Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Maude Bristol-Perry joins an exclusive group on Saturday when street signage at the corner of 24th Street and Territorial Road will be topped with a new sign honoring her more than 50 years of leadership and service to the Battle Creek community.
The sign reads “Honorary Mayor Maude Bristol-Perry Ave.” It will be unveiled during a ceremony scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 8, her birthday, at the corner of 24th and Territorial. This area of town holds special significance for Bristol-Perry because it is where the childcare center she originally incorporated in 1973 is located.
At that time, the opening of her childcare facility, Sugar and Spice Childcare Center, made it among the very first women-owned businesses in the city and one of a very few owned and operated by a Black woman. This business venture is among a long list of “firsts” for which Bristol-Perry is being honored.
Sitting on a child-sized plastic chair at a table in the childcare center, located at 143 24th St. South, she told On the Ground that she is “honored and amazed” by the recognition she is receiving. While she could focus on her political “firsts” as Calhoun County’s first Black female supervisor in 1972 or the City of Battle Creek’s first Black female mayor in 1984, it is her work with children that she considers her greatest legacy.
“I am grateful and thankful that my family, friends, and city residents think that much of me to honor me in this way for something I have done for people in the community and that they can remember the good things and things that opened the doors for them,” Bristol-Perry says. “Childcare is a big one. Childcare centers here came and went and I’m still here.”
The open invitation to the ceremony from the city asks that people join together “in celebrating the historical living legacy of Maude Bristol-Perry’s contributions over the last 50 plus years as a business and civic leader and community advocate for early childhood education.”
Maude Bristol-Perry, owner of Sugar and Spice Childcare Center, poses with a dragon that is among a wide variety of playground equipment in the backyard of the center.
The street sign, a commemorative designation not a re-naming, is one of about a dozen located throughout the city, says Carl Fedders, Director of Public Works. He says the individual being nominated must be someone of historical consequence or who has made significant contributions to the community.
Fedders says Bristol-Perry’s daughter, Shanna J. Mueller, and Janet Dickerson, her niece, applied for the commemorative designation. The application went before the mayor and city commission for a public hearing and to the Historic District Commission, police, fire, and traffic officials for their comments. The application was approved during an April 20 city commission meeting.
When asked about the frequency of the request and approval of this type of signage, Fedders says, “It is very infrequent.”
How those firsts became firsts
Bristol-Perry was 14-years-old when she and her family moved to Battle Creek from Memphis, Tenn., for a job her father took as a nursing attendant with the Veterans Administration Medical Center. During that time the World War II veteran also worked as a barber and eventually left the VA to open his own barbering business.
She says she always admired her father’s business acumen and he served as her role model for the business she would eventually open. Like him, she started at the bottom and literally worked her way up. Her first job after graduating from Battle Creek Central High School was as an elevator operator at the former Battle Creek Sanitarium, which now houses the Hart Dole Inouye Federal Center.
From there, she went on to attend Grand Rapids Junior College and later Kellogg Community College where she enrolled after getting married in 1959. Although she never finished her Associate’s degree, she worked and trained to earn all of the certifications necessary to opening a licensed childcare center. She did that while working full-time as a legal secretary to Judge Shelton Penn, Calhoun County’s first Black prosecutor.
While she worked, her children, a son, and daughter attended the former Altrusa Nursery School.
“They accommodated working mothers and they had a nursery school where kids could go three days a week so my children went to Altrusa,” Bristol-Perry says. “I got to know the director there and I’d play with the kids and the director said ‘Maude you would make a good worker for a childcare center.’ She said that it would have to be operated as a business because we didn’t have any centers that cared for children all day. She said, ‘More women are entering the workforce and you should think about it.’”
Maude Bristol-Perry, owner of Sugar and Spice Childcare, stands inside one of the center's classrooms and activity areas.
She did her research and found herself working with city officials to get her first childcare center opened and applying for business loans, including Small Business Administration loans, at area banks.
“Having worked for an attorney, I knew a lot of businesspeople in the community and I went to the bank and had to get my first loan and my dad had to co-sign for that loan for me to get started,” Bristol-Perry says. “Because I worked for Attorney Penn they said I would be sustainable and the ideal person to own and operate a business. The bank loaned me the money to get started and it wasn’t easy because I had to fill out all of these applications. People always told me that banks didn’t loan women money.”
In 1973 she opened Sugar and Spice Childcare Center in the former Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witness at 145 Upton Ave. But, this was unlike any other center at the time because it incorporated an educational component that Bristol-Perry knew was lacking and necessary, in addition to before- and after-school care.
