Review of the Book
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Rosa Lee's Story: The Series
The Washington Post, Sept. 18-25, 1994
By Leon Dash; Photos by Lucian Perkins
Rosa Lee Cunningham's Obituary (July 8, 1995)
Two Sons Who Avoided The Traps
Eric Wright hung up the telephone in his Prince George's County apartment and cursed out loud. He couldn't decide what angered him more -- that his 33-year-old brother Ducky was badgering his mother again for money to buy crack cocaine or that his mother was calling him once more to eject Ducky from her apartment.
As Eric, then 35, drove his white Jeep through the suburbs toward his mother's apartment in the District, he steeled himself for the impending confrontation. He didn't mind getting involved. It just didn't do any good. No matter what he said, no matter what he did, nothing seemed to change.
Of Rosa Lee Cunningham's eight children, only Eric and his older brother Alvin have never used drugs. They are the only ones who have never been in prison. Both have worked for most of their adult lives, and they have taken care of themselves and their families. Both are Army veterans; both have worked primarily in government jobs since leaving the military 20 years ago.
As adults, they have defined themselves in ways that set them apart from the rest of the family. Eric has maintained a lifelong passion for music, hosting occasional talent shows and hiring himself out as a disc jockey for local parties. Alvin and his wife saved enough money to buy a comfortable two-story red-brick bungalow in a middle-class neighborhood. He is the only one of Rosa Lee's children who owns his own home.
Both men have made it through rough passages -- both were teenage fathers and dropped out of school -- but neither one let those events knock him off the path to responsible adulthood. "Ducky reminds me of myself at one time," Eric told me, "but I caught myself."
His mother's phone call on this June night in 1991 was just another reminder of what Eric had worked so hard to escape. By the time he reached Rosa Lee's apartment in the low-income neighborhood of Washington Highlands, he was steaming. He strode into the living room and stood in front of Ducky, who was lounging on the couch after a nightlong crack binge.
"You've got to go," Eric shouted.
"This is Momma's house," Ducky said. "I ain't got to go nowhere!"
"You're going out of here!" Eric said heatedly.
Ducky looked at Rosa Lee. She refused to intervene, so Ducky rose from the sofa with a resigned shrug, shoved some clothes in a plastic bag and left.
Still smoldering, Eric turned to Rosa Lee. Recalling the scene for me later, Eric said that he felt Rosa Lee was playing the victim to win his sympathy. But he had no sympathy for her at that moment, only anger -- the same anger that has burned within him since he was 5 years old and learned that he was wearing clothes shoplifted by his mother.
"You never instilled any kind of values in us that were worth anything!" he raged at her.
"What do you mean, Cheetah?" she remembers shouting, using the nickname she gave him as a little boy because of his tree-climbing skills. "I'm not a good mother?"
Eric shouted louder. "You never made it a point to see that we went to school! The things that you have taught us is that manipulating is good, if you can do it. Stealing is good, if you can do it and get away with it. Using someone is good, if you can get away with it."
But Rosa Lee gave as good as she got, shouting louder still that she had taught all her children "to survive!"
Eric stormed off. He had heard it all too many times. Survival was always his mother's excuse. Well, he didn't buy it. He had survived too -- without resorting to drug dealing, prostitution or stealing.
CHAPTER ONE: Motivating Forces
On a spring night in 1991, not long before Eric's confrontation with Rosa Lee, Alvin Cunningham is struggling to explain why he, like Eric, had turned out differently from his brothers and sisters.
We are sitting at his kitchen table in his Northwest Washington home. A lawn service tends the grass; an alarm system protects the house. He and his wife have government jobs; Alvin drives a bus for Metro, where he's worked since 1981. It's the kind of stability that was missing from Alvin's childhood; Rosa Lee moved the family nine times before he turned 16.
Alvin leans back in his chair, contemplating his response. His face is small and angular, and he looks much younger than 38. He is self-effacing and slow to anger. When he loses his temper -- as he sometimes does when he visits Rosa Lee's apartment and finds his sister Patty or his brother Ducky engaged in drug activity -- everyone knows it is best to scatter.
