Matriarch of Mill Hill turns 99, celebrates milestone with community, friends, and family

Mary Gist (seated) and daughter Kathryn celebrate her 99th birthday with friends, family and neighbors.

Several family members and friends gathered on August 24 to celebrate the 99th birthday of Mary Gist, who lived on Jackson Street over 60 years. 

“Mrs. Gist is not only the matriarch of her wonderful family of six living generations, but of the entire block of Jackson Street,” said neighbor Kathy Dieal. “You’d often catch her sitting on her stoop watching over the block and chatting with neighbors. She embodies everything beautiful about Mill Hill. She is warm, inviting, charming, and a piece of Trenton history.” 

Mary “Bootney” Gist was born in Cream Ridge, South Carolina. Her parents, Willie Johnson (mother) and State Gist (father) worked as sharecroppers on a plantation belonging to Sess Gardner. At the age of 15, Mary picked cotton there. The oldest of 10, she would also help her mother cook and clean. When she wasn’t working, she played like normal kids would, especially enjoying basketball. 

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She was very young when she met her future husband who had the same last name as her but was of no relation—James Harold Gist. James Harold’s family were also sharecroppers. They lived in Kelton, South Carolina. According to Mary’s daughter, Kathryn Gist, Mary’s mother told her, “I think this guy is the one you should be with. That’s the man you need to marry.” 

“He used to chop wood. He did chores for the family,” said Kathryn. “He was young, but well respected. Very respectful.” 

The young couple married and had nine children, five boys and four girls. James had joined the army and they lived at several army bases including Fort Belvoir, Virginia; Fort Devens, Massachusetts; Fort Knox, Kentucky; Germany; and Fort Dix, New Jersey. When James retired from the army, the couple lived at several locations on Jackson Street in Trenton.  James had passed in 1995, but Mary continued to reside on Jackson Street, where she’s the longest living resident. 

When the couple first came to Jackson Street in 1962, it was a quiet, all-white people, according to Kathryn, who was the baby of the family, just 2-years-old at the time. Mary worked on the corner at Helen’s Luncheonette as a cook. The children went to Trenton Public School. 

By the 1970s many Black families moved into the neighborhood. According to Mary’s granddaughter, Vangi Gist, James and Mary were the first African American family to be approved for a permit for a block party. The parties were organized by Mary and her sister Willa Mae, according to Kathryn. And they are now remembered as “The Jackson Street Block Party” according to Vangi. 

“In the 1970s, some of the whites didn’t want block parties,” Kathryn said. “They didn’t want Blacks around.” 

But this wasn’t a problem for Arthur John Holland, who was Mayor of Trenton during that time. “He [Mayor Holland] said they [Black people] are not harming anybody,” she said. Holland, who became Mayor of Trenton in 1959 attempted to lead the way in his city’s racial integration.

Around 1981 and 1982, Kathryn said that more and more white families were buying houses in the area, while Black families left. But James and Mary never moved out. “She loved it,” said Kathryn. “She’s not going nowhere.” 

Throughout the years, Kathryn said that Mary was “mainly a housewife” but she also “did it all.” She cooked, danced, and worked as a cook at several Trenton establishments including Imperial 400 Motel, Princeton Country Club—also known as Trenton Club. She was also a member of Friendship Baptist Church and an Eastern Star Marshall. 

As a grandmother, Mary is sweet but feisty, according to Vangi. “She doesn’t mind speaking her mind and she does to this day,” she said. Mary is also very family oriented and loves to crack jokes, and she loves to cook. 

Vangi’s favorite dishes that Mary made included: fried chicken, sweet potato pie, and apple pie. 

Now that Mary is a senior, Vangi says, “She’s more settled. She doesn’t do too much. We wait on her hand and foot. We just sit and talk to her. She watches TV.” In closing Kathryn wanted to share that Mary taught her right and wrong and to always have manners with older people. “She was a very good mother,” she said. “An awesome mother. I wish she could be here forever.” 

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