By Patti Samar
Ila Shoulders is a woman driven by faith.
Faith in the Lord has helped her through life’s ups and downs. And, over the past 100 years of her life, Shoulders has had reason to question that faith – and she’s certainly been given reason to question her faith in humanity itself – but she did not question that faith. In return, her faith in the Lord not only comforted her, but led her to a place where she brought comfort to her community. Shoulders has volunteered thousands of hours of her time, during her very long life, to help make the Blue Water Area a better place to live.
“There is so much I depend on God for,” said Shoulders. “I depend on Him for everything. He is my everything.”
Shoulders – who celebrated her 100th birthday on January 10 of this year – has been named the recipient of the Blue Water Woman Civic Leader Award for her lifelong dedication to making the community better.
“She’s very inspiring,” said Donna Schwartz of Port Huron, who nominated Shoulders for this award. “When she becomes involved, she’s a change-agent for any organization or cause she believes in. She is a brilliant woman.”
Shoulders said she got involved in community events for a simple reason: “I wanted to see my community become better, and I wanted to see people become better, and I wanted to keep busy.”
Born in Letahatchie, Alabama in 1920, Shoulders moved to Michigan when she was four years old.
“Our family moved because black people were being lynched just for being black, and it was not safe for us in the south,” she said.
After Shoulders graduated from high school, she attended Port Huron Junior College, now known as St. Clair County Community College. She married Earl Shoulders Sr. and together they had four children.
Shoulders worked for the St. Clair County Economic Opportunity Committee and helped establish the first Head Start daycare program in St. Clair County. She later worked for the Michigan Employment Security Commission, and then retired from the Social Security Administration.
Shoulders is most proud of her volunteer efforts, especially those that helped establish the Peoples Clinic in Port Huron. The clinic provides free healthcare to those who cannot afford it.
“I worked at the clinic for 21 years,” she said. “We started it because a group of people saw that people were not getting the healthcare they needed.”
She noted that it took a while to help spread the news throughout the neighborhoods that free healthcare was available to people.
“People who don’t have much, don’t expect much, and they feel they don’t deserve it,” she said.
Shoulders was also instrumental in establishing the Blue Water Citizens Against Crime neighborhood watch group and the Southside Coalition.
Schwartz noted that due to Shoulders’ involvement, residents on the south side of Port Huron were able to drive drug trafficking out of their neighborhoods.
Shoulders has been recognized for her volunteer community leadership roles throughout her life. She received a Spirit of Port Huron Lifetime Achievement Award, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major Award, and the Distinguished Service Award from the Port Huron Council Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).
Shoulders was also an active volunteer with Blue Water Habitat for Humanity and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
During the course of her life, she’s been witness to much change in the Blue Water Area and beyond, particularly the ways in which people of color are treated, and the benefits that came to them with the establishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The Civil Rights Movement was a great thing for black people,” she said. “Before that, right here in Port Huron, we couldn’t live anywhere we wanted to. Landlords had an unwritten law between them that they wouldn’t rent to black people.
“And jobs opened up…before that, we were refused jobs because of our color. It made things very hard for people.”
Shoulders recalled a painful medical incident.
“I was pregnant and I had a toothache, so I went to the dentist downtown here, and he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t treat black people.’ So I went to another dentist and he told me, ‘I don’t treat pregnant women.’ A friend of mine took me to Canada. The dentist was a really nice person. I went to him for years. I brought my kids to see him. He really spoiled me.”
Regarding the state of race relations in the country today, Shoulders said: “Things are a little better, but the change is subtle. It’s not as good as it should be.
“Prejudice is a terrible thing. People need to not be prejudice. But that’s a hard thing to conquer. It’s taught in the home. Little kids see no prejudice. It’s taught to them. It’s a sad situation in our culture.”
Throughout her life, whenever difficult situations arose, Shoulders turned to her faith for support and comfort. She grew up attending St. Paul’s church in Port Huron, and as an adult became a founding member of Faith Christian Community Church.
“All of my friends, we went to the same church,” she said. “We had to go to church before we could do anything else. Any time the church doors were open, we had to be there.
“My church means I have a home, and after I leave here, I have a Heavenly home.”
Her favorite hymn also mirrors the way Shoulders views her past century of life: “I like to think of that song we sing all of the time: ‘He’s been good to me, He’s been good to me.”