Photo by Lucian Perkins
One of the two children who broke free of the cycle of poverty and addiction, Alvin is someone Rosa Lee can turn to for help.
"It's not very complicated," he said finally. "For one, I don't like drugs because I saw what they could do to you."
I press him to say more, but he's not given to long, introspective statements. Initially he didn't want to be interviewed. Eric too was unwilling at first. Not only would my questions open some painful and personal chapters that they would rather forget, but they were concerned about being associated with the family's troubled history.
As they learned more about my efforts to understand how poverty, criminal recidivism and drug abuse had affected their family, they concluded that there was some value in discussing the contrast between their lives and those of their brothers and sisters.
Over the course of several interviews, it slowly became clear that Alvin and Eric began to set themselves apart from the family during their first years of elementary school. It was not something they coordinated. Nevertheless, both somehow came to recognize that they had real alternatives within their reach, that they had the power to make something of themselves if they didn't give up.
Their reactions to their upbringing became motivating forces in their lives. For Alvin, it was the shame and humiliation that he felt as a young boy; for Eric, it was the anger and disgust that he has carried to adulthood. At critical points, they benefited from an outsider's intervention -- a teacher in Alvin's case, a social worker in Eric's.
By the time they reached their late teens, both decided that separation was the best way out. Alvin joined the Army at 18, married the mother of the daughter he had fathered at 16, received his high school general equivalency degree and took some college courses. He has been steadily employed since his discharge from the Army 17 years ago. Divorced from his first wife in 1978, he has since remarried.
Eric followed Alvin into the Army, spent a year in the Job Corps learning the fine points of wallpapering and then tried to make a living as a singer. When that didn't work out, he bounced from one job to another before landing a contract as a street sweeper with the District's Public Works Department. He worked his way up, earning several promotions and pay raises; he learned to operate heavy equipment and secured a good job at the District's Blue Plains Treatment Plant. Then in 1992, he was laid off because of the District's financial woes. Since then, he has taken several temporary jobs while looking for something permanent.
He has raised his son on his own; his rocky relationship with the boy's mother ended in 1982, when he discovered that she was using heroin -- and that Rosa Lee had introduced her to the drug. Eric has never forgiven his mother for that. "She would do things that made me turn totally away from her," he told me.
In their family, drug abuse has become the dividing wall that no one can scale. Alvin and Eric don't spend holidays with their brothers, and neither one can remember the last time that Bobby, Ronnie, Richard or Ducky came to their homes for a visit. If they see each other at all, it is usually when Alvin or Eric comes to straighten out a problem at Rosa Lee's apartment.
Rosa Lee can't explain the different outcomes for her children. "I didn't do anything more for them than I did for any of my other children," she said during one of our many interviews on the subject. "They always acted different, like they were shamed by it all. Even when they were little."
Alvin, in particular, showed his independence early, she said. "There wasn't any what you call 'role model' for him to copy," she said. "His father only came around a couple of times when he was a boy, and Alvin didn't see him again until he was an adult. No, he just sort of grew up like he did all by himself."
CHAPTER TWO: Young Alvin
Alvin Cunningham heard the horn of the green "welfare truck" and bolted out the back door of his mother's apartment as fast as his 8-year-old legs would carry him. Whenever the flatbed truck arrived at the public housing complex for its monthly distribution of food, Alvin would make himself scarce.
Alvin still remembers the contents of those bags: tins of canned meat and corned beef, rice, powdered eggs, cheese and pinto beans, along with other bulk items. Rosa Lee saw these staples as a godsend in her daily struggle to feed her eight children, including a baby girl born just a few months earlier. Alvin saw the handouts as an embarrassment.
His brothers and uncles noticed his tendency to disappear when it came time to unload the surplus goods that the government gave to poor families. They assumed he was avoiding work. "He was embarrassed?" Eric said. "All these years, I thought he refused to go to the truck because he was lazy!"
