By Gwendolyn Harris
As the firstborn child of John and Cornelia Mitchell, born February 13, 1914, Iola Mitchell strove to be obedient. As the oldest child, she was responsible for making sure that her seven younger siblings did what their parents expected them to. She took the job seriously. At a very early age she learned to cook, sew, wash, and iron; tasks she performed with excellence well into her Nineties.
Iola’s father, John was a graduate of Tuskegee Institute Vocational Program and education was very important to him. He made sure that all of his children attended school. John’s youngest sister, Charity, was disabled and schools did not have special services back then, so she was educated at home.
Iola attended Camden Academy boarding school in Camden, Alabama and she graduated from high school in 1932. She was offered a scholarship to Knoxville College, but she turned it down to attend Alabama State, Normal College for two years. Through Alabama State’s extension program located at Parker High School, Birmingham, Alabama, Iola studied to become a Teacher of Home Economics; enabling her to perfect her expertise as a homemaker.
Iola’s education provided her the opportunity to be an independent young African American southern woman – this was quite rare in those days. Upon moving to Fairfield in 1935, she became a member of the First Baptist Church, where she continues to be a faithful member today. Iola was a dedicated and active member of the Women’s Missionary Society; attending virtually every Monday night meeting for as long as the health of the members allowed them to continue.
It was in Fairfield, Alabama where Iola met Theodore Boykin, Sr., in 1935 and where they married and made their home in 1938. Their union produced three beautiful children, Gwendolyn, Theodore Jr., and their baby boy, Kenneth. Family was so important to Iola that she asked Theodore Sr. to bring his first son Hiawatha, to live with their family after his mother’s death when he was 10 years old. Hiawatha decided to live with his maternal grandmother, but Iola made sure that he was celebrated on his birthday and included at every Christmas. She maintained a close relationship with him through her sisters-in-law and also made sure that the family attended Hiawatha’s high school, undergraduate, and master’s degree graduation ceremonies.
As wife to Theodore Boykin, Sr., and mother to Hiawatha, Gwendolyn, Theodore, and Kenneth, Iola Mitchell Boykin was nothing short of fantabulous. She used her homemaking abilities to create a good home for her family and as a stay-at-home mom; she used her sewing talent to contribute to the family income. People from all over Fairfield and the surrounding areas benefitted from her prowess at the sewing machine. Iola made three-piece suits for my husband, Frank, as well as other men in the family; and full ensembles for my daughters — including fur coats for Theodore and Hiawatha’s girls!
Because she was a stay-at-home-mom, our house was always filled with our friends and schoolmates. Mom was always there to provide snacks and transportation. She was always there for her friends and neighbors. If you were in need, she had your back! She always remembered your birthday and even baked you a cake! If you needed someone to run an errand, do the laundry, or clean the kitchen, she was there. Even those who needed constant, long-term care knew they could count on her.
Iola Boykin was a good friend to young people. A young lady who grew up after I left Fairfield told me that she really appreciated my mother because of how kindly she treated the girl and her siblings when others in the neighborhood treated them shabbily because of who their parents were.
When Theodore, Jr. became disabled, she singlehandedly took care of him until his death. For years she drove him to doctors’ appointments, dialysis treatments, and to visit relatives or shopping, or whatever lifted his spirit. Even while taking care of TJ, she was there to transport friends and neighbors to their own medical or hair appointments or shopping.
Iola has 17 Grand-children; 32 Great-grandchildren; and 15 great-great grandchildren.
Addendum from Grandchildren
Grandma Boykin is one of the most influential women in my life. I had the fortunate opportunity to spend my early childhood in Birmingham and was ably benefited from the love and guidance of my Grandma. I have many happy memories. One that makes me smile today was receiving my favorite jumpsuit (it was the ’70s) from Grandma’s sewing room. Another one; after we moved to Maryland, how when visiting we could always count on the most wonderful meals awaiting us no matter what time we arrived. Thinking back I never remember a dismissed question or a dismissed opportunity to engage us in conversations. Any time we got to stay with Grandma, I remember riding in the back of Granddad’s red Buick while she ran her errands.
Grandma takes seriously her duty to the family as matriarch, keeping the record and history of the family. The sitting room was always full of photographs of family and friends, each with an explanation of how those pictured were related to me. There were always hours of conversation, catching up on what has happened to everyone since the last time we were in town. (Gareth Hiawatha Fountain)
My brother’s sentiments speak for me as well. I have many, many fond memories of spending time with my Grandmother Iola as a child. Much of them center on food (smile); which is funny since I was always being told I didn’t eat enough when I was a little girl. At grandma’s house it was sweet potato pie (I never will know how she knew I stole a taste from the bowl while her back was turned the other way), the best pitcher of Tang ever made, and frequent trips to the freezer in the washroom off of the kitchen to get an ice cream treat; the first trip starting the moment my mom and dad’s car rolled off the drive way. I remember sitting on her bed at night after she’d given me my bath, sitting in awe while fingering the thousands of buttons she owned; all different colors and shapes, each with its own story that she never minded telling. With my grandmother Iola, I learned that a woman’s beauty is in her modesty. This was especially evident when she’d wind that beautiful mane of hair into a neatly tucked bun every morning and proceed to going about the business of the morning only after putting on her pristine housecoat.
Above all, I always knew that not only was I cherished by my grandmother, but that her love for me spilled over from the undeniable abundance of love she unabashedly showed my father. As I have grown, I often think about how much she showed him reverence and affection. Their bond is quite visible. She dotes on him in her classically regal way, not too much and never too little. He in return looks at her lovingly as though every time he is with her, he is reminded that he has a home. I could go on and on and if I started at the threshold of her doorstep, it would take volumes before I’d finish writing down memories of just being inside of her kitchen. All in all, I just want everyone to know – especially Grandma Boykin, that I do not take her love for granted and I know God gave me the chance to see her righteous depiction of love, strength, poise and godliness acted out first-hand – when He found it good to give her to me.