By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Image By Mike Ritterbeck

For the mother is and must be, whether she knows it or not, the greatest, strongest,

and most lasting teacher her children will have.

Hanna Whitall Smith

Born in 1918, Mother Ethel Rivers is recognized as the oldest living Gullah, and has the distinction of being the only living former resident of Hilton Head Island’s historic Mitchelville. She is the keeper of the native islanders’ history, and she is revered by all who know her. It was truly an honor to sit down with Mother Rivers as she reminisced about her life and took me back in time to experience what life was like for her on Hilton Head in the early days before the bridges and parkways and fancy resorts. 

The afternoon was full sunshine on the day we met. She sat in front of me in her easy chair, and I had the privilege of spending hours with her as she shared her wisdom and experience. Mother Rivers talked about her life with astonishing detail, and shared warm memories about her early life. Nicknamed “Little Sister” as a child, she was born into a family of farmers who raised bees for honey and grew rice, corn, watermelon, butter beans and sugar cane. 

Mother Ethel Rivers | An Island Treasure
Photo Credit: Lloyd Wainscott

It’s hard to imagine how life was before the bridge, when life’s pace was more relaxed and everyone was self-sufficient; it was a time when everyone worked together, and helped and supported each other. She said, 

It was just how it was done. Hilton Head used to be a quite lovely place to live. Everything was right here. Within a mile walk, you could get fish, fruit and vegetables. We didn’t have to go far for food or have a need to buy it. Food was much better than what comes from the store now. We considered ourselves to be rich, because everything that we needed was right here.

After the bridge was built and developers began coming to the island, it became another place. When asked about what was the first thing that was changed on the island that she didn’t like, she said, “I didn’t like that the town required me to get a permit to go fishing. Before, we could go anywhere and fish at any time.” She grew up in a time when life was full of hard work tending crops and fishing to catch the evening’s dinner. In those days, she could buy a house on an acre for only $300 while making $.50 a day. After an honest day’s work, she looked forward to spending the evening around the table enjoying the company of her family and neighbor’s. In those days, so much was shared among the neighbors; it was a real community. There weren’t the kind of conflicts and disputes between people like we have today, but when they needed him, there was Judge Hodges who was available to settle disputes.

Her parents, Jacob and Viola Green had 11 children, and she was the only girl. Viola poured all of the necessary life skills into young Ethel that she could, including teaching her to quilt and make pillows, which she continued until recently. By the time that she was 17, Ethel married Nathan “Apple” Rivers, and at that point, decided to dedicate her life to making a home for her family and raising her children. “It’s important to teach children to have respect for everyone and to always do right by people,” she said. Teaching her children to have good manners, live in truth and with honesty was what she believed in as being most important.

“I always treated people like I wanted to be treated and

I try to do the right thing the best way I know how.

In my house, everyone got an equal share,” she said.

Mother Ethel Rivers

After 74 years of marriage, Nathan died in 1975. At his death, she pledged that she would not re-marry, saying that “he would be her only love.” She is proud to say that she is the mother of 17 children, 11 boys and 6 girls, and that she never went to the hospital to give birth. Today, she is the matriarch presiding over 16 grandchildren and 32 great grandchildren and “after that, I stopped counting,” she joked. 

Photo Credit: Lloyd Wainscott

Mother Rivers is 101 years young today. Her life is a testimony that is rich in spreading kindness and compassion while creating an incredible family legacy of strong values and character that has continued for several generations.  Her tremendous heart is a testament to the great love and devotion she has for her family and her community. She has always worked hard and given her best to all of those with whom she comes into contact. 

As one of the island’s true treasures, she has the love and respect of all who know her. Hers is a life well-lived, and her final words to me were “I want the Lord to know me as I am.” I left her knowing that she has nothing to worry about. 

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