Growing ‘community’ at the heart of hometown girl

Gethrel “Get” Hall Williams-Wright

Gethrel “Get” Hall Williams-Wright hasn’t ventured too far from home for too long in the seven-plus decades in which God has blessed her with the morning sun, and if given the opportunity to wake up another seven decades, she’d gladly do it again where it all started.

“I love Beaumont,” she says. “I love my city. I don’t want to be anywhere but here.

“I am basically a homegrown tomato. I have worked and visited numerous cities. All cities have their own set of ‘issues.’ But I can tell you this: Beaumont is a good place to live (and) I will continue to strive every day to make Beaumont a ‘community,’ not just a city.”

But Williams-Wright remembers a Beaumont that didn’t have the same affection for her.

“When I was young, there was still separation for the ‘coloreds,’” she recalls. Not that it was all bad, she said. Her father, Joseph Burley Hall, and mother, Lydia Lethetta Graves Hall, owned a neighborhood convenience store that serviced the black-only community she grew up in, and life was nice for the young Get.

Working for her dad, she learned to look out for the betterment of “the village” as a whole.

“We had rations back then, and my dad would divide up things like sugar and oleo to make sure everybody could get some,” she said. “I would take it to them in my wagon, and I didn’t understand then – but I do now.

“I was taught to do what I could for the next person – that’s just how things were supposed to be done.

“I remember hard times, but I also remember we never went hungry.”

After graduating from Charlton-Pollard, Williams-Wright went on to college at Lamar.

“That was the first time I ever went to school with a white person,” Williams-Wright said. “Until then, I went to all black schools. I went to Lamar the first year after it was integrated.”

Although integrated, Lamar was by no means utopic in those days.

“They were just so mean,” she said. It didn’t take long for Williams-Wright to move on to college at a campus where the atmosphere of hate didn’t permeate the air – she went on up the highway to Houston’s Southern University, where she shined as a star student until ambitious job seeking landed the young Williams-Wright a “job with the government.”

“That’s what everybody wanted then,” she said. “And I tested well enough for one of the good jobs at the post office.”

Williams-Wright, at that time still carrying her daddy’s name of Hall, still had to listen to Mama though – and her deal meant that if Gethrel wanted to go to work, she better make time for school, too.

“So I came back to Lamar,” she said, “and I did both.”

She could work at the post office, attend college, be a wife and mother … but what she couldn’t do was sit down for breakfast at the pharmacy with her co-workers.

“Coloreds weren’t allowed to eat there back then,” she said.

She enlisted the help of friend, Dr. Ed Sprott. Together, they went to the pharmacy and sat down to order breakfast. The waitress would serve Sprott, because, Williams-Wright said, “He was light-skinned, so they didn’t know he was black.

“She said she couldn’t serve me, though. So, we asked to speak to the manager.”

When confronted with the assertion that both would-be paying customers would instead devote their time and energy to protesting the discriminatory practices of the local enterprise, management relented.

“From that day on, blacks could go in there and be served.”

Restaurants, buses, employment opportunities – Williams-Wright was on the front lines of integrating it all in Beaumont.

“And it wasn’t just blacks. Women, too,” were second-class citizens in those days, she said. But not everywhere. At home, Williams-Wright always found appreciation in the love of her family.

She married Cornelius Williams, and both worked at and retired from the U.S. Postal Service, where Cornelius was a union officer for the National Alliance of Public Employees and the American Postal Workers Union during his postal career. Williams-Wright, too, led employee rights groups to unify workers, and lobbied for reform in the field. Among the many hats she wore on the front lines of reform during her 33 years, 10 months and 14 days with the U.S. Postal Service, she served as the state legislative director for the Texas State Postal Workers Union and assistant director of Post Office Women for Equal Rights (POWER) Southern Region.

The couple had five children: Gethrel Williams, Cornelius Williams Jr., Burley Williams, Lydia Williams and Cornelette (Williams) Howelton.

When Cornelius Sr. passed just shy of his 58th birthday, Williams-Wright was devastated.

“I loved my husband; he was a good man,” she said. She still fondly reminisces on the days when she was just Gethrel Williams, but is thankful to be blessed with a second husband to love 10 years after Cornelius’ loss.

“My second husband, Lt. Col. Clinton Wright — we married July 17, 2004,” she said. “He was very supportive of my service to the community, as was my first husband and children’s father. I was VERY fortunate to have had two wonderful husbands.”

After retiring from the Army, Wright was the chief juvenile probation officer of Hardin County.

“They both understood my passion for service because they were men of the same desire – to be of service,” she said. Clinton has since passed, too, but Williams-Wright still takes every chance she gets to sing both late men’s praises.

And more than just the men in her immediate circle have been supportive and active, sharing Williams-Wright’s service mentality.

“I cannot forget the matriarch of my family who keeps me grounded in all of my endeavors,” she said, referring to 95-year-old Ollie Mae Graves. “She reminds me that it is not about me; it is about the Master ordering my steps.

“Other honorable mentions of strong family support, in addition to my children, are Morris and Juanita Moorehead, my brother and sister-in-law, and my daughter-in-laws Patricia and Marcia Williams.”

Williams-Wright, first elected to the Beaumont City Council in May 2007, said that she believes it is a shame that Black History Month is necessary all these years after integration and the civil rights movement. But make no mistake, she said, Black History Month is still a necessity.

While Williams-Wright believes America’s history should incorporate black leaders, inventors, doctors, geniuses … everyone, she also believes that isn’t what’s actually happening. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet, she said.

“There is no American history without black history,” she said. “Black history is American history, but you won’t find us in the history books.

“Our children, our black children, need to know there’s more they can do besides run, jump, dance and sing. We are part of the fabric of this country, and our children need to know that for their self-esteem.

“We are not ‘black’ history; we are American history, and until we can get to that point, shame on America.”

Williams-Wright is currently an active member of the Texas Municipal League, National League of Cities, District 16 president, National Black Caucus-League of Elected Officials, and the National Democratic Municipal Officials. She has been recognized for her contributions to the community she loves by National Women of Achievement, Top Ladies of Distinction, Beaumont Professional Women, Community Assistant Program, Pear Orchard Neighborhood Association, NAACP, Our Mother of Mercy Senior Citizen Association, Greater Good Hope Senior Citizen Association, Pioneering Women, is the founder of the National Alliance of Public Employees, and avid participant of Ben’s Kids outreach.

“If I can do something,” she said, “I don’t mind doing it.

“I’m a team player, and I think Beaumont has a good team going right now.”