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May V Benson

On Nov. 5, 1921, in the sleep Copiah County farming community of Gallman, Mississippi, a candle was lit. It brightly burned for 97 years, until it slowly and peacefully flickered out in the quiet breeze of the Gulf of Mexico in Gulfport, Mississippi during the early morning of April 30, 2019.

Mrs. May V Benson was born to Fermon and Jenny Lynn Ellis, a farming couple who supported their family off the land they owned and diligently worked. As the third of eight children, May V was raised with her share of farm duties, which included the care and oversight of her five younger siblings, a duty that she faithfully performed as a child as well as cherished with love and pride her entire life.

Her early education was in a one-room country school for Colored children that was taught by her aunt, Ms. Essie Mae Randal. When reaching her teenage years, she left her family home first to attend the Davis Beauty School in Jackson, Mississippi, and then to Alcorn High School in Lorman, Mississippi, where she earned money as a beautician, honed her professional skills and received her high school diploma. Upon graduation from high school, she moved to California for a brief period, before returning to Mississippi to work as a cosmetologist, first in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, before moving to Brookhaven where for 12 years, she worked as well as developing her professional and business skills in Daisy’s Beauty Salon, under the tutelage of Mrs. Patricia Redmond, proprietress. During this period, she married the C.L. Benson and gave birth to her three children, Ronny, Bruce and Abenna.

In the late 1950s, she ventured out and began doing hair in a small hallway next to her kitchen. As her customer base grew, she built a nice concrete block and frame beauty shop with air conditioning and her own “drink” machine, on a lot adjoining her home, where for the next 40 plus years she was the proprietress of May V’s Beauty Shop, and enjoyed the financial, professional and personal pleasures of having one of the most successful beauty shops in Southwest Mississippi. Her customers came from far and wide and all walks of life. Young teachers and professional women who came to Brookhaven to work or who had moved away but still returned to Brookhaven, for the skills and services she provided as well as women from the rural communities of Lincoln, Copiah and Pike counties, who came into town on Saturdays; her lifelong friends and many, many others who lived in Brookhaven. May V was a giant in her profession. She was loved by her customers and respected by her peers. In addition to her own business, she served a term as state secretary of the Mississippi Independent Beautician Association, where she was a strong advocated for professional ethics and standards, including uniforms. She also had the pleasure and honor to train and work with many other fine beauticians, including her daughter, Abenna. After obtaining her license as a cosmetology instructor, Mrs. Benson culminated her professional career as the first black and only option 1 and option 2 instructor of cosmetology at Southwest Mississippi Community College in McComb, Mississippi, a position she loved because she enjoyed teaching as well as the energy, respect and love she received from her students.

Because of her boundless energy, curiosity and commitment to family and community, Mrs. Benson was an active and dependable community servant. She served as president of the Mullins Elementary Improvement Association and the Alexander High School Parent Teachers Association, including a stint, when she simultaneously served as both. She was a Cub Scout Den Mother, Brownie and Girl Scout Troop Leader. She was a charter member of the Lincoln County Chapter of the NAACP and served as its first vice president during the turbulent 1960s when she, along with other fearless people and people of good will, earnestly worked to bring change to Brookhaven and Lincoln County, without the shame and tragedy, so many other Mississippi communities experienced. For many years, she worked part time as a Lincoln County Home Extension Aide under the auspices of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture. She was also a good friend and neighbor to all in her South Brookhaven neighborhood of Petersburg. Her home, time and talents were always available to anyone who needed her assistance. True to her farm-girl roots, she also loved gardening and bringing in her crops of corn, melons, beans, peas, potatoes, peanuts, berries, plums and tomatoes that grew on the family farm in Gallman. She also made sure her children knew and appreciated farm living.

A lifelong church-goer, Mrs. Benson grew up as a member of Clear Creek Baptist Church in Gallman. As a resident of Brookhaven, she attended and raised her children as a member of Bethel AME Church. In 1971, through the witnessing and encouragement of her brother, Labert, and the friendship of Mrs. Alma Smith, Mrs. Benson became a member of the Jehovah Witness congregation of Brookhaven. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she reveled in her faith. She loved the fellowship of her congregation and religiously attended the weekly meetings. She enjoyed district meetings and visiting other congregations. When visiting her son in Pennsylvania, she always visited Kingdom Halls and made friends who were always glad to see that she was back in town. However, of all of her Witness activities, she absolutely loved field service work. Not only was it a time to spread Jehovah’s Word, but it was also her time to get about town, fellowship with other members and see a lot of people she knew. Serving Jehovah was her work, her peace and her joy.

Mrs. Benson was preceded in death by her husband, Claude Leon “C.L.” Benson; parents, Fermon and Jenny Lynn Ellis; siblings, Willie, Inez and Essie Mae Ellis, all of Gallman, Labert Ellis and sister-in-law, Helen Ellis, of Compton, California, James Ellis of Boston, Massachusetts, and Billy Ray Ellis of Atlanta, Georgia.

Also preceding her was her beloved aunt, teacher, mentor and sister-in-the-movement, Ms. Essie Mae Randal of Jackson, Mississippi.

She is survived by her children, Bruce Leon Benson of Brookhaven; Abenna Louise (Herman) Jones of Gulfport, Ronny (Sylvia) Benson of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and a beloved and devoted stepson, James Hayes of Chicago, Illinois.

She is also survived by granddaughters Allisia and Allison Jones of Gulfport; sister Ms. Jeny Lee Howard of Springfield, Massachusetts; a sister-in-law, Mrs. Betty Ellis of Atlanta, Georgia, and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, lifelong friends and loving members of her Brookhaven congregation who watched over Sister Benson and held her in esteem for her kindness, sense of humor, devotion and faith.

Her children and other family will be forever grateful to the people of Brookhaven, especially her neighbors, who watched over and helped make Mama’s life safe, enjoyable and rewarding, particularly during her later years. We also thank her hospice nurse, Alishan Gibson, RN, and home health aide Sheila Jones as well as their employer, Kare-in-Homes of Gulfport. The hospice care they provide our mother, in the waning days of her life, was simply amazing.

At her request, cremation arrangements have been entrusted to the Williams family and Williams Mortuary in Brookhaven, Mississippi.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 11, 2019, at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah Witnesses, 1270 Field Lark Lane NE, in Brookhaven. A repass will follow at the Lincoln County Multi-Purpose Building.

Our mother is no longer with us, but she left a great legacy and a wealth of memories that will abide with and comfort us until we see her again.