CRESTVIEW — Velma Conyers’ bum leg makes it tough to stand for long periods in her church choir, but it doesn't stop her from getting out and mingling with her family, church members and sisters in the Order of the Eastern Star.
"I used to be going all the time for the Eastern Star and the church," she said. "I used to bake all the bread for communion and dress the church for communion for the pastor. I was a working lady, but times change and I can sit down and rest now."
On Thursday, "Ma Conyers," as folks in the community affectionately call her, became Crestview's newest centenarian. Her kitchen was a beehive of activity as friends and family helped prepare what her daughter, Velma Mary Haynes, called a "simple country supper."
This afternoon is the big party, hosted by Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church, of which she's been a member since 1926. To honor Conyers' community involvement, the church's outreach program is named the Velma K. Conyers Missionary Society.
In 2000, the Eastern Star’s local chapter, which she joined when she was 18, was named the Velma K. Conyers Chapter 7A, also in honor of her service. She was its grand matron for 46 years.
The daughter of Charlie and Hattie G. Jones, Conyers was 3 months old when her family moved from Bonifay to Deerland, just east of Crestview. She moved to Crestview when she was 8. On March 31, 1929, she married James Robert Lee Conyers, for whom the Masonic Lodge next the Mt. Zion church is named.
"There's been a lot of changes in Crestview," Conyers said. "There wasn't anything here but sand. You didn't think there would ever be sidewalks or paved streets. And there weren't many stores.
"We had a theater but it was out in the open, like a tent. The sides were open, but it was nice."
Conyers remembers the era of segregation.
"People have changed quite a bit, and it's a blessing," she said. "We do more mixing than we used to. If I had to go to the courthouse and I wanted a drink of water, I had to get my water out of a different sink over here, and you got your water out of sink over there. I had to go in a different door."
Conyers also vividly recalls Sept. 23, 1921, shortly before the family moved to Crestview, when the city had its second and last public hanging. She watched a long stream of cars driving to the event on Old Spanish Trail Highway, now U.S. Highway 90.
"I was small. I climbed up on our wagon and counted all the cars that were going to the hanging," Conyers said. "Mama said she didn't want to go see somebody get hung, so we didn't go."
Preserving historic Crestview
But most of Conyers' memories are happy, filled with the blessings of friends and family, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.
Swimming in the L&N Railroad watering pond — now one of the ponds in Twin Hills Park — was a fun pastime, as was fishing. In winter, when water would slosh out of the railroad water tank and freeze, Conyers and her friends would break off icicles and eat them.
Conyers is glad to see some of the old Crestview that she remembers preserved for future generations. Main Street may no longer have hitching posts, but students attend classes in the Alatex Building that is now a Florida A&M University pharmacy school. Conyers had a hand in preserving the one-time sewing factory.
"Mayor (George) Whitehurst came to my house one day and we sat on the porch and got to talking and he said, 'Velma, I got to thinking, maybe we should tear that old building down,'" Conyers said.
"I said, 'Why do you want to tear things down and be like Fort Walton? Why don't you do something with that old building?' So people came together and now we have a new school for Crestview. I said, 'Leave something for the children to remember how it was.'"
"I feel pretty good," Conyers said. "It's just a blessing to be 100. It is a blessing. I have so much to thank God for."
Then she started softly singing one of her favorite hymns.
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, to save a wretch like me," she sang. "I get to thinking about that sometimes. It gives me something to think about."
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.
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Everyone’s life holds a special story — particularly for centenarians, who have seen local, national and worldwide changes that span a century and have experienced triumphs and tragedies that we can learn from.
The News Bulletin wants to know about Crestview, Laurel Hill or Baker or other area residents turning 100 years old. Email the tip, at least two weeks before the 100th birthday, to email@example.com.