(NNPA)—When I was very young, we moved from a three-room wooden shack at 2715-15th Street in Tuscaloosa, Ala. to McKenzie Court, a public housing development for African-Americans. We moved to 5-D, next door to Mrs. Dorothy Corder Smith, whom we called Miss Dot. When I speak around the country, sometimes I say we were so poor that my mother couldn’t afford to have children—the lady next door had me.
Miss Dot, the lady next door, didn’t need any more children—she had 13 of her own. But that didn’t stop her from adopting every kid in McKenzie Court, including me. We all considered her our second mother and she made you feel that her house was your house. Her house was one of the few that had a television and telephone at that time. I practically lived there, showing up unannounced every day to watch my favorite cowboy, Benny Carle and the Circle 6 Ranch that was broadcast from Birmingham. It didn’t hurt that Benny Carle came on around dinner time.
Like Mama, Miss Dot was an excellent cook. She never ran out of food and she made no distinction between her 13 kids and the rest of us. And neither did her children, who remain among my closest friends. Lu, Jean, Junior, Bettye Ann and their siblings loved my mother with the same passion that Charlotte, Chris, Sue and I had for Miss Dot. We were and always will be one big family.
Miss Dot died recently at the age of 82. I flew from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta, picked up Mama in Augusta, Ga., and drove her to Miss Dot’s funeral in Tuscaloosa. As we waited to fall in line behind the family as they assembled to file into First African Baptist Church, Bettye Ann motioned for us to walk ahead of her and most of the family. When I said we would be fine getting in line behind the others, she flashed one of those Miss Dot looks and said, “You and Aunt Martha better get in line.”
As kids, Miss Dot’s older kids and I bossed Bettye Ann around. She said it was now her turn to be the boss. So Mama and I did as we were instructed. When we read the program, we saw that Mama was listed among Miss Dot’s survivors. We were surprised, but shouldn’t have been. At a time they had lost their mother, they were still being so respectful of Mama. In fact, as we prepared to head back to Augusta, Lu told Mama, “You know, you’re all we got now.”
Lu, we also have a life full of wonderful memories. Miss Dot was special and she made everyone who came in contact with her feel special. Although I ate more than my share of food at her house, watched her new TV and talked on her party-line telephone, there was another side of her that’s not fully appreciated.
Miss Dot was at the forefront of the civil rights movement in Tuscaloosa, during the early 1960s. Not only did she cook at her church for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andy Young, Ralph Abernathy and Dick Gregory, she let her children—including me—participate in the protests. At a time that many men I had respected up to that point were unwilling to participate in civil rights protests, Miss Dot did not blink. Her daughters got tear-gassed and arrested.
Because I saw the courage of Miss Dot up close, I felt nothing but repulsion when I read a story on Condoleezza Rice in which she boasted that her father, a minister and college professor, “embraced [the Civil Rights Movement’s] goals, but not its means.” She added, “He saw no reason to put his children at risk. He would never put his own children at risk.”
Of course, that has to be every parent’s choice. But if every parent felt that way, we’d still be riding in the back of the bus and honoring “White” and “colored” signs that dishonored us. Miss Dot, like many poor people of that era, kicked down the doors of segregation, only to see the uninvolved middle-class children be the first in line to reap the benefits of their sacrifice. Although you will never see people like Miss Dot listed in the history books, they were the backbone of the modern Civil Rights Movement. They made it possible for us to have opportunities that they could only dream of. For that, I will be eternally grateful.
During one of our regular telephone conversations, Miss Dot said she had met someone who questioned whether she knew me. “He asked me, ‘Do you really know George Curry,” Miss Dot recounted. “I told him, ‘Boy, I knew George Curry before George Curry was George Curry.” We both had a long, loud laugh about that exchange. Yes, Miss Dot knew me before I knew myself. And whatever I have accomplished, it was largely because I was loved, nurtured and encouraged—and my three sisters would say spoiled—by Mama and Miss Dot, my other Mama.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, http://www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him atwww.twitter.com/currygeorge.)