"Sometimes I did go," Alvin said. "But it would bother me. I HATED it!"
It annoyed Alvin that the truck's driver beeped his horn when he pulled into the small courtyard near the side-by-side apartments where Alvin's mother and grandmother were raising their families in 1961. Alvin had a crush on a girl who lived across the courtyard; she was a year older than Alvin and a grade ahead of him at Richardson Elementary School. Both her parents had jobs, and although they still qualified for public housing, they made enough money that they didn't receive any surplus food. He was afraid the girl would shun him if she saw him carrying the sealed bags into his home.
Alvin didn't understand why the family needed to take the free food. His mother was working every night, waiting tables at the nightclubs on H Street, and she often came back in the afternoon with new clothes for the family. "We had the best of shoes," he remembers. "Foot-Joys. She picked up expensive things for us. On Sunday or Easter, we looked real nice. Extra nice! It never dawned on me that she was shoplifting."
Rosa Lee didn't know what to make of her third-born son. Even as a toddler, he had behaved differently from his older brothers. He would follow her around the apartment, observing everything she did. If she stopped to do something, he sat nearby and watched. Some of Rosa Lee's friends noticed his quiet behavior; Alvin overheard them telling Rosa Lee that he would grow up to be a "good person." He liked the sound of that.
He didn't like the things he overheard at school. Some of his better-off classmates at Richardson Elementary, where he was a third-grader in early 1961, made fun of children from "the 'jects" -- the Lincoln Heights public housing community where Alvin's family lived.
Alvin managed to escape much of this "Jone'in'," or teasing. Maybe it was because he didn't respond to the taunts; maybe it was because he befriended some of the boys who lived in the private homes along nearby East Capitol Street NE. Whatever the reason, the things he saw and heard while visiting his new friends opened his eyes to a new way of life.
He took a close look at the well-kept furniture at his friends' homes, comparing it with the worn secondhand furniture at his own. His friends had a bedroom and a bed all to themselves; he shared a bed with one, sometimes two of his brothers.
Alvin made other comparisons. His friends' parents were teachers, office secretaries, Post Office clerks; his mother left her children at night to wait tables at nightclubs. His friends' families ate their meals at a dining room table set with flatware; his family's meals were haphazard at best.
"You look at the way they were living and you knew there was a difference," Alvin told me. "You'd see that difference. That's what I picked up on, and I started to pick up on that more and more."
CHAPTER THREE: Young Eric
Eric has never had Alvin's quiet temperament, not even as a little boy. "I was a bad-ass child!" he says. "You couldn't make me do nothing!"
He says this with the conviction of a man who knows himself and the forces that shaped him. We are seated at his new dining room table; the shiny black top gives the room a sleek, modern look. Eric leans forward as he speaks, making sure the tape recorder catches his words. "I remember my mother saying I wasn't going to be nothing!" he thunders.
He is unaware of how often he raises his voice when he talks about Rosa Lee. "My mother makes me feel like I owe her something, and I don't think I owe her anything!" he says. He focuses mostly on her mistakes; he's too angry to see any of the obstacles she faced.
Evictions forced Rosa Lee to move the family in 1961 and 1962, and Eric attended three schools for kindergarten, first and second grades. He fell behind; some days, he didn't go to school at all.
Soon after the family moved to Ninth and F streets NE in the fall of 1961, the principal at nearby Goding Elementary School spotted Rosa Lee's children playing in the street one day during school hours. Rosa Lee hadn't enrolled them yet. The principal knocked on Rosa Lee's door and told her, "It's not permitted to let your kids run around without being in school." She registered them the next day. Eric was assigned to second grade and Alvin to fourth.
Halfway through elementary school, Eric told one of his teachers that he was having trouble learning to read. He remembers the teacher telling him, "Don't worry, you'll get it in the next grade."
Rosa Lee wasn't much help. She had dropped out of school in the seventh grade and couldn't read well enough to help her children with their school work. On many days, she wasn't home when Eric and the other children returned from school, so she wasn't there to check on their homework.
