Destined to Lead: Essie L. Bellfield
By: Sherri Gragg
Former mayor of Orange, Texas and member of Salem UMC Orange, Essie L. Bellfield is honored by both church and city for a lifetime of leadership.
A Baby Girl Named Essie
In 1932, during some of the darkest days of the Great Depression, an African American lumberjack and his wife, a maid, decided to leave the gangs and slums of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the deep Jim Crow South. As they turned toward their future in Jennings, Louisiana, Albert Lagard shouldered the family’s few belongings. His wife, Ollie, cradled their first and only child.
A baby girl they named Essie.
The world in which young Essie grew from girl to womanhood had distinct expectations for her life, her voice, the very essence of her being. As a young woman, Essie, moved to Orange, Texas to join her mother where she lived and worked as a domestic laborer. For a time, it seemed Essie was poised to follow in her footsteps as a maid.
But Essie Lagard Bellfield had another destiny.
“She had this ‘spark’ within her that inspired her to achieve and become more than her circumstances indicated,” said the Rev. Develous Bright, Salem UMC, Orange. “Still today, at the age of 86, she has this incredible spirit, and strength of character.”
Destined for Leadership
Bellfield graduated high school, and then college, majoring in Elementary Education. She secured a managerial position at Baptist Hospital where she empowered scores of her neighbors to achieve a better life by offering them quality employment. She became a bail bondswoman, a role through which she helped countless individuals move past their legal struggles to become productive citizens. She was actively involved with politics and the Civil Rights Movement, “sitting on Abraham Lincoln’s toes” as she witnessed Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in the March on Washington.
Bellfield served on the Orange City Council, and then became the first African American mayor of the city.
“She is a pillar of the community,” said Bright, “the kind of person who doesn’t accept ‘no’ as an answer. She is a problem solver and solution maker, someone who is driven to see success and achievement.”
Recently, both the city of Orange, Texas and Bellfield’s home church, Salem UMC Orange, honored her remarkable life and contributions to her community. In recognition of her many years of service to her home church, Salem UMC named a new education wing after her, “The Essie Bellfield Education Unit.” The city of Orange renamed the local senior center, The Essie L Bellfield Orange Community Center in her honor.
Every Leadership Role…Except Pastor
Bellfield loves Salem UMC and frequently reminds Bright that she has held every leadership position in the church except that of Pastor. Today, after decades of service to her beloved church, her health is failing, and her steps are slowing, but her heart still burns bright. Each Sunday morning, long before even the pastor arrives, Bellfield finds her pew in the empty sanctuary where she seeks God’s presence. She prays and sings over the space, spiritually preparing herself and her church for the day.
Bright is confident that Bellfield’s remarkable leadership in Orange will outlive her for generations. “Her role in mitigating the pressures of oppression in this community has been direct and profound,” he said. “Because of her, and despite the racial context of the community, a whole generation of little girls has witnessed a black woman as mayor.”