Helen E. Wilson, a former housekeeper whose struggle to rehabilitate her Upton home after it was damaged in a storm became the subject of newspaper accounts, died in her sleep Monday at the Ashburton home of a grandson. She was 106.
She was born Helen Elizabeth Williams and raised in Pocomoke City, where she attended segregated schools there. In 1912, she moved to Baltimore with her mother, Laura Janie Williams, to find a steady job and one day own their own home.
When she was 13, Mrs. Wilson went to work as a live-in housekeeper for a Stricker Street banker. After completing her daily housecleaning chores, she attended night school at Colored School 133.
She was married in 1925 to John G. Cephas, with whom she had her five children. He died in 1950. In 1962, she married a city sanitation worker, Marvin Wilson, who died in 1971.
For half a century, it was Mrs. Wilson's wish to own her own home, and she continued working as a housekeeper until she was 70 to make her dream a reality.
In 1960, she moved into 810 W. Lanvale St., her dream home, and 11 years later was given the house by her landlord. The only expenses she and her husband were required to pay for the three-story rowhouse were the taxes and transfer fees.
Mrs. Wilson had finally achieved her goal, and in the ensuing years she enjoyed raising her family and caring for children from her neighborhood, who lovingly called her "Mama," family members said.
"She loved to cook and entertain. She prepared chitterlings and made a fabulous chicken soup from chicken feet. She made homemade bread, yeast rolls, self-rising biscuits and sweet-potato pies -- all from scratch," said a grandson, Steven Arvinger of Ashburton.
Mrs. Wilson liked toiling in her garden, where she raised lima beans, black-eyed peas and flowers while singing hymns and spirituals.
"She was a happy woman and God's blessed child. And if anything upset her, she'd keep it to herself. She was never negative," Mr. Arvinger said. "She never dwelled on racism, either. She was a Christian lady who was able to live with it but didn't let it live her."
Religion was a big part of Mrs. Wilson's life. She was a founding member in 1915 of People's Christian Church on Bond Street, which later became Memorial Baptist Church, and she seldom missed a Sunday service during the next 91 years.
She was still singing with its senior choir and was an active member of the Pastor's Aid Society until shortly before her death. She also had been a longtime Sunday school teacher.
"She always walked and rode streetcars and the No. 21 bus, and every Sunday she'd drag all the grandchildren to church, and we stayed there until she was tired and decided to go home," her grandson said.
The years of happiness and contentment were suddenly wiped away in 1999 by a ferocious summer storm that collapsed her home's roof, snapped support beams and damaged walls, causing an estimated $50,000 in damage.
Mrs. Wilson moved in with her grandson in Ashburton. She hoped to return to her home in time to celebrate her 100th birthday, but there was no money in city rehabilitation loan programs and the house eventually fell victim to vandals, The Sun reported at the time.
"For Mama, it's been a constant heartache. Owning that house was a point of pride with her, and that's all she reflected on. She talked constantly about one day going back there, but she was never able to," Mr. Arvinger said yesterday.
"We still hope to one day restore it," he said.
As she earned turned 100, Mrs. Wilson continued to enjoy good health.
"She didn't drink or smoke or put anything harmful into her body. She was never sick a day in her life, and the good Lord always took good care of her," her grandson said.
"She's an awesome lady who always treated me like a princess," said a granddaughter, Andrea S. Fuller of Parkville. "She was all about family and looked out for everybody. Her house was always open to all, and she was willing to listen to anyone's problems or worries."
However, life held one more pleasant surprise for Mrs. Wilson.
In 2004, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. commuted the life sentence of a grandson, Walter Arvinger, 55, who had spent 36 years in prison after being convicted of murder.
"Mama said she waited for him to come home from prison," Steven Arvinger said.
Services were held yesterday at her church.
Also surviving are two sons, William Leroy Cephas of Baltimore and Elwood Jerry Cephas of Portsmouth, Va.; a daughter, Josephine "Jo" Cephas of Baltimore; 17 other grandchildren; 54 great-grandchildren; 32 great-great-grandchildren; and a great-great-great-granddaughter.