Friends remember Young as vibrant civic, business leader

Staff Report

Friends remember Mary Rylander Young as a trailblazing business and civic leader who devoted her life to making her parish and state a better place to live.

Mary Rylander Young

Young, a prominent businesswoman who achieved milestones locally and statewide, died on Sept. 4 – her 97th birthday.

She was a member of numerous state and local organizations and held offices in many of those groups. In the 1950s, Young and her late husband, Warren Rylander, opened Mary’s Place, a small café in Seymourville, which became a popular spot for residents of the community and workers at the chemical plants.

She and her daughter, the late Dr. Kiki Thomas, founded F&A Christian Bookstore in 1994, a business they named in honor of her parents, Frank and Adlean Wilson.

Young’s pioneering spirit played a key role in the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s, when she led the push for voter registration in her community.

Young was instrumental in the efforts to bring The Congress of Racial Equality to Plaquemine in 1963 for voter registration drives.

“Mary would prepare food and send it to the workers at the Jackson Hotel from Mary’s Place,” said Linda Johnson, who knew Young since childhood.

Alabama Civil Rights activist Spiver Gordon, who took part in the 1965 March to Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Sen. John Lewis, worked with Young on issues in Iberville Parish.

“She and her whole family were among the few businesspeople courageous enough to take a stand,” said Gordon, 81, who lives in Ewtah, Ala., between Meridian, Miss., and Tuscaloosa. “She was truly identified with that movement and was one of the foot soldiers who was very involved, very committed and dedicated to dealing with those type of issues.”

Her work in the Civil Rights movement should never be underestimated, Gordon said.

“It was considered very threatening to the power structure to push voter registration, along with her work to annex Seymourville, for which she helped through a registration drive,” he said. “Miss Mary was an outstanding, courageous foot soldier who made her mark and name among us for those least among us.”

Young also became instrumental the start of a parishwide women’s group that drew from women throughout the parish. The group became known as Iberville Women on the Move.

“I suggested that she find women who would be from all over the parish, and I figured she would not be successful in talking with them,” Johnson recalled. “She did, and I suggested she call a meeting, elect officers, form an executive committee and hold an annual membership meeting parishwide.”

The group also started the first Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration.

Her influence spread to the state level when then-Gov. Edwin Edwards appointed her to the Louisiana Board of Probations and Parole. She also became one of the first black business owners to join the Iberville Chamber of Commerce.

Bishop Sam Butler, pastor of St. Luke Family Christian Center, remembers Young as a vibrant member of the congregation – and one who always strived to bring out the best in others.

“She challenged young people and put forth plans and challenges for them to be successful. When I met her, I wondered where she got the energy, because she never stopped and never slowed down – and I’d tell her I hope to have that energy if I reach her age,” he said. “She had a wonderful smile, always had advice and a strong opinion, particularly in terms of business ethics.

“People loved her for who she was, and she challenged people to do better … a true trailblazer,” Butler said. “She didn’t really demand respect – she commanded it.”

Johnson also remembers her work outside of public service.

“When my church decided to write a cookbook, I called Mary and asked how she made her hamburgers,” she said. “She would sell the hamburgers on toasted bread, and her recipe was toasting the bread, she’d put butter one piece and mayonnaise on the other piece, and add the cooked meat that had only salt and pepper – along with tomato and lettuce – and then cut it in a triangle. It was absolutely the best hamburger.”

Young later worked at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Institute in St. Gabriel. She would make the drive each day along with the daughters of her best friend, Doris Demby-Smith, who worked 23 years as head cook at the Iberville Parish Jail.

She remembers Young for the encouragement she gave the local youth.

“She always pushed getting and education and bettering yourself -- and the more you helped yourself, the more she’d help you,” Smith said. “My kids were starting off and didn’t have transportation, and were just trying to make a living, and Mary was happy to help with that.

“Mary always wanted things done correctly and professionally,” she said. “She always told people that if they didn’t do that, they’d never gain anything.”

It’s the same approach that Young applied to everything she did in life, and the younger generation should take a page from that book, Johnson said.

“We tend to forget the accomplishments of persons who helped bring us forward. No, we are not there yet, but we are moving forward,” she said. “Mary had a very distinct voice

“I will never forget her voice,” Johnson said. “It will be missed by me and all who knew and loved her.”