By May Olusola
“Stop believing the lie that someone stopped you,” Thelma Wells says. “Stop blaming folks for you being here. People have to earn your respect and you theirs before you can preach to them. You have to have love and show it to win people and respect.”
Thelma Wells knows what she’s talking about. Her life story is full of tests that birthed the testimonies she uses to encourage others, while the scars from her past are the bright stars of leadership and mentorship shining around her today. Her mother--an unwed crippled teenager--gave birth to her in 1941. Embarrassed by the Thelma’s illegitimate birth, her maternal grandmother put her and her mother out of the house and refused to have anything to do with them.
Thelma’s mother began working as a maid and lived with her daughter in the servant quarters till her maternal great-grandparents took the girl to live with them. With her great-grandparents, Thelma went to church daily. They were devout Christians, and it was through them and the church that she experienced the love of Christ, learned to pray and sing hymns at a very early age. On some occasions, she went to visit her grandparents. When her grandfather went to work, her grandmother would lock her in a dark, dingy, insect-infested closet without food or water till it was time for her grandfather to come home. “I was scared in the closet but would sing myself to sleep with the songs I learned from church,” she says.
Segregation and open racism were the norm in the era Thelma grew up in. Rather than brood over the injustices she experienced repeatedly, she made up her mind to rise above the situation and do whatever it took to be a better person. “I was called all kinds of names, was thrown out of school because of my color,” she says. “In college, I was in a class for four months where the teacher could not bring herself to write my name on the blackboard. She said, ‘I have never taught a Negress in my life and do not plan to start now.’ She gave me a C when I deserved an A. I was courageous enough to confront her gently.
“I have been thrown out of places and refused a hamburger till I went to the back to get one that had been discarded because it was messed up,” she continues. “I have stood in a street car after giving my seat up for a white kid. I went to segregated schools till I went to college. I have been there, done that, but never thought of myself as unqualified or disqualified.”
All of those struggles seem far away from the glory Thelma basks in today as a trailblazer for women. In 1963, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from North Texas State University in Denton (now the University of North Texas). She was among the first group of African-American girls in the dormitories. She became a teacher shortly after, and in 1964 she was the first African-American woman in the South to be hired as a secretary in the John Deere Company. She also became the first African-American woman to become an assistant vice president of a commercial bank in Dallas. In 1980, Thelma became the first African-American woman in the South to organize her own international speaking and consulting corporation. In 1996, she became the first African-American core speaker of the Women of Faith tour, where she spoke to more than 400,000 women each year for 12 years. She received a master’s degree from Master’s International School of Divinity in Evansville, Indiana, and in 2002, she became the school’s first African-American female professor.
In spite of her accolades, titles, conferences, and books, Thelma has been happily married for 51 years to her biggest supporter, George Wells, and they have three children, Lisa, Vicki, and George F. Wells; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. She’s known affectionately as “Mama T.”
In 2006, Thelma was diagnosed with cancer and given one month to live. Her miraculous healing is among the testimonies she uses to encourage others today.
MannaEXPRESS sat down with Thelma recently to hear her remarkable story.
The first time I ever heard about you was on the cover of a “Women of Faith” book that a friend gave me. I would never have imagined you went through a lot. How did you find it in your heart to forgive your grandmother?
I did not have unforgiveness or bitterness or anger toward her. Remember, I sang my way out of those times in her closet. God set me up, because He knew that thirtysomething years after, I would take care of my grandmother. I was able to take care of her for 19 years, although she never changed from being mean. I learned through her that people are not always going to change, so I had to change in order to deal with her. My grandfather loved me, he was my date for many years, and when I started dating my husband, he was my chairperson. He always told me how pretty and smart I was. He set the tone to make me a real lady.
It is amazing that despite growing up in a segregated society, you exude so much confidence and stand your ground even in the face of bias. Where did your mindset come from?
I never accepted what was happening around me. I did domestic work one day in my life where I cleaned this woman’s house, and that is the day I said, “No more, there is a better life than me cleaning toilets, moving furniture, cleaning the copper, raking the leaves and all.” When we accept Jesus, things change because we are new creatures. We have to pray every day. I never saw myself as a black woman struggling. I always saw myself being somebody, not a black somebody but somebody successful. When I graduated from high school, I was voted as one of the most likely to succeed. I have been in different situations where I was paid less than others and discriminated on, but I had to count it all joy although it was not joyful. In all the bias and prejudice, God always said these two words to me: “Trust me.”
Fifty-one years of marriage is no joke. Based on your experience, what advice do you have for brides, bridesmaids, and married couples in general?
