As a child growing up in Oklahoma, Rillastine Wilkins would often try to steal a sip from the "whites only" water fountains found throughout the segregated region. She excelled in school during a time when women were discouraged from entertaining such thoughts.
Wilkins was born in 1932 in Taft, Okla., to Willie and Canzaly Smith. She was the fourth of 10 children. When she turned 15, Wilkins sought and received permission to live with her uncle Jonah and aunt Estelle Smith in Cleveland.
"I thought the North was the land of milk and honey," Wilkins said. "But I found out that wasn't the case. I thought it would be great being an only child -- but I cried the whole first year, almost." She didn't get along well with her uncle, but bonded with Estelle. Her aunt encouraged her independent streak and desire to do well in school. "I loved her," Wilkins says about her aunt. "She was a very proud lady -- a beautician, who owned her own business."
After graduating from high school in 1950, Wilkins returned to Oklahoma where she found a job washing dishes in a cafeteria that would only allow black patrons to eat in a small room, separate from
the main dining area where whites ate. Wilkins was paid $27 every two weeks.
She took her salary and bought a one-way ticket to Muskegon where another aunt was already living and working as a housekeeper. Wilkins arrived in 1952 with $3 in her pocket. Wilkins' first job was at McDonald's Candies, where she learned the art of making pastries and candies. A year later, she was hired as a cashier for Carlson's, a store at Seventh Street and Clay Avenue in downtown Muskegon. During her 33-year political career, Wilkins often faced a roomful of seasoned, male politicians. Some, she said, would publicly berate and try to physically intimidate her when she expressed an opinion. Instead of breaking her, those challenges created a political pioneer whose influence helped shape a community, and inspire new generations of aspiring leaders.
This is Black History Month and in honor of the occasion, Rillastine's fellow Muskegon County Commissioners voted for a proclamation honoring her work for all the people of Muskegon over her years of service. We are honored and thankful that Ms. Wilkins took the time to share her story with us on the Muskegon Channel.