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You may have seen her at a Friends of the Library event, or playing the didgeridoo with her husband, Amir, at one of Williston’s schools.
What you may not know is the path that brought Mary O’Banyoun-Abdullah to Levy County is one rich in history, family, adventure and travel.
In the 1700s, Mary’s ancestors were brought to the colonies on slave ships from the west coast of Africa.
One of those ancestors became a runaway, traveling from Kentucky through the Underground Railroad by way of the Great Lakes into Canada, where he settled in Blanchard, Ontario.
There, Peter Simon O’Banyoun married Sophia Wright, became a farmer and teamster, raised a family in his one and a half story brick home and worshiped in the AME Church nearby.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Mary’s grandfather moved his family to Littleton, Mass., a predominantly white community about 45 miles from Boston. It was there her father was born, where he married and began raising a family.
After high school, Mary’s father found work as a substitute mailman. A supervisor advised if he wanted full-time work, he needed to move to a larger place–somewhere like New York where work was more ample.
Along with his wife and three children, the family moved to Harlem. In time, they settled in the northeast section of the Bronx, which became home and where Mary was born.
“He’d moved to the sticks,” Mary laughed. “It was very country-like,” she said, “with a lot of virgin land. It was a lot like Williston.”
Although there were some apartment buildings in the neighborhood, most people owned their homes, she said, and many rented out rooms to others.
The Bronx was a true melting pot, she said, with people from diverse backgrounds and assorted ethnic origins.
“Ours was a mixed street,” she said, “and everyone got along.”
From kindergarten through sixth grade, Mary attended a “little red schoolhouse” that had about 200 students, of whom only about 10 were black, she said.
“But we got along,” she said again. “You didn’t know what color was in those days.”
In fact, only one incident of prejudice is remembered from those early years–a child called her the “N” word, sending little Mary into loud sobs.
Teachers intervened. Parents were called. The matter was discussed and straightened out–with the offender’s parents appalled at their child’s word. It never happened again.
The O’Banyoun family was extremely involved in the community, Mary said. Her parents frequently attended burrough council meetings and were very involved with school organizations, like the PTA.
The family was also centered in the Baptist Church in the neighborhood, and most of them played some type instrument, or sang in the choir.
Mary took piano lessons most of her life and earned money as the substitute pianist at church when the regular player was away.
Money made from playing piano was coupled with babysitting money, and when her brother was drafted into service when she was 9 years old, she took on his paper route.
All the money was saved because Mary had a dream. “I wanted a car,” she said.
That car was the impetus for her larger dream–to travel, to explore, to learn.
Although she did take classes at Marymount College, Mary chose to enter the workforce right after high school.
With a car she paid cash for and a desire to expand her wings, she found a job with the telephone company.
It was ideal, she said. Because of the work schedule, she could change shifts with co-workers and if everything worked out just right, she could have a four-day weekend, and not return to work until late in the afternoon the day she was to return.
Such weekends afforded her the opportunity for road trips and travel.
It was after such a trip, she had her ah-ha moment.
It was after her first airplane flight to Kingston, Jamaica that she and a friend were driving to the Penn Relays. Stopping at a full-service gas station in New Jersey, Mary and her friend Cynthia found themselves sitting for more than 20 minutes at the gas pumps while the attendant read a newspaper from inside.
When another customer–this one white–pulled alongside her, the attendant jumped to his feet, saw to the customer’s needs and returned inside the station.
Mary bristled and moved on.
Later that weekend, she relayed the story to her parents and siblings.
Her brother laughed.
“You just found out you were black,” he said.
Mary didn’t take it lightly and wrote a series of letters to the gas station’s corporate owner to let the executives know who was representing their company and how long-time customers were treated.
It was a wake up for Mary and came right about the time the South became turbulent with the Civil Rights Movement.
The entire O’Banyoun family would gather around the television and watch the rallies, the marches and what was going on in places like Selma and Jacksonville.
Mary couldn’t believe her eyes.
She knew there were prejudices in the North, but they were more subtle.
“I knew about discrimination certainly,” she said. “But I couldn’t believe my people were being treated that way every single day because of the color of their skin.”
Shaking her head, she still is befuddled by the hatred that permeated much of the country during those times and admits there was a time she couldn’t trust law enforcement personnel because they were the ones with night sticks striking marchers. She couldn’t trust firemen because they were the ones turning hoses on the protesters.
She had never seen people for the color of their skin and couldn’t believe other people did. It was, and is, still painful.
Over the years, Mary continued to work at the phone company, a position she later retired from. In addition to a myriad of other side jobs, she was also a part-time travel agent and has been to 47 different countries. She met and married her husband, Amir, later in life and after RVing, the couple came to Williston to plant their roots.
Today, she knows she is blessed and privileged to have the life she has and to pay it forward, the self-described workaholic, continues her busy lifestyle volunteering and promoting her passion for the arts to anyone who will listen.