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At 109, she's had front seat to Detroit, U.S. history

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Surrounded by dozens of family members and friends, Lois Holden celebrated her 109th birthday Sunday at Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, on Detroit's east side.

For those counting the milestones, these include the Civil Rights Act, and, more than a century after her birth, the election of a black president.

"She lived through racism, segregation, discrimination and the Civil Rights Movement," said one woman who spoke briefly at the ceremony. 

Sunday's celebration fell a day after Holden's birthday, and was held after 11 a.m. church service, which was important because Holden attributes her longevity to her church going. 

"I didn't know I was going to live this long," Holden said, when asked about her age. "What I did is, I went to church."

Holden was born Feb. 2, 1910, in Thomaston, Alabama, and came to Detroit as a young woman in 1936. When she was born, William Howard Taft was president. When she arrived in Detroit, James Couzens was mayor. 

Over a 40-year period, from the 1973 mayoral election to the 2013 election, Holden witnessed an era of black leadership in Detroit City Hall, spanning from Coleman Young, the city's first black mayor, to Dave Bing.

These days, Holden isn't able to attend church every Sunday. She had to be pushed in her wheelchair on Sunday. 

But it's been an important part of her life, she said, starting at her father's church in Alabama.

 Her granddaughter Michelle Williams, 50, said that Holden and other recording artists were "all on the same bus, all at the same hotel" as part of a "Gospel Stars of Detroit" in the early 1960s.

"Her details of Diana Ross are different than our details of Diana Ross," Williams said. "She talks about Diana Ross' parents. She knew (Motown) before Motown."

Williams said Holden's recall of the goings-on back when and of presidents and mayors, remains intact at 109. So do her cooking skills — Holden can still make a great gumbo, she said. 

John Awrey of Brighton said Holden has been praying and caring for him since his earliest days. He was just 2 days old when she came to work for the family in the early 1960s. 

"I don't really know, quite frankly, how she came to work for the family," Awrey said. "Quite frankly, to make ends meet, it's what she had to do."

Holden served as a five-day-a-week housekeeper who stayed at the home on the "frequent" occasions Awrey's parents, owners of Awrey's Baking (the family sold its interests in 2005), were out of town.

"She was my second mom," Awrey said. "My kids and my wife don't know her as anything but my mom."

He and his wife Dawn made the hike from Brighton to be there for Sunday's church service and ceremony.

"You just never know when someone's going to come into your life and have that influence," Awrey said. 

Holden was wheeled in to the ceremony wearing a gold hat, a dark-brown fur coat, and silver boots.

Sunday's entree was chicken wings, which were accompanied by cake, fruit, iced tea and light snacks.

Evelyn Williams, daughter of Mt. Calvary's leader, the Rev. Earnest King, recalled the days when the King family and Holden lived on Quincy, which is about 2.5 miles from Hitsville USA, where Motown was born. 

"At the time, I was studying piano," Williams said. "My father had become a pastor and I was asked to learn how to play gospel music."

Williams' mother, the late Emogene King, mentioned "the woman across the street" who sings. Mom thought it would help the aspiring piano player if she were to work with a vocalist. Decades later, Williams said it did the trick.

"We had a piano in the dining room," Williams said. "(Holden) was singing this song and she said, 'Listen to me sing.' She sang this song, and I had to play three chords to this song — 1, 4, and 5 — and to this day those three chords have taken me where I am and further in gospel music."

Decades later, Williams is minister of music at Mt. Calvary. Her father has been head of the church for 43 years now.

As Holden said: "You never know what God's got for you."