A birthday reveals the other side of California Street

YORK -- On a beautiful Wednesday afternoon on York's California Street, some people raked leaves. Kids came home from school; parents greeted them with hugs. Others started to get home from work. Some carried groceries.

And in one house on this street, a street that had a killing a couple months ago -- attributed to a gang problem by authorities that has turned the name California Street into a dirty word to some -- lives the matriarch of the street. A regal woman who was the teacher at one-room White Hill school for black children as far back as the 1920s. Then a teacher at New Home school for blacks into the 1950s. Then Roosevelt school in Clover through integration and finally, after a brief stretch at another school, retirement in 1973.

There is only one Annie Belle Meeks on California Street in York. Only one who received a proclamation from the city of York seven years ago for contributions so many, so vast, so broad, that the specifics couldn't be listed because the proclamation would have been wallpaper.

The words "public service" and "willingness to serve her community," are big and bold on that proclamation that is framed on a wall in her home.

And on Friday, the lady known since the 1920s, and today as "Miss Annie Belle," turns 100 years old.

She has meant so much to so many, for so long, that on one front porch next door a woman named Martha Miller said, "Miss Annie Belle drove me to school. Came and picked us up, way out in the country, so we could go to school. She did it for free. Because she wanted us to get an education."

Martha Miller is 71 years old. Yet she knows to this day who wanted her to go to school so many decades ago. Miss Annie Belle. The oldest of 11 children, Miss Annie Belle is, the only one still living. The only one who somehow was able to get to Rock Hill to finish high school, then go to Clinton Junior College, then head to Columbia to Benedict College.

But then she came home to York and New Home AME Zion Church, where she has been a fixture. In York, she changed the world at school, and at home, one child at a time.

California Street, where she started living in 1940 when the place was mostly a pecan orchard, and where the house she still lives in was built in 1949, was a place of learning. Children came to her house, where there were books. Always books, from biographies to poetry to literature, in that house of Annie Belle Meeks and her late husband, Harper. Both Meeks children went on to college and great success in life. And so many other children, too, who learned from Miss Annie Belle.

"A teacher who demanded effort and results," said neighbor and extended family member Willie C. Davis. Then Davis remembered that he once acted up as a child in Miss Annie Belle's class and was whipped by Miss Annie Belle. Then Miss Annie Belle took him home, where he received another whipping. He needed no more whippings.

"She was strict, too," Davis said.

Her home was a place of meetings of community and societies, where leadership in York came to seek direction when direction was unknown, said Pat Middleton, one granddaughter.

"A determined, stately woman," is how one daughter, Ianthia Neville, described her mother.

The other daughter, Dorinda Thomason, described her mother this way: "A quiet leader. Someone who gave good advice. Who spoke to what she thought was right, but showed what was right through her actions."

Outside, the world goes on along California Street. Inside Miss Annie Belle's house, preparations are under way for the birthday. When you live right, raise a family, and help literally thousands of children along the way as you live to be 100 years old, there might be more than few calls or visitors for the birthday.

Wednesday afternoon was quiet on California Street. The only loud sounds on California Street on Friday afternoon should be the "thank-yous" from so many to a lady who made California Street, and York, and anywhere else, a better place.