Eric often found himself the target of taunts at school. Rosa Lee was selling some of her shoplifted goods to the parents of Eric's classmates. Word got around. "Your momma steals!" he remembers some of his new classmates yelling.
Eric couldn't shrug off the teasing as easily as Alvin. "I fought quite a bit," he said. "I fought boys, girls. It didn't matter. If they were too big, I'd throw bricks at them."
Worst of all, he suspected the taunts were true. "My mother would leave the house empty-handed in the morning and come back with four shopping bags of anything you can name," he said. "Clothing. Appliances. Curtains."
One day, he remembers saying to Rosa Lee, "People say that you're stealing stuff."
Rosa Lee didn't deny it.
"Why do you do that?" he asked.
"So you can eat!" his mother said.
"But Ma, we're eating every day!" he said.
Rosa Lee said her welfare check was too little to feed and clothe all eight of them, but that didn't satisfy Eric. "I just never understood why she had to do that, but I think I was really affected the older I got," he says now. "I really started feeling and knowing the meaning of embarrassment."
CHAPTER FOUR: Disillusionment
Amid the constant turmoil, Bobby represented stability and order. Rosa Lee often left her oldest son in charge when she went out, and he did his best to make sure the children did the dishes and went to sleep at assigned hours. Although Bobby was just 13, Alvin and Eric saw him as the father they never had.
That began to change in 1964. Police caught Bobby breaking into a drugstore at 11th Street and Constitution Avenue NE. He was sent off to the city's institution for juvenile delinquents on Mount Olivet Road NE. At the time, Alvin and Eric didn't know that Bobby and several of his friends had been burglarizing stores and schools for months.
A schoolmate taught Bobby how to break into stores. "The first store we got was Circle Music, if you remember that on 11th and H," Bobby told me during an interview at Lorton prison, where he has served several sentences for theft and parole violations since 1974. "I went in there from the roof and got about two or three thousand dollars worth of musical equipment. Lord knows I didn't know what to do with it. ... I took it back up to my Mom and said, 'We'll have some money now!' "
The family was living in a row house at 11th and C streets NE, along with Rosa Lee's mother, Rosetta, and nine of her children -- 19 people in all. Rosa Lee was looking over the equipment in the basement when Rosetta appeared on the stairs.
Rosetta immediately understood the scene. She kicked off one of her slippers, grabbed it and smacked Bobby on his backside. She screamed at Rosa Lee to get the stolen equipment out of the house.
That night, Rosa Lee passed the word to several musicians at the club. They bought everything for $275. Bobby remembers that Rosa Lee gave him $200. It was the most money he had ever seen. He gave her $50 and split the remainder with two friends who had helped in the burglary. Over the next several years, he broke into more than a dozen stores, schools and churches.
Then, six months after Alvin's 12th birthday, Rosa Lee was arrested for stealing a coat from a Montgomery Ward's in Prince George's County and jailed in a Maryland prison for eight months. Upon her release, she collected her children from her mother and began a series of moves that took the family to five apartments over the next three years.
Finally, in 1968, the family settled into a two-story apartment on 57th Place SE, part of the sprawling public housing complex in Marshall Heights near the District-Maryland line. Alvin enrolled at Evans Junior High School, where he met a teacher who saw something in Alvin -- and he set about to help Alvin see it too.
CHAPTER FIVE: Alvin's Friend
Gartrell Franklin remembers the exact date that he met Alvin -- Nov. 1, 1968, Franklin's first day as a history teacher in the D.C. public schools.
Both were newcomers to Evans Junior High School, an imposing red-brick building on East Capitol Street in Southeast Washington. Gartrell was 23, fresh from Howard University and bursting with energy and idealism. Alvin was 15, an eighth-grade transfer.
Alvin wasn't Franklin's best student that first year. But Franklin was drawn to him. "He seemed more mature than children his age," Franklin recalled as we talked about Alvin at Franklin's suburban Maryland home. They have been friends now for 25 years. "He would ask you things after class. Students didn't normally do that."
