To Nanny, with love
Oak Park celebrates matriarch Odell Singleton’s life, influence
Odell Singleton’s family doesn’t understand the purpose of small cooking pots. They prepare big meals, having learned from “Nanny,” who’s always ready to feed an entire neighborhood, or at least any number of her five-generation Sacramento family who may drop by her Oak Park home.
Family and friends celebrated Singleton’s 87th birthday on August 18 with a backyard luau honoring a woman known for her delicious Sunday feasts, her freshly baked pies and growing enough mustard greens in her garden to distribute to anyone who’d take them. She spent decades providing for her family and many others she helped raise through the years, turning her house into a neighborhood power station.
“She’s definitely a pillar in the Oak Park community,” said grandson Craig Goldwire.
Local residents pay their respects when they see Singleton coming, knowing her as the matriarch of 70-plus offspring and as one of two remaining founders of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, which celebrates its 60th anniversary next year.
“If not for her, St. Paul wouldn’t be here,” said grandson Darryll Allen.
With the Reverend Ephraim Williams at the helm for the past three decades and a dedicated congregation, St. Paul has carved out a massive presence in Oak Park, coordinating community efforts to provide assistance to the economically and socially disadvantaged, while serving the Baptist faith. Although St. Paul now boasts an $11 million facility on 14th Avenue and a membership roll of roughly 5,000 people, its current state is a far cry from the original 12-member congregation that assembled for Sunday services in the basement of a house.
In the 1940s, Lige and Rosie Roberts moved from Texas to Sacramento and their daughter Odell followed, bringing along her four children (she later raised two foster children). In 1948, Rosie felt the calling to start a Baptist church. The church struggled in its infancy with a small segregation and low funds but founding members persevered.
Always an active church member, Singleton served on the bereavement committee, organized fund-raising and sang in the choir. In 59 years, she’s rarely missed a service.
“She loves God and she loves her family. She doesn’t say much but when she does, she speaks with wisdom,” said Lamont Harris, longtime administrative assistant at the church.
As Singleton helped the church grow, she worked two cannery jobs—later doing domestic work—and raised an expanding family. When she had a free moment, she went to Collins Lake, Snodgrass Slough and “anywhere the fish will bite” fishing for “any kind I can get.” Fishing gave her a chance to relax.
“No matter how many pains you have, being out on the water takes it away,” she said.
Meanwhile, her kids would be buying goodies from the Comstock corner store and roller-skating around the block. The front yard was their playground and when the streetlights turned on, the kids knew it was time to go inside.
“They were good days,” said daughter Estella Goldwire.
Slowly those days started to change. A freeway went up cutting Oak Park off from downtown. Businesses closed, and drugs and poverty found solace in properties absentee landlords let go to pot. Respect, trust and family orientation fell by the wayside, Singleton said, and bad parenting and fear took over.
“It’s fellowship and people getting together that we don’t have anymore,” she said. “People get away from one another now.”
But those resistant to Oak Park’s downfall have stepped up. The Sacramento City Council spurred revitalization in the area. The once closed-down Woodruff Hotel is now a community center and art gallery. Guild Theatre reopened with a refurbished 200-seat auditorium. Underground Books holds book discussions, recently hosting Eva Rutland, author of the legendary book When We Were Colored. Former NBA player and Oak Park native Kevin Johnson founded St. Hope Academy, a youth development organization on a mission to instill self-reliance, self-confidence, respect and leadership in low-income, minority youth. The Sacramento Observer rests on the edge of Oak Park, giving voice to the black population throughout the city.
Then, of course, there’s St. Paul.
Sixteen years ago, when church leaders decided it was time for a new edifice, people debated where it should go. Why put an $11 million church in Oak Park of all places? Rev. Williams said the church should stay put because that’s where it’s needed.
“The pastor wanted to stay in the community to have a positive impact on the community,” Harris said.
With a staff of nine, St. Paul relies on volunteers, who do everything from running an after school youth program to organizing job fairs. The church’s annual Thanksgiving dinner regularly draws more than 500 people. St. Paul donates food boxes, provides limited-emergency assistance and offers a substance-abuse program. The church has a Family Life Center, with a state-of-the-art gym, a computer lab and bookstore.
Singleton’s children think with St. Paul’s help, Oak Park is improving. Daughter Patricia Jamison remembers the tight-knit neighborhood vibe of the past, joking that if the kids did something bad they’d for sure get snitched on. But in those days the family could also sleep with the front door open and campout in the backyard, knowing they were safe because neighbors looked out for one another.
Jamison and her siblings think back on their childhood fondly, even the less pleasurable aspects. They remember starting their weekends at 4 a.m. when mom would roll the kids out of bed and the group would travel to Tracy and Manteca to pick vegetables in the fields and gather black walnuts.
“We weren’t normal kids,” said daughter Andria Hampton. “We couldn’t be out playing until the split peas were snapped and rolled.”
Singleton wanted to teach her kids the virtues of hard work and inspire them to make something of themselves, and as Allen said, “That was her feeding her entire family and everybody else.”
For her birthday luau, family and friends returned the favor, feeding her with love and gratitude. The Odells performed a rendition of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” one of Nanny’s favorite gospel songs. Allen said the song evoked a lesson taught to him by his grandmother that he shouldn’t worry about the hard times in life because “Everything sooner or later is going to be all right.”