If you were new to the town and needed some information or a person to stand up for you on an issue, you didn’t get a lawyer.
You went to Helen Phillips.
Phillips, 88, has been to many town hall meetings in her younger years and voiced her opinions on the issues. She was always there.
When asked how many issues she’s fought for over the years at town hall meetings, she said there are so many, she can’t remember.
Mayor Ronnie Williams said any time someone new moved to Garner, people would refer them to Ms. Helen Phillips or as some call her, “Mama Helen Phillips.” She knew everything and everybody.
“She’s the queen bee,” Williams said. “She was an ambassador and advocate. I would refer to her as a community activist, a neighborhood organizer and she was a poll worker.”
He said she was the driving force behind maintaining good race relations in Garner.
Williams, who had been a councilman prior to becoming mayor, said during town council meetings if you voted for an issue she didn’t agree with, Phillips would shoot council members “a laser stare,” to let you know how she felt.
“That’s right. I sure did,” she said.
During town council meetings, when council members would ask the public whether there was anything anybody wanted to speak on that is not on the set agenda, all eyes immediately turned to her.
“They’d say ‘alright Ms. Helen. We recognize you,’” she said, laughing.
She fought for what was right on behalf of citizens who felt they didn’t have much of a voice.
“Things that I see that are not right, I’m going to speak about it,” Phillips said. “That’s just the way I am.”
Phillips grew up a few miles outside of Garner in a community called Hayti. She only had a ninth-grade education because she had to help her father work on the farm. When her father died in 1947, she and her mother and her two children moved to Garner a year later on New Rand Road.
Her home has been renovated but she hasn’t moved since.
Richard Gulley, 79, said the first route he ever took when he started carrying the mail was on New Rand road 50 years ago.
Of course things were much different then. Blacks were not thought of as equal to whites. But Gulley, who is white, said he and Phillips got along.
“It was always a pleasure to see her,” Gulley said. “She would always greet me when I came to the door, and give me cookies or a piece of pie. She always made time to let me know she was my friend.”
Their children would eventually go to school together.
There were only a few stores and restaurants in the town – most of which either wouldn’t cater to blacks or forced them to go to the back of the store to pick up their purhcases.
“My mother and I came on the buggy and the mule and somebody would tie the mule across the street on some big trees,” Phillips recalled. “And you could not go to Toot-N-Tell. You could go order your food, but you had to go to the window. They would call you when it was ready. You could not go in and sit down and eat like you can now.”
“But Green’s Grill, black people could not be served there, period.”
Black people didn’t make that much money back then either. She worked for different prominent families cleaning their houses and watching their children, nine hours a day, five days a week.
At the end of each day she received $5. Her husband didn’t make much more. And they had eight children.
“It was rough, but God brought me through,” Phillips said. “So I woke up one day and said ‘Helen Phillips, you’re going to get old. You need to go where you can get some retirement and social security.’”
She gave her boss two weeks’ notice and left. After working at several other jobs with low pay, she settled on Raleigh Public Schools as a housekeeper for 16 years. She worked the last 10 years of her career at N.C. State as a housekeeper and retired in 1989.
“I always pushed my children to get their education, because they had opportunities I didn’t have,” she said.
In the meantime, Phillips said she met and talked to people to learn more about the town. Soon enough, every one was coming to her for information.
When Phillips thinks of the day one of her sons died, she closes her eyes and shakes her head.
“It was hard,” she said.
Her son had diabetes and had been on dialysis for 26 years. But people in the town helped her get through, she said.
Phillips said she received 240 cards from people wondering how she was doing and saying they were sorry for her loss. She had more food brought over than she had room for in her refrigerator, and more items than she could fit in her pantry.
“I didn’t know I had that many friends,” she said.
Phillips has been honored with many awards in her time in Garner, including the prestigious James R. Stevens Award in 2001. She was the first black woman to win the award, which is given annually to someone who has made substantial contributions to the town for a number of years.
Her name is engraved on a plaque in town hall. Williams nominated her at the time.
When Stevens called her to tell her she won she said she was speechless. She jokes that her husband wrote Stevens a letter saying that rather than she receive the award, (Stevens) deserved the award because that was the first time anyone has stopped her from talking.
“I just wanted people to be treated fair,” she said.