At the beautiful age of 86, Mrs. Eunice Wilkerson is full of spunk, class and nothing short of fabulous. Her early life began in Hartwell, GA where she attended and graduated High School with the Class of ’49. Eunice had dreams of attending college, but her family could not afford it. ” We were share croppers down in Georgia, we didn’t really have much of anything.”
Eunice remained in Hartwell following graduation to help care for her sick mother, Hattie White, in place of her absent father. While in Hartwell, Mrs. Wilkerson met her first husband, and later had her son, James. Sadly, her marriage ended abruptly and she was left to care for her son on her own. Upon her father’s sudden return, Mrs. Wilkerson decided to move to Oak Ridge where she had two brothers, Paul and LeRoy White.
Mrs. Wilkerson became an active member of the Scarborough Community. Through her own trying experiences as a young adult, she developed a passion for mentoring the youth. Mrs. Wilkerson organized and facilitated meetings with the young men and women around the community every Sunday afternoon. Because there was no place open on weekends for Eunice and her group to meet, she graciously opened her home to them every Sunday from 5 p.m.-6 p.m. The Sunday meetings consisted of interactive discussion as well as guest speakers. Washington R. Butler Jr., who was the first elected African-American to serve on Oak Ridge City Council, was the first speaker that Mrs. Wilkerson invited to speak to her group. Mrs. Wilkerson was, and still is passionate about young adults and their eagerness to learn.
Although she was not able to attend a four year university, she was determined to provide a good life for herself and her son. Mrs. Wilkerson and her best friend, Ruth, decided that they would get a trade. They both attended Bertha’s Beauty School in Knoxville, TN, where they later received their cosmetology license. This achievement opened numerous doors for Mrs. Wilkerson, and aided in her goal of moving out of the Scarborough Community. Mary Threat, a longtime friend of Mr. Wilkerson, helped her to get a position in an all-white hair salon, Jack and George, located in Jackson Square. During her time at the salon, she was often praised for her work. “Nobody in there cared what I looked like because I was good at what I did”.
With every satisfied client, Mrs. Wilkerson made a friend. Although she loved her job at the Salon, Mrs. Wilkerson was in search of opportunity that could provide health benefits. With this in mind, she was determined to use every person she met at the salon as a resource to help her find a new job. “I would tell everyone I could that I needed a job with benefits. Listen, you don’t get anything by being quiet”. Opening her mouth was exactly what she did. Mrs. Wilkerson spoke about her struggle with all of clients in hopes that they may be able to assist her in any way. “I had a real desire to work out the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and I knew I could get good benefits”. Mrs. Wilkerson mentioned this desire to one of her regular clients, Mrs. White,who took an interest in her struggle, and helped her apply for a position at Y-12.
Less than a month later, Mrs. Wilkerson was working in the biology division at Y-12. She worked for Dr. Jacobson and his group studying Drosophila Melanogaster (Fruit Flies) and Mice from 1962-1989. Dr. Jacobson’s team presented opportunities that allowed her to accomplish a great deal. She traveled and worked with numerous Universities and Ph.D. Students. One of her fondest memories takes place at The University of Tennessee, where she learned to remove the brain from mice while keeping it in tact. Mrs. Wilkerson also co-authored a publication on Strontium Toxicity in Drosophila Melanogaster, alongside Dr. Jacobson and his biology team. During her time at Y-12, Mrs. Wilkerson was also blessed to met her late husband, Marvin Wilkerson. She met Marvin through is mother who worked in the media kitchen. In 1968 she and Marvin married, and they later joined Oak Valley together in 1995; where Marvin served as Director of the Worship Committee Ministry. After the passing of her husband in 2001, she described the support of the church as overwhelming and extremely gracious. Mrs. Wilkerson is forever grateful for everyone who reached out to her during the trying time.
Through all of her up and downs, Mrs. Wilkerson never lost her faith. She never gave up on what she wanted to accomplish, and she encourages us all to do the same. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what you don’t have. Anybody can make something of themselves. It starts by simply being nice to people. That goes a long way. And always, always be eager and willing to learn.”