Community icon has fed East Biloxi for more than 4 decades

Published 6:22 am Sunday, March 21, 2021

For decades, she ran a restaurant and lounge that was a mainstay of East Biloxi. She sponsored local youth sports teams, and when the restaurant closed for Thanksgiving Day, anyone in need of a meal was welcome at her home.

Her business is now closed, but last Saturday, Inez Thomas got some recognition for her lifetime of contributions to the community.

A new group called Daily Flowers of Love, set up to celebrate East Biloxians, presented her with a certificate and flowers at her home on Main Street, just down the block from Inez Lounge and Cafe. Many of her five children, 12 grandchildren, 18.5 great-grandchildren (the half is for one on the way), and four great-great-grandchildren were there to celebrate with her.

“You have made a big impact in the community,” said Debra Foster, who has the honor of delivering flowers to recipients because she lives on the Coast, as she handed the bouquet to Thomas.

Thomas beamed.

Foster had never met Thomas before, but had long heard about her and her influence in the neighborhood.

When Foster, 47, was growing up in a house on Croesus Street, just a few blocks from where Thomas now lives, adults all over the neighborhood kept an eye out for everyone’s kids.

“We are who we are because of people like them,” Foster said.

“Everybody got chastised by someone like her,” she laughed.

AN EAST BILOXI ICON

Inez Thomas worked at the Biloxi Laundry before opening her own business, the Southern Kitchen in 1974.

At the time, East Biloxi was home to a thriving Black commercial district, boasting, among other establishments, a hotel, movie theater, grocery stores and blues clubs where some of America’s greatest musicians performed, including Bo Diddley and Al Rush.

In 2011, Thomas told an interviewer about how the neighborhood had started to change in the 1970s.

“Between ’75 and ’78 . . . the administration started cleanin’ up,” she said. “Then they started changin’. They started closin’ down business . . . Some of the people they’d passed on, they’d deceased. And they kids were in other places, so they just sold the property or lost it.”
But Thomas hung on, even after Hurricane Katrina devastated the neighborhood and scattered many of its residents.

In addition to the Southern Kitchen, she opened Inez Lounge and Cafe, which stayed open until 2017. She sponsored Biloxi High School basketball games and let team members eat for free. She was a member of the Elks Club and a devoted attendee of First Missionary Baptist Church.
Her only daughter, Jennifer Johnson, who had come down from New Jersey for the occasion, explained what being an entrepreneur had meant for her mother.

“She wanted to give to the community, but be her own businesswoman as well,” Johnson said.
Thomas’s renown in the neighborhood touched her children, too.

“It was great because so many different people knew her,” Johnson, 58, said of growing up in East Biloxi. “Those that knew her, they enveloped us as well.”

CELEBRATING NEIGHBORHOOD GEMS

The Facebook group Daily Flowers of Love was born in February out of a desire to turn grief into a celebration of a community and its pillars.

Jacinda Mitchell, who now lives in Austin, Texas, said that the sudden death of a dear friend, Craig Reddix, in February, had deeply affected her and many of their other friends who grew up together. Though Reddix was living in Maryland, Mitchell said he never stopped encouraging East Biloxians to love their community.

Jereld Nunley pointed out that it seemed like funerals were the only thing that could bring people together.

“A lot of us went into the military, I did,” Mitchell said. “I remember thinking long years ago, I can’t get home unless it’s a funeral. You just hate that.”

So Nunley proposed honoring community pillars while they are still alive. He and a group of old friends set up the private Facebook group, Daily Flowers of Love, and a public page, You’ve Got Flowers.

The group’s nearly 900 members post “Daily Flowers” expressing appreciation for friends, family and neighbors. Mitchell wrote one for Foster, who is her sister.

“She Raised her beautiful girls while overcoming the lack of resources many others take for granted,” Mitchell wrote. “Many years AFTER her children where adults she decided to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. USM Alumni! Her goal….to use her life and experiences to help others through their own journies. She did this as a mother of young mothers, a grandmother and through several near death flare ups of her health issues.”

Other members have celebrated spouses and children, longtime basketball coaches and old friends.

Once a month, the group’s leaders (The Keepers of the Garden) also give a bouquet of flowers and a certificate to one person. Thomas was the second recipient of the recognition.

“There’s no point to us waiting for them to die,” Foster said. “They need to know.”

Foster said the public aspect of the group’s work aims to celebrate the good things happening in East Biloxi.

“This area is considered the red zone,” she said, referring to the derogatory label police and officials gave the neighborhood because of supposedly high crime and drug use rates. “There’s gems in the red zone, and nobody knows about them.”

Mitchell said the group hopes to celebrate not only neighborhood elders, but also young people active in the community. They’re also hoping to get a group together to participate in a 5K or walk event hosted by the nonprofit Loaves and Fishes in May.

Ultimately, Mitchell said, they’d like to try to turn celebrations of community members into momentum to revive Ward 2, to restore the thriving commerce and tight relationships that enabled Inez Thomas to give back to the community through her businesses.

“And to maybe somehow tie those conversations together, to say hey, a part of loving yourself is to get involved in your community,” Mitchell said. “A part of loving each other is to speak up, speak out.”