups and social events, namely house parties.

“Employment and social gathering opportunities were very limited,” said Godfrey, a retired federal civil service employee and nationally certified guidance counselor who now lives in Oxford. “We couldn’t even work in a restaurant unless we were cleaning the floor or washing dishes.”

“We couldn’t even hold our dances downtown,” Holt added.

But the Unique Ones had clearly learned how to make a way out of no way. For years, they managed to draw hundreds, dressed to kill, to the Wallahaja Ballroom to dance the night away.

All these years later, the memories lighten their eyes and put a smile on their faces.

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But the club was about more than fun and games. With more than half their fundraising dollars, they bought and delivered Christmas gifts to the Carrie Steele Orphan Home, now the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, gave flowers to residents of nursing homes and decorated their doors with holiday wreaths.

The Unique Ones, from left, Norma H. Moore, Willie Pearl Roberts, Cary D. Holt, Alfreda I. Jenkins, and Mary D. Godfrey gather for a photograph before heading to the movies. Until recently the club members, now in their late 70s, gathered once a month. Contributed
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As they married and the babies started to come, the parties and civic involvement dropped off but they remained close friends, celebrating births, mourning deaths and rallying the troops when trouble visited.

Love, they say, has held those who remain together. So, too, has a healthy respect for each other and common interests. For instance, not only are the majority retired educators, mothers and grandmothers, they are also members of a sorority, namely Delta, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Until recently, they met monthly. Now they gather quarterly. Last week’s lunch at Paschal’s was only the third gathering this year.

They were halfway through their meal when a seventh member, Merlyne Schley, arrived from her home in Powder Springs.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At their peak, they were 12 members strong. A few have died. A few moved out of state. Others have simply fallen away, having surrendered to life’s circumstances.

These women who return quarter after quarter cannot fathom life without each other. This time to break bread together has defined them since their 20s. They are 78, 79, almost 80 now.

Still the Unique Ones. Still the best of friends.

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