Just as the 8-year-old Alvin studied the differences between his life and that of his middle-class friends, now the teenager Alvin soaked up the guidance and friendship of Gartrell Franklin. His conversations with Franklin revolved around black history and the black consciousness movement that had gotten started in the 1960s. Franklin organized an after-school Black History Awareness group; Alvin joined and brought along three of his friends.
It was an exciting and difficult time to be young and black in America. Six months earlier, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. His death sparked civil disorders in many major cities, including Washington. Stores were looted, buildings burned.
Only a month before King's death, a presidential commission had issued its findings on similar disturbances the previous summer in Newark, Detroit and other cities. The commission's conclusion was stark. "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal," its final report stated. "Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American."
In this atmosphere, Franklin preached against drugs and pushed Alvin and his friends to make something of themselves. Alvin remembers Franklin saying over and over: "Get that education. You need that education!" Franklin was the first person in his life to emphasize the importance of education, Alvin said.
The boys regarded Franklin as more than just a teacher. "He said all the things that a father, if he were there, would say and do," Alvin said. None of the boys had much, if any, contact with their father.
The boys wanted to know everything they could about every black leader, living or dead, in America. The boys even visited Franklin at home on Saturday afternoons. They talked about the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and King's Poor People's Campaign. They hung on Franklin's every word, Alvin said.
He listened to Franklin because he was educated and forceful. "He always carried paperwork around with him," Alvin said. "He looked like a professor. Upright! Strong!"
Then, on a spring night in 1969, Alvin put his future in jeopardy. Bobby invited him along on a school burglary; for reasons he can no longer fathom, Alvin said yes.
Alvin waited outside while Bobby and another boy broke into the school. In the still night air, he heard the wail of a police siren. Someone had spotted them. Bobby and his friend emerged from the building, empty-handed, and they all ran.
Alvin eluded the police by hiding in the bushes of a nearby back yard, where he found himself face-to-face with a startled German shepherd. Even in his terror, he was angry at himself. He hadn't stolen anything. He hadn't even gone into the building. Yet here he was, fleeing the police. "I knew I would have been charged if the police would have caught us," Alvin said. "From then on, I knew I had to make a drastic change in my life to stay away from this atmosphere."
CHAPTER SIX: Eric's Mentor
The 1968-69 school year also marked a turning point for 12-year-old Eric.
Until then, Eric had found school an exercise in frustration and anxiety. He prayed every day that teachers wouldn't ask him to read aloud. If they did, he would create a diversion "by saying something smart and getting in trouble." He often ended up in the principal's office.
Then he transferred to Shadd Elementary, where he met sixth-grade teacher Hank Wilson. "He worked with you all the way to the point that you could understand what he was teaching," Eric said.
Eric confided in Wilson that he had trouble with reading and spelling. Wilson gave Eric special exercises to create sentences using the words Eric knew. When Eric accomplished the task, Wilson took him out for pizza as a reward.
Wilson told Eric that the exercise demonstrated that Eric had an aptitude for learning. No other teacher had ever said that. "I felt great about myself," Eric said, his voice still reflecting his excitement 25 years later. "I even went to school! I'd get up early and go to school!"
Eric's sudden enthusiasm for school ended when he graduated from Shadd and entered seventh grade at Evans Junior High School. No teacher encouraged him or worked with him as Wilson had the year before. He remembers being placed in an ungraded class with unruly, slower learners. He stopped going to school, and Rosa Lee didn't intervene.
About this time, social worker Nancy H. McAllister walked into his life. She came to Rosa Lee's apartment one morning to check on 15-year-old Richard, who had just returned home after three weeks at the juvenile detention center for burglarizing a Marshall Heights home.
As a frequent visitor to Washington's poorest neighborhoods, McAllister wasn't surprised to find several of Rosa Lee's children at home during school hours. "For three or four families on that street at that time, school was not a priority," McAllister told me during an interview. "The children knew that their parents wouldn't bother them too much if they didn't get up."
McAllister asked Eric why he wasn't in school.
