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REMEMBER WHEN: Betty Miller Sanders’ life built by faith

Betty Miller Sanders

Betty Miller Sanders at the lectern in St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church, 508 S. Hill St. in Burnet. Her mother was instrumental in founding the church in 1953 when Sanders was 7 years old. Its first meetings were in the family's living room in a house across the street from where the current church now stands. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Violence erupted on the University of Mississippi campus in September 1962 after a federal court ordered the school to admit its first Black student. Just a few months earlier, in May 1962, Burnet High School handed senior Betty Miller its first-ever Most Deserving Student Award. She wasn’t the first Black student to graduate from BHS (she was actually the second), but she was one of only three who attended between 1959 and 1962.

“I did not want to go, but I’m telling you, it was awesome,” said the now-Betty Miller Sanders. “I didn’t have any problems. Nobody ever let me hear it — the N-word. I had friends and I still do have friends from high school. I’m going to lunch with one tomorrow.” 

From grades 2-8, Black students in Burnet attended what Sanders called the “Black School.” After that, the students enrolled at Burnet High School, although many went to Austin. One of Sanders’ older brothers went to Anderson High School in Austin, which is where Sanders wanted to go. 

“But I was a girl, so no,” she said. 

According to Sanders, the first Black student at BHS was Kenneth Baker. She recalled him graduating when she was a sophomore, although this reporter could not find any mention of him in the yearbooks for those years.

At Burnet, Sanders was a member of the football and basketball pep squads for three years, Future Homemakers of America for three years, and Speech Club for two years.

During her sophomore year, she remembers a team trip to Austin for a football game. On the way home, they stopped at a two-story Mexican restaurant at the corner of Sixth Street and Interstate 35 in Austin. 

“We got out, and they told the coaches that I could not go in that place with them,” she said. “The coach said, ‘Well, if she can’t go in, we can’t go in.’ And we were HUNGRY!”

The restaurant took them all upstairs and served them dinner. 

The only time she remembers being denied something in high school because of the color of her skin was a three-day senior trip to a beach near Galveston. The hotel would not allow a Black person to stay. 

“My teachers were really kind to me,” she said. “They asked me how I felt about that.”

With a distinctive twinkle in her eyes and a chuckle, as she came to the end of this particular story, she continued. 

“I said, ‘Well, do I have to go to school those days?’” she said. “They told me no, so I said, ‘Well, then I’m fine with it!’” 

The 77-year-old attributes her obvious high spirits and positive attitude to her mother, Emma Miller, another community dynamo who was posthumously named a Burnet County Woman of Note in 2017. Ms. Emma, as everyone called her, was born in 1904 in Brenham. She died in 1994 in Burnet.

“My mother always told me, ‘You are just smarter than anybody and everybody loves you,’” she said. “So I went to school thinking everybody loves me. I’m just like, ‘Hi!’ — you know, to everybody.” 

Sanders was the youngest of seven children. She was 7 years old when her family lost their farm in Liberty Hill and moved to Burnet. Her father set up a barbecue stand in Buchanan Dam, while her mother went to work for the Donald Duncan family on their Burnet County farm. 

In 1953, Ms. Emma was instrumental in founding St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church, which started in her home. 

“There was no Black church in Burnet when we moved there,” Sanders said. “Mother used to have church in the living room. She thought God wanted her to do that because she loved the Lord. She loved the Lord, she did.”

The Millers had attended an AME church in Liberty Hill, so that was the denomination Ms. Emma established in Burnet. 

“That’s what she wanted,” Sanders said. “She wanted an AME church. The name St Matthew’s, that was our first bishop (S.J. Matthews).”

Known as “the church that faith built,” the St. Matthew’s building at 508 S. Hill St. was put together with volunteer labor and donated building supplies. A group of Black families, including the Smiths, Satterfields, Maxwells, and Matthews, purchased a lot at the corner of Hill and Live Oak. 

Betty Miller at Burnet High School
Betty Miller Sanders’ senior year photo in the Burnet High School yearbook. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

According to Sanders, the property was owned by a relative named Myrtle Barton.

“Her son used to live right on this corner, and Myrtle told Mother they were going to be moving and maybe she could get the building they had for the church,” Sanders said. “My mother was working for a family in Burnet, name of Duncan. Donald Duncan. She told them, she said, ‘I need a church.’ And they helped.” 

They moved an Army barracks off of the property and built their own structure from scratch. The Sunday school class made monthly payments until it was all paid off, according to a piece written by Burnet County Historical Commission member Lela Goar when Emma Miller was named a Burnet County Woman of Note. 

Miller secured a bank loan, which ended up in her name, something that was not a problem until the congregation went back to the bank for a loan to remodel in 1977. Miller was 73 years old and retired. She signed the church over to the bishop for the remodel without a second thought, Sanders said.

During the remodel, the entrance and address moved around the corner from Live Oak to Hill Street. St. Matthew’s celebrated 70 years on Sunday, July 23, 2023. 

“When we first started the church, it was full,” said Sanders, who claims to be the oldest member. “Now, there are only about nine regular members every Sunday, and we are all relatives. I told the pastor when he first came, ‘The worse thing you can do in this church is make one of the members upset, because they are all related!” 

Sanders went to Paul Quinn College in Waco (now in Dallas) after high school. Paul Quinn is a private, nonprofit, faith-based school that teaches students to lead, live lives that matter, love something greater than themselves, and leave places better than they found them. Sanders took it to heart.

After college, she married a military man and they were deployed to Spain, where she went to work for the government. 

“I have to tell you a story,” Sanders said during this interview. 

She recounted how she visited her home economics teacher when she returned to the United States from Spain. 

“(The teacher) said, ‘Do you not know that the FBI came to my house for you?’ For me?!” Sanders exclaimed. “‘They were asking me all kinds of questions about you,’ she said. I told her, ‘I hope you told them I hadn’t done anything.’” 

Sanders had used her home economics teacher as a reference for her job in Spain but never thought the FBI would get involved and actually do a background check. 

“Oh, I’m talking about myself,” Sanders said. “I wanted to talk about my mother. You know she had to come where her baby was. She came to visit me in Spain and stayed for about eight months.” 

However, this interview and story were not about her mother. Or, at least, not just about her mother. Betty Miller Sanders has her own story that deserves a telling. At a time of national unrest over civil rights, she continually crossed color lines to success. 

After Spain, she worked for Southwestern Bell for 20 years, traveling between St. Louis, Dallas, and Austin. She visited her mother, who lived across the street from the church, almost weekly. She moved back to Burnet in 1991. She and her new husband, Petry Sanders, bought a home in the Cassie subdivision in Buchanan Dam, where they still live.

The couple has been married for 34 years. 

As a retiree, she continued to work, selling life insurance door to door.

“I knew everybody in Lampasas, Burnet, and Marble Falls,” she said. 

That lasted three years before she was recruited to work in the human resources department for Sears. She cut the ribbon when Sears opened a store in what was then Lakeland Mall on RR 1431 in Marble Falls (where H-E-B is now).

In that job, she drove to San Antonio every day from Lake Buchanan. 

“THAT was a job,” she said. 

Now retired again and active in her church, Sanders visits with friends, including those from her Burnet High School days, and helps gather materials for the Black history museum in the works at St. Frederick Baptist Church in Marble Falls. 

She supports LACare, which is the Burnet food pantry, and helps raise money for St. Matthew’s to pay its assessments to the general counsel of the AME Church nationally and maintain the building locally. 

“I’ve been blessed,” she said. “I have really been blessed.”  

suzanne@thepicayune.com