In 1961, my husband George and I got married. I thought my wedding was perfect--everything fell in place. I came back from my honeymoon and looked at my pictures, and my slip was hanging all the way down on the floor. It was not a perfect wedding, but I wish someone had told me what I know now. You need to get yourself prepared to add someone else to your life. Do not rely on your feelings and emotions. Men are wired differently. Do not expect your husband to be your girlfriend or your friend girl doing girly things with you all the time. It is imperative that your husband be your friend and you be his friend. In fact, the two of you should be BEST friends. The brain of a man is like a waffle that comes cut in compartments. He can do but one thing at a time. The female brain is like spaghetti; it is just all over the place--it can do 1,500 things at the same time and still remember what it is doing. Men are motivated by their position. They want to take care of you. If they don’t say I love you every day, it doesn’t mean they don’t love you. If someone had told me what I know now, I would not have tried to change my husband for 50 years. I was trying to make him my girlfriend, I wanted him to go shopping with me and do girly things until the day he burst my bubble of trying to make him my girlfriend instead of my husband. This is not an excuse to leave your husband if he does not go shopping with you. The only time it is acceptable is if he is volatile and gets angry at the drop of a hat—then you know you’re in for trouble, and when you get married, he will use you as a possession and not as a wife. Be alert, watch what is going on around you, listen to what is being said, be quiet, listen to what your spirit is telling you, and be of good cheer.
How were you able to rise from where you came from to your position in the banking industry and consulting?
With a little bank experience in a proof machinist job during a part-time working mother’s project, one day I went up and told the manager of the Comerica Bank by NorthPark that they need to hire me. “Why do we need to hire you?” he asked, and I told him because “I am a smart woman, a fast learner, and you need me here.” This went on for two months till they hired me as a file clerk. I stayed there for nine months, then they made me in charge of new accounts. I got promoted to banking officer and started teaching at the American Institute of Banking in downtown Dallas from1978 to 1991. I taught for the Bank Administration Institute all over the state of Texas and in Minneapolis and Illinois. Everything I learned was put in a book, which became my first book, called The Legalities and Documentation of New Accounts. I started being called from all over the country and never would have believed I’d be a speaker today. In 1980, people were asking me to come speak here and there. I got so many offers, and by 1984 I had to make a choice to stay on in the bank and retire with a gold watch or take a plunge and do my own thing. I chose my own thing and started my consulting business. I have been speaking all over the world and have written more than 38 management programs ever since.
After the doctor diagnosed you with cancer and said you had one month to live, what happened?
In 2005, I started getting a little antsy. On December 8, they discovered I had malignant tumor. I had stomach cancer, and they took it out but did not get it all. The second week after the first surgery, my stomach burst and I was back in the hospital on life support in the ICU with the doctor telling my family I had only one month to live. When I was told I would need another surgery or three rounds of chemotherapy, I refused and told him if I die, I win and will be with Jesus. I told the oncologist that Jesus was my option. For three months I laid in bed unable to do anything. I had no feeling in my lower extremities for a year. I couldn’t bathe; all I could eat was Ensure. I kept asking God what He was up to in my case, but He was silent for months. I could not even hold my Bible or pick up anything. I prayed to God for new organs. In between seeing a very good doctor based in Houston, following a strict diet, praying and trusting God, fire started coming and I started feeling sensation till I recovered from my illness. Every organ I have right now works fine. I went back for my test, and the nurse could not find anything, especially the breast cancer I was told I had. The Lord delivered me.
What is Project Hope? How are you encouraging hope in the hearts of those who are going through one thing or the other?
The Lord said to me about a year and a half ago, why are you only speaking to people who can pay you? I said, “God, you know that is my job, and you know I need to eat.” I started thinking and praying about how he was leading me to people who had no hope--the prostitutes I mentor and love; the Dallas Life Foundation, where I mentor men and women; the Bethlehem Foundation, where help is given to people who fell through the cracks in the system; the Uptown Women’s Center for pregnant women with unwanted pregnancies; and as the grandmother of the Hope Mansion, I help people with unwanted pregnancies. These people are homeless, some helpless, hopeless, jobless; and in line with the Lord’s instruction, I am giving them hope in all ways possible.
What do you see yourself doing in the next five years?
I see myself continuing to travel and speak. I see myself continuing my television show on Direct TV on the NRB channel, called BEE the Best With Thelma. I am now distributing “Mama T Says” one-minute radio programs to many markets in the U.S.A. With my master’s degree in pastoral conflict, I am also going to do more mentoring and extracting diamonds out of people’s dust.
What is your message to our readers?
The bottom line is that people need to know that Jesus loves them and there is nothing they can do about that.
For more information, visit www.thelmawells.com.