Five decades ago, a dozen ladies sparked a flame still carried by Torchlighters.
Doris Alexander was a member of that original group of women and has served as the advisor to the Torchlighters since its inception. Alexander, 92, of Shipman has mentored more girls than anyone can count. A retired educator, she lived through the dark times of Civil Rights advocation and not only survived, but thrived to make her corner of the world a better place. One of her contributions to the George County community is an organization known as the Torchlighters.
Torchlighters is a program for young African-American girls to be exposed to community volunteer service, cultural experiences, etiquette, social graces, educational excursions and more. It was born from local members of the Alpha Pi Chi national sorority. The national organization of Alpha Pi Chi was founded in 1963 in Chicago, Ill. with a focus on education and community service. “A friend in Mobile introduced us to the sorority,” Alexander said. Twelve African-American women organized George County’s Lambda Delta Mu chapter of the Alpha Pi Chi Sorority in 1972. Charter members were Alexander, Myrtis Talbert, Coe Alice Stirgus, Joan Johnson, Julia Sargent, Marian Wilson, Alberta Gaines, Yvonne Stallworth, Alice Johnson, Loraine Jones, Johnnye Taylor and Maybird Grant. Several have passed away or moved. The remaining charter members who are currently active are Alexander, Talbert and Stirgus.
Since 1976 groups of eight to 12 girls have met regularly to learn life lessons and commit to making their lives meaningful. These young women were invited to join Torchlighters in the ninth grade and continued with the organization through their senior year. Sometime in the 2000s, it became difficult to get enough teenage girls to join. “Nowadays our Torchlighters are mostly elementary age because it’s hard to get them interested in high school,” Alexander said.
Priscilla Talbert Ludgood, 60, was in the first Torchlighters group, 1976-1980. Her mother, Myrtis Talbert, is a charter member of the sponsoring sorority. “I have nothing but fond memories of being a Torchlighter,” Ludgood said. Ludgood graduated George County High School in 1980. She earned a degree in Business Administration in May 1984 from Alcorn State University. She has been employed by Century Bank in Lucedale for 42 years and currently serves as Vice-President CRA and Compliance Officer.
Among her favorite memories is a summer trip to Atlanta. “Our first trip was to Atlanta, Ga. where we attended the national convention of the Alpha Pi Chi sorority. We attended the ball and toured the city,” Ludgood recalled. “To get to travel to places like that back then was like a dream.” Such trips were funded through proceeds from an annual beauty pageant with awards in physical fitness, talent and stage presence competitions. Cassandra Talbert, Ludgood’s cousin, was the first queen back in 1977. The queen, who rides in Lucedale’s annual Christmas parade, is selected based on the amount of money raised.
Alice “Shan” Hollway Knight, 42, was a Torchlighter 1995 through 1998 and served as Miss Torchlighter in Lucedale’s 1998 Christmas Parade. She graduated George County High School in May 1999. She attended Mississippi State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a minor in Economics. Currently Knight serves as Branch Manager/Vice President at First State Bank in Lucedale.
“My favorite memory of being a Torchlighter was volunteering at Glenn Oaks Nursing Home to paint nails, read and sing to the residents,” she said. “Also, I enjoyed trips to the senior bowl football games.”
For community projects, Knight’s group sponsored a portion of Highway 26 to pick up trash as part of the Adopt-A-Highway cleanup campaign. They also assisted the Fine Arts Club at Gingham Tree Arts and Crafts Festival each year by handing out water and directing parking for the attendees.
Another former Torchlighter who has remained in George County is Brittney Gannaway Willis, 35, a 2005 George County High School graduate. She attended Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi where she earned a degree in social work. Currently, Willis is a training specialist for George and Stone counties for the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services.
“Because of my childhood upbringing and the influence Mrs. Alexander had within my life, it has shaped who I am today,” Willis said. She remembers not only going to museums and other educational places, but also learning sewing and cooking skills. Willis was crowned Torchlighter queen in 2003. She, as well as many of the girls, were also part of Mrs. Alexander’s 4-H Club. “As a former Torchlighter and 4-H Club member, there were a lot of community projects that were completed under the supervision of Mrs. Doris Alexander,” Willis said.
Ludgood said, “One thing is for sure. We all have a Mrs. Alexander story. Our group had the privilege of being on television at WLOX. Mrs. Alexander was big on community service.” said.
Torchlighter community projects vary from class to class. Some girls have been Candy Stripers at George County Hospital handing out newspapers to patients and operating as a clerk to visitors via phone and face to face. Torchlighters have also rung the bell for Salvation Army during Christmas season and bought gifts for needy children on the local Angle Tree. Some provided fruit baskets and cleaning services to elderly individuals within the community. They also mentor the younger girls.
“We were encouraged to come back and support younger Torchlighters to teach them regarding their character, overall physical appearance and so forth,” Willis said.
Their days as a Torchlighter might officially end when they complete the program, but most of these ladies carry the flame for life.