By Mike Kinney and Kathy Chouteau
One of Richmond’s most beloved centengenarians is celebrating her 103rd birthday today. Mrs. Flora Evans’ life in Richmond reads like a history book spanning the decades with a particular item of note leaping from the page: her seasonings contribute to the success of one of the city’s favorite BBQ joints, CJ’s BBQ and Fish Restaurant, owned by her son, Charles Evans.
Born in Lewisville, Arkansas in 1918, Mrs. Evans married her husband, Joseph, there in 1939 and together were one of the first African-American families to migrate and settle in Richmond in the 1940s. The couple had 11 children together, seven sons and four daughters, and were married for 60 years.
Mrs. Evans said that when the couple first arrived in Richmond, she got on her knees and prayed to God to be close to a church and a school for her children. “It was so wonderful our family church was around the corner and the elementary school was close by…I had got it all [and] I was so thankful I had received everything I wanted for my family,” she said, remembering the family’s early days in the city.
The couple settled in Parchester Village in the early 1950s and moved to the Southside of Richmond in 1959, where they planted their family roots.
“When we came to Richmond in 1940, [Joseph] started working at the Kaiser shipyards; he would complete a shift there and would go to his second job over on Pennsylvania Avenue to help the building of Peres Elementary School,” said the birthday queen.
The couple’s daughter, Carretha Walker, recalled that her father also worked at the old Ford Motor Plant doing assembly line work and that he eventually went to work at General Motors in Fremont from the 1960s to the 1980s. “My dad was not a quitter, he instilled in us to keep on working hard because at the end of the day success is yours,” said Walker.
As for Mrs. Evans, she said that her “first and only job was being a mother to [her] eleven children.” Through six generations of her family, Mrs. Evans now also has more than fifty grandchildren and more than twenty great grandchildren.
In time, Mrs. Evans’ pivotal family role expanded greatly over the years. According to her granddaughter, LaShonda Evans, her grandmother helped raise her and her first cousins so that their parents could work.
“Knowing my grandmother turned 103 years old [sic] just makes ecstatic. She is the matriarch of our family…[and] she is a virtuous woman coming from out the Bible. She raised me and my first cousins, while our parents were working hard,” said LaShonda.
Mrs. Evans granddaughter also recalled that she taught everyone in the family “the value of hard work and work ethics,” showing the children at an early age “how to cook, clean and how to run a house,” as well as how to make money recycling cardboard.
“When we would collect cardboard, she would tell me, ‘Let’s go get our money!’ And we did just that,” said LaShonda.
According to Mrs. Evans’ son, Charles, she taught [us] boys how to cook, iron and learn how to be independent. She insisted we got a good education and we all graduated from high school. Some of us went on to college as well.”
Walker recalled how her mother’s strong influence as a Christian woman extended beyond the Evans family home to neighborhood families as well. “She was a very loving and giving person,” said Walker, noting that her mother “always took care of us kids, and when she cooked, she fed all the kids in the neighborhood.” She added that her mother took great pride in being a homemaker and “never turned anyone away for a meal if they were hungry.”
“I see Mrs. Evans as a pillar of strength in our community. She is a role model and mentor to many of us and she is a true giant in the city of Richmond,” said family friend and neighbor Antwon Cloird.
When new families migrated from Arkansas to Richmond, they were all extended families, said Walker. My mother and father would help them get jobs, housing and food. My mom had a slogan when I was young: “When you get to a certain point, you look back; help others and pull up other people.”
As part of Mrs. Evans’ legacy of “pulling other people up,” Walker said her mother was deeply involved in in the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church on South 17th St., where she was on the Mother’s Board and her father served as a deacon, and they both were ushers. “My mother had amazing culinary skills…she and dad would cook at all of the church events.”
Charles said his parents had their children pitch-in too. He and his brothers and sisters were responsible for cutting the church lawn, cleaning the church and making sure everything was ready for Sunday service.
The Evans family children’s early responsibilities would lay the groundwork for their future success. According to Charles, his mother would train and mentor all of her children to become successful business owners and to be respected by the community.
“Because of her mentoring and helping us to become hardworking achievers, some of my siblings went [on] to have successful businesses in Richmond and the East Bay,” said Charles, highlighting his own CJ’s BBQ and Fish Restaurant locally and his brother, Curtis Evans’ own Mr. C’s hair salon and Lizzy’s Cajun Café, both in Albany. He said his mother always emphasized that having your own business was the best route to go by—being self-employed.
While Charles said his father, Joseph—who everyone called “Big John”—was a real expert in Arkansas-southern style BBQ, Walker shared that their mother was a stickler about Charles getting the seasonings just right. Charles said he would send food out for his mother to sample to ensure the quality and consistence of the BBQ would meet her standards.
Reflecting upon the trajectory of her own life, Mrs. Evans recalled way back when she was twelve years old, she would pick and chop cotton. “I remember when I would pick cotton, I would do about a hundred to about two hundred pounds a day,” she said.
Years later, she returned with her husband to Arkansas in the 1940s to buy land there. They met a white man who would only sell his land to black people. He agreed to sell them 166 acres of land, which has remained in the family ever since, per Mrs. Evans.
When asked what contributed to her reaching the age of 103, Mrs. Evans said, “I believe it was because the Lord wanted me here. I have really enjoyed my life.”