"He came out with some flimsy excuse," McAllister recalled.
Then Rosa Lee chimed in. "They won't listen to me. I try to get them up. Maybe you could do something."
McAllister did not believe Rosa Lee's protestations. She sent Eric back to Evans Junior High that afternoon.
Eric latched onto her as a mentor, frequently dropping by her office at Shadd, his former elementary school. She gave him books; he eventually told her that he had trouble reading them. She arranged for him to be tested and found the results significant: They showed that Eric had no apparent learning disabilities.
She persuaded him to accept tutoring on Saturdays. Over the next 18 months, she drove him to the tutor's house. Gradually his reading improved, although it never became easy for him. Still, McAllister was pleased.
It wasn't McAllister's job to keep up with Eric. She did that on her own. She saw something in him -- a strength of character -- that she wanted to preserve. But she was fighting against forces outside of her control.
One force was sexual activity. In the spring of 1970, Eric learned that he was about to become a father. He was 14 -- the same age as Rosa Lee when she gave birth to Bobby. As soon as the pregnant girl's mother told him, he went to Rosa Lee. "My mother had no problem with it," Eric said. "Alvin had already gotten someone pregnant."
Alvin's daughter and Eric's son were born about 10 months apart. Eric now thought of himself as a father and too "grown" to go to junior high. McAllister implored him to stay in school, but Eric had made up his mind. Alvin already had dropped out; at the end of the school year, he quit too.
He passed the time by hanging out on 57th Place. Three female prostitutes who lived near Rosa Lee's apartment offered him a deal: Would Eric like to work for them, procuring customers? Eric agreed.
"I used to set them up with old guys," he said, his voice conveying a tone of wonderment at his own behavior. "I didn't fully understand what I was doing. They liked me because they said I did not treat them badly."
After several weeks, he bragged to McAllister about what he had been doing. He was not prepared for the blistering lecture that followed. He doesn't remember her exact words, but he remembers how humiliated he felt. "She just said, 'What do you think you are doing!' " He stopped working for the prostitutes soon after.
Eric and McAllister have stayed in touch. Eric credits her and Hank Wilson with steering him away from a life of crime. "I was on my way" to jail, he said. "They showed me a better way of living. They showed me the positive side of life. I already had the negative. They showed me what was possible if I just cared about myself."
CHAPTER SEVEN: 'That's My Son!'
On a July afternoon in 1991, Alvin and I are talking at his house, reflecting on all that has happened to his family in the last 20 years. He and Eric went into the Army after their 18th birthdays, served two-year stints and came back to Washington to find the family in the grip of drug addiction.
"I didn't let drugs grab me," he says softly. "They were there. My friends were using drugs. I'd seen them shoot needles into their arms. Heroin. Cocaine. See, I was around it. I've seen them wrap a belt around their arms and pump the veins up. I saw it. I ignored it. I couldn't see myself doing it. My friends respected me. They would say, 'He don't do it!' "
He is pleased that Rosa Lee, after years of heroin, has enrolled in a methadone treatment program and is sticking to it. Like Eric, he is tired of Rosa Lee's calls for help, tired of rushing over to her apartment to act as a referee in a game that never ends, tired of holding money for her so that Ducky or Patty or Richard won't be able to get their hands on it.
There is a story that Eric tells about the divergent paths that he and Alvin took from the rest of the family. It happened in 1982, while Eric was working briefly as a D.C. correctional officer.
Getting the job made him feel good. Not only had he established himself as a law-abiding citizen, he was now being entrusted with the responsibility of guarding those who had taken the path he had avoided. "I felt great," he said. "I was in the government!"
He was assigned to one of the Lorton prisons, but he often picked up additional money by taking an overtime shift at the understaffed D.C. jail. One night, he saw Rosa Lee. She was locked up on a shoplifting charge.
She spotted Eric in his navy blue uniform and shouted out excitedly to the other prisoners.
"That's my son!" she said in a voice filled with pride, as Eric stood by, embarrassed. "That's my son!"
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