Mother Gussie Mae Kelley, an entrepreneur, community activist, educator and noted cosmetologist passed away peacefully on Monday, February 15, 2022. Affectionately known as the, "Jewel of Brownsville" her journey began in the red clay hills of Bellwood, Alabama where she developed a robust work ethic picking cotton and peanuts in the field. Although she began with meager resources, she was determined to leave the South and embark upon building a better life.
After graduating high school, she applied unsuccessfully into College in her hometown due to the atrocities of the Jim Crow laws. She decided to get married at the tender age of twenty to her childhood sweetheart, Benjamin and they relocated to New York City during the Great Migration of the 1960s. As an avid supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Mother Kelley's cousin was the legendary Emmett Till who's family lived in neighboring Mississippi.
Upon arriving in New York, she attended the Brooklyn Beauty School to become a licensed cosmetologist. In the early 1960s, she started the legendary Kelley's Beauty Shop, "Home of the Old Fashioned Press N Curl." She and her husband became one of the first Black families to own and operate their own beauty salon, supermarket and barbershop in the community. During the turbulent sixties, while many people were fleeing Brownsville, they were committed to rebuilding the walls and they served their community with dignity and distinction.
For over fifty years, thousands of customers would come to 113 Hegeman Avenue for prayer, counsel and wisdom. Kelley's Beauty Shop became a haven of hope for hurting and battered woman, a shelter of support for the elderly and a place where love was available for anyone in need. Her expertise was so respected that she taught a semester in a cosmetology course at the prestigious New York University.
As a humanitarian, Mother Kelley was an advocate for education. She regularly held back to school drives for school supplies and scholarships for children to grow and expand their knowledge beyond the community. She would often leave the shop and volunteer for lunch duty at P. S. 165 and I. S. 275 to ensure that the children could eat safely and those who didn’t have food she would bring them a warm meal. Mother Kelley believed that those who don't know their history are bound to repeat it and she held annual Black History programs, bus trips and musicals to make sure that the next generation knew who they were. Mother Kelley was an acclaimed and respected cook.
In 1983, Mother Kelley returned to her home church, the Gethsemane Baptist Church of Deliverance in Brownsville, where she served as the Leading Lady alongside her husband as Pastor for thirty years until the Lord called her husband from labor to reward. Under their stewardship, Gethsemane emerged from a dilapidated building with no plumbing and central heat into a thriving congregation that served hundreds of people through community programs and initiatives for cultural renewal.
No one was rejected from her home and she prided herself on helping everyone she could. Her legacy of love and faith will never be erased. Mother Kelley was a miracle. Having survived and exceeded her doctors expectations twenty eight years ago after suffering four cerebral aneurysms, where two of them burst, brain surgery and a stroke while on life support and being paralyzed one side, God raised her back up again! After three tedious years of rehabilitation, she arose from those setbacks with an even greater comeback being ambidextrous, using both of her hands to serve the Master’s plan.
Mother Kelley leaves to cherish her legacy and memory all that she loved, especially her family. Her three children, Sarano and wife, Brooke, from California; her son Janaria from New York City and her loving daughter and caregiver, Pastor Arketa and husband, Charles, her devoted grandsons, Bishop D. A., and wife Pastor Adara, and Pastor Joshua Sherron, who not only served her naturally but also spiritually. In total she leaves seven grandchildren: Chris, Georgia, Angelina, Pharaoh, Jezreel and Grace Kelley, Jamal Jordan, along with twelve great grandchildren, including her newest Sophia Rose and another great granddaughter on the way, whom she asked about often. She leaves to mourn her sisters: Annette (Marion) Graham of Jacksonville, Florida; Shelley (James) Dawkins of Fayetteville, North Carolina; Alma Watson of Dale County, Alabama; and her older brother, Robert from Bellwood, Alabama. Three siblings proceeded her in death as infants. Her sisters in love and dear friends: Codine Kelley of California; Cora Kelley of New Jersey; Jean Kelley of Brooklyn, New York; Doris Kelley in Atlanta, Georgia; Lucille Francis of Orlando, Florida; her brothers in law: Louis Kelley (Joanne) and Jerome D. (Loretta) Kelley of Slocomb, Alabama. Her godchildren: Linda Norwood, Apostle Frank Dowtin, Mike George, Katrina Grant, Dr. Crystal Waiters and a host of nieces, nephews and cousins. Her best friends and sisters: Elizabeth Samuels, Victoria Cooper, and Sarah Woods. She also leaves to mourn her beloved Chester Street Family, whom she adored, the Kelley Beauty Shop family, and the Global, Gethsemane and Gideon Knight Church families.
Throughout her life, she lived by this principle, “God takes care of his own.” Surely, the Lord has taken care of her and her story is an example of what Faith, Prayer and Love can do.