Born and raised in Cleveland to A.L. and Minnie Thomas, she graduated from Cleveland High and went on to receive her associate’s degree in business from Cleveland State and a bachelor of science degree from Lee University. But the soft-spoken senior admits that life was not always easy growing up in the South.
“As a black child growing up in Cleveland, I was confronted with racial prejudice, as well as any other blacks in the community,” Benton said. “But, this did not stop me from living and enjoying life. I learned early when a door is closed in your face, the Lord has another door and something better to offer me. My parents raised us to get along with everyone, and that is what we did.”
When asked how difficult was it to make strides in Cleveland as a black woman, Benton said, “Life itself is difficult. It makes no difference who or what race you are. I have had my trials to overcome, troubles to go through and temptations to conquer, but by the grace of God I made it. Because of the way our parents raised us, life is what you make of it. My father was an entrepreneur, very innovative and owned his own business. We were raised in an environment [where the advice was] to believe in yourself, you are capable of doing anything you set your mind to do. Our parents made sure we went to church, worked hard and learned how to work with people; and that God is no respecter of persons. So we learned to accept folks for who they were and not the color of their skin.”
Mattie married her high school sweetheart, Thomas Benton Sr., 46 years ago and had two children together, Tommy Jr., who is deceased, and Natalie, who is married with four children. She opened up about the loss of their son that took her to the brink of disaster and shared what ultimately saved her from going over the edge.
“People don’t realize that I almost lost my mind, when I lost my son,” Benton said. “This was one of the hardest times in my life. I use to try to prepare our son for our death, telling him what to do after we died. A parent should not have to bury their child. On Dec. 20, 2004, when I went downstairs to my office I found my son. He looked as though he was sitting there asleep, but I knew he was gone on to Glory.
“It was devastating. He suffered with congestive heart failure. I was alone in the home when I found him. I don’t really remember how long I just stood there. It seemed like a dream that a lifetime had passed before my eyes.”
She admitted that after the funeral and after everyone who attended had left, the days drifted to weeks and the weeks to months as she started to drift aimlessly through life.
“I was unable to work,” she said. “I had to leave my job, I was only going through the motion of life. I saw everything in my home in a gray black and white — there was no life in our home. I was on a downward spiral, as I sank lower into a stupor of depression. I had no one to talk to. On the outside I was smiling, but I was losing my mind.”
Teetering on the brink, Mattie said, “One day I called a friend in the Virgin Islands. As soon as she heard my voice, she begin to pray for me, the anointing of God fell upon me, the color begin to flow down the walls of my home, life was returning. I began to praise the Lord and give Him thanks. Then Lee University awarded me a scholarship, I was not sure if I could make it but the members in the class prayed and gave me encouraging words.
“God worked through Lee University to save my life. I engaged in my studies, and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in Christian leadership and biblical studies. After Lee, I was granted a scholarship to complete my studies in chaplaincy and obtain my certification as a chaplain from Church of God Seminary School of Theology, where I have hours toward my master’s in counseling. Many folk don’t know my story, but I am grateful to God that in this trial of life, I made it.”
Benton, an associate minister at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, emerged through her ordeal stronger and even more determined to share her faith with others.
“I am the founder and teacher of the WOW (Women on Wednesday) Bible Class, and the founder and teacher of the Monday Community Bible Study each Monday in the home,” Mattie said. “It is important that as a leader, we live the life we preach and teach about. Being a witness and telling folks Jesus saves, and He is soon to return, is one of the most important roles in my life today. I must continue to preach and teach the Word of God.”
She said another cause that her heart is set on is the safety of children in schools in addition to their getting a good education.
“When I went to school, it was good, fun and the work was hard,” Mattie said. “The teachers had the authority to discipline us and keep order in the classroom. When we arrived to school everyone assembled in the chapel and we had morning devotion, which consisted of prayer and scripture, then the pledge of allegiance to the flag. We dismissed to class. There were no drugs, no guns, and peer pressure was nothing. Children were not taking their own lives.
“Then the law passed to take prayer out of school. This is when all the problems began for our children. Children are being violently confronted with the loss of their classmates, bus drivers and more. They have to deal with issues and situations that should be far from their little innocent lives. They should be able to play and enjoy their school time. Because of the all the killings in the school, their minds are bombarded with fear — of not knowing what will happen each day. I do believe with this kind of interruption it has an effect on their learning.”
She said she realizes school systems are doing everything they can to keep children and teachers safe, but encouraged parents and people in the community to pray about the matter and when called on to help be willing to do so in whatever way they can.
As far as commemorating Black History Month, Benton explained, “To me, Black History [Month] is a time of reflection, it is important to all races and cultures. We need to know about all the accomplishments black men and women achieved. They had little to work with, was oppressed on all sides, yet, they refused to take no — but pressed on with inventions that many folks today are unaware of.
“February is designated as Black History Month nationwide. It is the time we learn about African-American contributions to U.S. history. Families should sit down with their children and share with them the achievements and contributions by African-Americans that are not included in our textbooks. Schools and communities should take the opportunity to display various events on the history of black Americans.”
She then quoted Frederick Douglass, who said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Benton added, “The black man has struggled in the world and his story needs to be told.”
These are just a few of the accomplishments of black Americans: Henry T. Sampson invented the cellphone, L.R. Johnson designed the bicycle frame, Frederick Jones created the air-conditioning unit, J. Standard, the refrigerator. Granville T. Woods, the auto cut-off switch, Joseph Winters, the fire escape ladder, Paul L. Downing, the mail box and G.T. Sampson, the clothes dryer. Without black history we would not know some of these facts.”
But the fact blacks have had a difficult time in life is no excuse for anyone to stand still and not keep moving forward, according to Benton, especially if they know God.
“A person can be their own worst enemy. When they make excuses why they cannot achieve their goal, or they can’t find a job, I say, ‘Never stop’ and ‘Don’t give up.’ There is a job out there and you can achieve your goal, but you must press forward,” she said. “For with Christ all things are possible to him who believes. Yes, I am an optimist. I just believe that God will make a way.”
Bentons said she would like to be remembered as a person who cares for others, one who is willing to help in any way she can and a woman of God who loves the Lord.
“One of my favorite quotes is by John Wesley, who said, ‘Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”