BATON ROUGE -- Rev. Kermit Roberson stood atop the pulpit in front of nearly 200 people inside Roberts United Methodist Church, just a few feet above the white casket adorned with an arrangement of yellow flowers.
On this Wednesday morning, everyone had gathered to honor the life of long-time church member Ethel Dunn, a Denham Springs native and matriarch of the Livingston Parish Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s who passed peacefully in her sleep last week.
With Dunn’s family seated directly in front of the casket, Roberson looked in that direction before addressing the entire room in his loud, clear voice.
“We’re not going to mourn for long,” Roberson said. “This isn’t a sad day, but a joyous day, a day we’ve come together to celebrate the life of Ethel Dunn.”
Roberson’s words were met with a chorus of “amens” and “hallelujahs” as family members and close friends, most dressed in mournful black, wiped the tears from their eyes and smiled — just as “Mama Ethel” would’ve wanted.
In Dunn’s obituary, it said she longed for the day when she would “meet her Lord in paradise.”
To everyone in the sanctuary, she was finally there, and that was cause enough to celebrate.
“She’s in a better place now, I’m sure of it,” said Dunn’s oldest son James. “And I long to be in that place with her one day.”
There were moments of laughter, moments of commemoration and moments of sadness alike during the celebration of life service and burial for Dunn on Wednesday, Oct. 11, nearly a week after her passing at 87 years old.
It was a peaceful passing for Dunn, who went away in her sleep around 10:40 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5 in the home of Sylvia Jones, her granddaughter who took care of her for nearly two years.
Jones and Dunn’s youngest daughter Terry Lynn were there for most of the night with their matriarch, “just rubbing her and talking to here and telling her we were going to be alright, to just rest and don’t worry about us.”
When Jones stepped out to take a shower, she remembers getting an ominous knock from her aunt about 30 minutes after closing the door.
Though her grandmother had been dealing Parkinson’s disease and heart disease for awhile — so much so that doctors said she couldn’t live on her own — Jones was still surprised when she got the news she had dreaded.
“I said, ‘I was just in there with her, and she was breathing’” Jones recalled. “Then I went in there and checked her out, and she was gone.”
On Wednesday, Dunn’s daughter, granddaughter, nearly two dozen other family members and many friends came together one more time in her honor.
“A loving mother and grandmother,” “a dedicated church member,” “a great friend” and “a great cook” were all titles befitting of Dunn, who went from being a “ragtag girl” growing up in Denham Springs to someone who forever changed the civil rights landscape in Livingston Parish.
All the pews inside the sanctuary of Roberts United were filled, forcing latecomers to stand, as family members, friends, church members, former employers and more came to celebrate the life of Dunn, who everyone described as a “pillar of the community.”
And who could argue with that?
In 1962, Dunn, at the urging of her brother-in-law Cornelius Dunn, signed on to the lawsuit that precipitated the integration of Livingston Parish schools, Terry Lynn Dunn et al vs. Livingston Parish School Board of Education.
The suit, filed as Dunn’s 8-year-old daughter Terry Lynn, was successful, and the first black students enrolled at Denham Springs High School in 1967. Terry Lynn was later one of four black eighth graders and one seventh grader to enroll at Denham Springs Junior High. Full integration in the parish later came in 1969.
During an interview with The Livingston Parish News in 2013, Dunn said the only major repercussion for signing the lawsuit was losing her job, though she added that she later heard the Ku Klux Klan threatened to “burn down my house.”
For the role she played in helping end school segregation in Livingston Parish, Dunn was named the Martin Luther King Day honoree at Roberts United Methodist Church in Denham Springs in 2013.
But until then, Dunn hadn’t talked about the issue much — that just wasn’t Mama Ethel’s way.
“She didn’t like to brag on things, so she didn’t talk about it a whole lot,” said Sylvia Jones, one of Dunn’s eight grandchildren. “She did it because it needed to be done. She wasn’t trying to do it for recognition or anything like that.
“It needed to be done, for her family and for others, and she did it.”
But Dunn did a lot more than that.
Born into poverty, Dunn’s three children — Anita, James and Terry — all said their beloved mother worked hard to give them “a better life than she had,” especially after her husband Monroe Dunn passed away, leaving her to singlehandedly bear the weight of two parents.
With a seventh-grade education, which wasn’t uncommon for African-American women at the time, Dunn spent most of her life as a domestic worker. At first, she received 50 cents a day as payment, but that gradually went up $2 a day and later $20 a day in the 1970s.
But no matter how much Dunn made, she made sure her children had everything they needed, which was more than she ever had growing up.
Despite being a single African-American mother, she built a nice home for her family and paid for it herself, which her daughter Terry Dunn said “wasn’t an easy thing to do” and something that “wasn’t done by many.”
She made sure her children had breakfast every morning before they went to school and a home-cooked meal when they got home in the evening. She’d even feed her son’s friends whenever he brought them over, knowing their families had a lot more mouths to feed than hers.
Dunn regularly brought her children to the doctor and dentist — another uncommon practice in the neighborhood at the time — and to top it off, she always made sure her children had “nice clothes and shoes,” hoping to mask their poverty.
“She made sure we weren’t brought up the way she was brought up and that we had everything that she didn’t have,” Terry Dunn said.
“She could stretch a dollar for a mile,” James Dunn added. “She didn’t waste any money. We didn’t really realize that we were poor because of the way we lived. I didn’t realize I was poor until I joined the Air Force.”
When family and friends came together Wednesday morning, they shared all these stories and more.
The celebration of life service began at 10 a.m. and lasted for about an hour. Roberson delivered the eulogy, but others close to Dunn, such as her Sunday school teacher Fred Banks and her dear friend Ida Griffin, also shared their own heartwarming thoughts to those in the sanctuary.
Banks praised Dunn for her dedication to the church, which she made a point to attend “every Sunday.”
“If she didn’t have a ride, she walked,” Banks said, “and when she got there, she made a contribution.”
Banks also recalled the way Dunn, who was battling Parkinson’s disease when she passed, reached out when he was enduring his own sickness last year.
“I got a call one day from Ethel Dunn, and all she told me was, ‘I just wanted you to know that I’m praying for you,’” Banks said. “That was just her way, a caring, loving person.”
Griffin spoke when Banks finished, but she offered a more humorous take on her late friend.
“The only thing I can say about Ethel is we were dear, dear friends, but you wouldn’t have thought it if you heard us outside the church,” Banks said to a chorus of laughs. “Ethel would straighten me out, and I would try to straighten her out. Most of the time she’d say, ‘Yes Ida. Shut up Ida.’”
Yeah, that’s how Dunn was: Direct and to the point, stern but compassionate, and someone who, like her son says, “played the hand she was dealt in life to the best of her abilities.”
When the celebration of life service ended, Dunn’s body was transported to Baton Rouge National Cemetery, where she was laid to rest next to her husband, whom she married the day before her 15th birthday in 1945.
After reminiscing on the pleasant memories of Mama Ethel during the service, family members and close friends got pretty emotional as they laid flowers on the casket and said their finals goodbyes.
But they all left believing their mother, grandmother, friend, fellow church member and community pillar was in a better place.
“Rest in peace, Ethel Dunn,” her son said.