“I researched how valuable it would be to have childcare with an educational component,” she says.
In addition, she purposely located her center in an area where she saw the greatest need, something she continued to do when she moved it to the 24th
“I felt there were areas where the community didn’t have access to good, quality childcare in a safe and nurturing environment,” Bristol-Perry says. “Back in the 1970s and 1980s we also had a lot of children in Child Protective Services dealing with situations of neglect in their homes and they were allowing those children to go into childcare centers like mine. We provided educational background and child development that wasn’t very available at the time.”
She built strong and lasting relationships with area school systems that valued and continue to value the work she is doing to give every child, especially those most at-risk, access to early childhood education, which is recognized as critical to a child’s future success in school.
“We started to provide before- and after-school care and we became so ingrained with the schools. We helped their pre-K programs by making sure our kids were school-ready. The teachers would tell us that they could tell who the kids were who had a preschool experience,” Bristol-Perry says.
As demand for the services provided at Sugar and Spice increased, Bristol-Perry relocated the childcare center in 1996 to its present location, which was originally an Army barracks. The 10,000-square-foot building houses separate areas where infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children are cared for and provided with age-appropriate learning and play activities under the watchful eye of a staff of five workers, some of whom are Sugar and Spice alumnus. Pre-pandemic, she employed eight staff.
The center is licensed for 98 children but was averaging between 55 and 60 children annually prior to pandemic-related temporary closures that impacted the parents of children attending the center. The numbers during this time have hovered around 30 children, but Bristol-Perry says she is starting to get a lot of requests again. She says another thing that makes her center a draw for parents is that it can accommodate children of different ages.
One calling fuels another
As she investigated running for elected office, Bristol-Perry used what she learned to become a successful business owner.
That process involved working through city bureaucracy where she learned a lot about policies and procedures that impacted all city residents in different ways.
“I was in a unique setting when I worked in Attorney Penn’s office because I would see people who run the city and the politics involved,” she says. “I was seeing that we were needing to have representation of the people living in different communities.”
She says this was especially true of predominantly Black communities that were underrepresented at all levels of government and were not getting the same access to initiatives such as grants for home or neighborhood improvements. Bristol-Perry says this was due in large part to a lack of awareness.
Through discussions she had with Penn, he sensed her affinity with this work and convinced her to channel that into action by running for Calhoun County Supervisor. She defeated her incumbent opponent and worked during her one-year term to ensure that people who were disenfranchised had a voice and information they needed to build better lives.
She would bring this same focus while serving in the roles of Mayor, Vice Mayor, and city commissioner from 1981 to 1986.
Her political successes gave hope and opportunity to people like Lynn Ward Gray, former Ward 2 City Commissioner, who will be among several speakers during the Saturday event to honor Bristol-Perry.
“I know that she was the first African American female business owner locally in the childcare industry and that she actually got exposed to city government to understand the ordinances and what she needed to do to open her business,” Ward-Gray says.
“Being a commissioner and mayor was strategic for her to do and she filled a void. She was able to get ordinances changed for the childcare industry here. She blazed a trail in many ways people don’t understand,” Ward-Gray says. “That entrepreneurial spirit she had, continues. My focus has always been on economic development. She taught me about the importance of that because it can change people’s access to opportunities and change.”
Ward Gray says Bristol-Perry was literally one of the first individuals to encourage her involvement in community service work. The two women attended the same church and both believe that God and their faith will serve as their foundation and guide them.
“It was refreshing to me because not only was she an African American, but I was also looking at someone who’s been there and done that,” Ward Gray says. “She will tell you that she and others encouraged me to run for elected office and that means everything — being validated by people who knew you all their life and encouraged you to move forward, to follow your heart, and follow where God is leading you.”
That Bristol-Perry has chosen to follow a path to make sure that opportunities begin with the community’s children, makes Ward-Gray think of her as the “children whisperer.”
That path, particularly when it involved politics, has not been without its share of challenges and disappointments that have included a level of resistance to a Black woman as mayor that prompted a county commissioner to say when Bristol-Perry was mayor to say that, “I would never vote for a Black person.”
“I have God in my life and understood that county commissioner’s temperament. Being from being Memphis, I was used to that prejudice that was in his heart. He didn’t get to know me,” Bristol-Perry says.
Throughout her life and her career, she says she has maintained her integrity and honesty, and commitment to serving all children and their families.
“I encourage all people and tell them that they can do what I did,” she says. “I always accommodate people who might not have as much and welcome them. I will always have an open door.”