Celebrating Black History Month

Levell Manuel (center) and family

Long-time Orange resident Levell Manuel is turning 90 on Saturday, Feb. 8, and she is celebrating with the entire city of Orange after Mayor Jimmy Sims and the Orange City Council declared her birthday to be Mrs. Manuel Day in the city. A skilled fisherwoman, devout Christian and trained cook, she passed on her values and knowledge to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who altogether, number 50-plus.

Born in 1924 to parents Beulah Robinson and Sam Minor just minutes from the mighty Mississippi River, Levell Minor grew up on Pianola Plantation in Ferriday, La., where she lived with her mother and grandparents, Isom and Sally Robinson. Her grandfather was a sharecropper.

“She was very fond of her grandfather,” said the Manuels’ son, Tommy Manuel, pastor for the Ministry of Light Baptist Church in Huntsville. “She has told us stories over the years of the fun she enjoyed with him. Through the pride in her voice and the hint of a smile on her face, you could tell how much she thought of her grandfather. She said when she was very young he made her a seesaw that also could spin like a merry-go-round. This was one of her favorite toys as a child.”

Pastor Manuel said his mother described her grandfather as “industrious,” a trait she inherited. Mrs. Manuel told her children about lean times she and her family experienced during the Great Depression and how her grandfather worked tirelessly, day and night, to provide for them.

“Her grandfather had a market in the front of their house where he would sell his fruits, vegetables, milk from his cows, and other goods. She says, because so many did not have the basic necessities, her grandfather would have to stay up all night to guard his store.”

Ms. Levell Minor married Ezekiel Manuel in 1947, and the young couple started their lives in the city of Ferriday in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, the same place where Mrs. Manuel was raised and where the couple worked together at a stave mill producing wooden staves, narrow strips of wood used to form the sides of a barrel. After a brief stint in Monroe, La., Mr. and Mrs. Manuel journeyed across neighboring state lines to seek out their fortunes in Orange’s booming shipyard in 1951. Mr. Manuel started working at a local rice mill shortly after their arrival. From there, he went on to other opportunities, first at Western Auto and then on to the Phillips Carbon Black plant from where he retired.

“I came to Orange with my husband for the opportunities, for a better job and whatnot,” Mrs. Manuel remembered.

While Mr. Manuel worked diligently to support his growing family, Mrs. Manuel strove to enhance her skills and improve her and her family’s future. The mother of seven children, Mrs. Manuel searched for her way, a way that would balance her familial responsibilities with her desire to develop a worthwhile and profitable career. A naturally gifted chef, she started on a path to culinary expertise when she began attending a cooking school on Green Avenue in Orange. There, she learned the tricks of the trade, and her adept skills served her and her family well. She took a job at the Bingle Café in Orange, her first as a professional cook. She worked there until her last child graduated from West Orange-Stark High School. Mr. Manuel passed away in 1987.

A devoted woman of faith, Mrs. Manuel instilled high moral standards and Christian values in her children, who say they have passed on those same values to their children and so on down the (very long) line. Mrs. Manuel taught Sunday school at her church, Starlight Baptist Church, and sang in the choir. Her son, Pastor Manuel, recalled that one of her favorite gospel hymns has always been “I’m Climbing up on the Rough Side of the Mountain.” She was determined to teach her children to worship God.

“Before church, she would gather us around the bed with Daddy at the head of the bed, and we would have prayer,” said the Manuels’ daughter Estell Williams of Beaumont. “We always knew what to do, and what not to do at church.”

Mrs. Manuel’s seven children had 24 grandchildren who gave birth to (so far) 23 great-grandchildren, but her offspring say she has plenty of love to go around. Describing their mother as “affectionate” and “caring,” her children say everyone who meets her adores her. And according to him, no one loves her more than her 6-year-old great-grandson, Aaron Parker.

“I think she’s the best,” young Aaron said of his beloved ancestor, adding that he is quite fond of going to her house on Thanksgiving Day for a spread of traditional holiday fare.

Williams said that while her mother does not cook every dish on the Thanksgiving table these days, they use her recipes and she is there to see that the dishes are up to and beyond par.

“She is an excellent cook,” Williams raved. “My favorite time of year is Thanksgiving, and dinner must be at her house.”

Williams said her personal favorite recipes of her mother’s include Mrs. Manuel’s chocolate pecan cake and coconut cake.

Mrs. Manuel said she appreciates some local cuisine from local restaurants, including California Hot Dogs in Bridge City, which she described as “very good,” and the Boudain Hut in Port Arthur. In fact, the active, soon-to-be 90-year-old drives herself and her friends when they go out for boudain.

“She helps her friends, and she even drives over the Rainbow Bridge to go to the Boudain Hut,” Williams said.

She does not get to go out on the lake much these day, but when she was younger Mrs. Manuel loved to fish, especially with pals Georgia Lancaster and Rosetta Perry. Pastor Manuel remembered that at times, she would even take him and his siblings out crabbing while she fished. In her later years, she and husband Ezekiel would go to Hackberry, La., where she would fish while he was shrimping. Her son said she has outlasted her husband and all of her old fishing buddies, and after a health scare 30 years ago, he is grateful that his mother is still alive and kicking.

“It is a miracle that she is still here today,” Pastor Manuel said. “In 1984, she suffered a major heart attack. The doctor gave her a 5 percent chance to make it through the night. Thirty years later, she is still here. She attributes this to God’s healing power. It is with this same faith she continues to be active.”

Williams said she admires her mother and is grateful to her for the faith-based values she utilized in raising her children.

“She has been a wonderful mother to us all,” she said.

So, mark the date and prepare to honor a woman who has made her mark on the city of Orange and on all those whose paths she crossed. February 8 is Mrs. Manuel Day.