By Nikita Gibbs
It was a sunny day in the small town of Kennard, Texas. Georgia and Cortez Steed were expecting their third child. Nowadays, it would be typical for a pregnant mother to be resting at home. However, things were quite different in the South. It was Monday. Time for work and school for the children. Georgia was working in the garden and doing domestic jobs. Cortez, who was a jack of all trades, was on his way to work in construction, the farm or bus driving. However, this was no regular Monday, it was May 8, 1928. The day their daughter, Dorothy Lee, would enter the world. A midwife helped her mother with the delivery. Hospitals were not safe or welcoming for people with increased melanin. As a child, she enjoyed being in the garden and fishing, even when she was not supposed to down at the creek. But I won’t tell… Her and her siblings helped her mom with the chickens. She explained the process of raising them, wringing their necks, putting them in a pot to ensure that the wings were off and selling them. Black families had to do things to sustain their families given that stores where they lived, were nearly two miles away.
Dorothy attended an all-black school called Ratcliff Elementary School. She said that her favorite subjects were English and Spelling. She also attended Kennard High School. One positive reflection that was shared during our interview was that one teacher taught three different generations in their family. At age 16, she left school because life took a turn. Dorothy became married to a young man that she met in church named Thedias Richard.
Once she became married, she recalled being out in the scorching hot sun, picking cotton. She said that the goal was to pick pounds of cotton to be able to sell. It would take up to eight hours to pick a hundred pounds of cotton. Even then, the compensation was still not adequate for all of the work you had to exude. However, for years she would have to work out in fields and take her babies with her. She said she would just put the baby on top of the stock and hope that they don’t fall off while she’s working. Her husband worked in sawmills around the area. So, when he had to relocate around Texas, she did too. However, the next move would be to San Francisco.
When I asked about her journey to San Francisco, she said, I didn’t really think of it as a journey, I looked at it as a way of looking for better opportunities. She had family there and was able to get out of a small town. In 1957, they packed up their six kids in their 1936 Chevrolet and got snacks for the trip. They had bologna, peanut butter and jelly, salami and gallons of water. She made sure to mention that they never stayed at a hotel or stopped at restaurants on the way there. “There were just some places you couldn’t go or places you couldn’t stop at.” They would find a tree that had good shade and rest prior to continuing their travels.
Once they got to San Francisco she was in awe. In Texas, they lived on the farm. In San Francisco, there were tall buildings, bright lights and the markets were down the street. Due to different laws in Texas, she could not go in the front door of stores or restaurants that she patronized. So, there was only one black restaurant that the Black community would go to. There was a stark difference in San Francisco. They would go to the farmers market at the end of the block by their home. They also found a Black church to attend that was on the corner. There was also a truly diverse population there. She started working for Foster’s restaurant as (Combination help). In that position, she washed dishes and cooked. She also did laundry until they decided to relocate to Oakland to purchase a home.
In approximately 1962, the family moved to Oakland, California. They moved to a neighborhood near 98th Avenue in a place commonly known as Sobrante Park. When they arrived, the neighbors indicated that the neighborhood was primarily white. However, it had transitioned to an all Black neighborhood upon their arrival. They recall the area being self-sustaining, and well maintained. There was a grocery store, laundromat, beauty shop, real estate office, a church, park, library and schools. The neighbors were close knit, and everyone looked after one another. They truly embodied the village mentality. Being new homeowners and having to support a family, they had to work. Dorothy had various positions that included working in Alameda County doing housekeeping. She also worked for the California School for the blind. She retired from Highland Hospital as a housekeeper.
We had nearly reached the end of the interview, and I had to ask a few more questions. I asked her what she had to walk from. She said, “I’m going to do it regardless of what it is! I just have to pray and ask God to give me the strength.”
I asked her how she felt about the elders and how they are treated today compared to back in the day. She replied, “Some elders are treated good but some of them are taken advantage of. Back in the day they were all treated well. Neighbors looked out for one another. People are just for themselves now.”
Inspired by her responses, I had to ask what was one of the most memorable things in history that happened. She had to think about it for a moment but recalled that moment it was seeing Obama elected. She said, “I never thought that I would see a Black man as president. I felt as if we had a Black man, and he would come to save us.”
I asked who inspired her most in life, she said her parents. One of the infamous quotes by her father was, “Whatever you attempt to do, you do the Damn best that you can!”
After meeting Mrs. Dorothy Lee, I was grateful to have a moment to be able to speak with an elder that had so much knowledge to offer. She also struck me as a Black woman that was determined to make it through, even in challenging times. Her responses inspired the title. Emeralds are symbolic of abundance, prosperity and growth within all aspects of life.
Nikita Gibbs, interviewing Dorothy Lee
Nikita Gibbs-Nolen was born and raised in Oakland, CA. She attended Cal State East Bay and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. She later attended Alliant University to obtain a teaching credential and Master’s degree in Education. Her educational journey began in 2003 when she became a substitute in Oakland Unified School District. From 2005-present, she has worked as an Oakland elementary school teacher. She was awarded the Teaching Excellence Award and recognition for her participation in the California Reading and Literature Project. In 2018, She was featured in the Teacher’s of Oakland and The State of Black Education in Oakland’s Narrative Series. Nikita has been a mentor for new teachers and lead teacher since 2008. She is also a teacher Consultant with BAWP.