The Queen of Marks

Ruby Montgomery’s little grocery store was a popular spot in her community. But she fed her town in so many other ways, too.

By ANDRANITA WILLIAMS

Across the street from Ruby Montgomery’s house is what’s left of what used to be Montgomery Food Mart, her community grocery store. Now it’s a pile of debris, a chimney the only thing left standing.

That would bother her, too, if she was the kind of person to live in the past. But she has too much still to do. And there’s more to a legacy than a building.

***

Montgomery’s day job was teaching in the local public schools. But the store’s original owners, Flora Shaw and her husband, needed an extra hand, so Montgomery pitched in.

Shaw had been thinking about selling the store for some time and thought Montgomery might be a good candidate to buy it. One day, she decided to find out if she was right. Without warning, Shaw walked out the side door, leaving Montgomery in charge for a day and with a challenge on her hands.

“She had about seven cold pops left, a little piece of cheese, and a little meat,” Montgomery said.

 But It didn’t take long for an idea to cross her mind.

“I called the wholesale place,” she said. “They told me, ‘We’ll stay open until you get here.’”

The Montgomery family restocked the store and sold out of everything they had on the same night. The next day Shaw decided to sell.

Word started to spread around town that the store was under new management. Soon the store started attracting customers from all over town and the surrounding areas.

“People would try our meats and the next person would wonder where they got it from,” she said. “We had the best of everything.”

Customers like Willie Thompson loved the cold cuts and bacon.

“She had the best,” Thompson said. “It was the best in town because it was high grade,” he added.

James Survellian, one of the store’s long-time customers, remembers the place like it was yesterday.

“I remember how I used to buy so much good food from this store,” he said. “And I just can’t forget it.”

Before long the store became something of a community gathering place. There was a grill behind the store where they would sometimes barbecue.

 “We even had a guy in the back of store giving music lessons,” she added.

The store also allowed customers to buy on credit. Customers were able to purchase items and pay the debt later, important in a poor community like Marks. That generosity paid off in increased business and the store made enough money to sustain itself.

 “The store paid for everything,” Montgomery said.

***

As the store’s profile in the community rose, so did Montgomery’s.

It rose even more when Montgomery became the first teacher to cross the color line in Quitman County. Delta Academy, a local private, almost all-white school, wanted to integrate its faculty and tried to recruit black teachers. Montgomery was the only one out of 25 to go.

“Somebody had to do it because we needed to move forward as a community,” she said.

It wasn’t easy. She received a lot of backlash from her community, ranging from suspicious looks to whispers to other things not so nice.

“At first they were saying things like, ‘She thinks she’s white’,” Montgomery said.

She pushed ahead, first as a teacher, later as an assistant principal.

“Now they appreciate me,” she said.

Montgomery always had her hands full. In addition to the school and the store, she raised her children while also taking in five others after their mother died.

“I loved them like they were my own,” she said.

She managed to take care of the children with the help of a community church.

“I did it without welfare,” Montgomery said. “I did the best I could with what I had because it was in my heart to help those children.”

***

Thompson remembers when he was young and the town was bustling. He would go with his father across the railroad tracks to shop, holding his dad’s hand so he wouldn’t get lost in the crowd.

“I can remember back in the ‘60s we walked in the grass to get to the store because the concrete was so hot,” he said.  “It seemed so big back then, it was like walking into the supermarket.”

Most of all, Thompson credits Montgomery’s generous spirit and willingness to put people above profits for keeping the store going through the years.

“That’s one thing that’s definitely missed, a person you could depend on when you didn’t have anything,” he said.

Seems like it isn’t just the store’s old customers who remember Montgomery. Every so often former students, long since out of school and on to their own lives, approach her to thank her.

“That’s the Queen of Marks,” Thompson said. “We call her the Queen of Marks.”

***

So, every day, Montgomery can look out her living room window and see that pile of debris that used to be Montgomery Food Mart.

And that might bother her, if she was the kind of person to live in the past. But she has plans for that pile.

“I want to turn the empty lot into a community gathering spot with a bench for people to sit and relax, almost like it used to be,” she said.

One more chance to give something back to the town that she says helped her become the person she is, the town that supported her through that store, the town she calls home.

 “I love it.”


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