Long before blacks, and later women, learned to join together to demand equality with white males, janitor Donald Thornton was quietly assuring his six daughters they could become doctors.
"I wanted them to be able to help people who wouldn't mind what color they were," says Thornton, 52, a black man with a 10th grade education. "When someone is sick, they want to be helped, and they don't care what color the doctor is."
Today, the dream he said he "cultivated in my children" has come true.
Daughter Linda,27, lives in Alexandria and is a dentist with the Army, working out of Arlington Hall; Jeanette, 32, has a PH.D. in clinical psychology and will attend medical school at Boston University this fall. Yvonne, 29, is a gynecologist and obstetrician in New York Coty; Rita, 24, is in her second year of dental school, Elizabeth 33, is a licensed practical nurse in New Jersey.
The only one doesn't have a medically related career is Donnalee, 33, a secretary and homemaker in Herndon.
The setting was the late 1940's and the early '50s. Thornton, who lives in Long Branch, N.J., realized his children would never make it ti medical school on the salary of a janitor. He and his wife, Itasker, decided to choose a stepping-stone, and they got their idea when Donnalee, as a young child, found a toy saxophone as her prize in a popcorn box.
Thournton then decided his girls would have a musical career, because "music was the only place a black person was welcome. You had to be on a stage performing."
But he stressed to his daughters that music was a stepping-stone only, not their final career, Linda recalled in an interview.
Linda said her father would tell them. "Nobody wants to see a 40-year-old woman playing a saxophone. But they don't question a 40-year-old physician." He helped pay for music lessons by holding as many as five jobs at one time, she said.
So, from the early 1950s until 1974, the Thornson Sisters - orginally the Thornetes - could be found traveling on weekends in a small station wagon and, later, a limousine station wagon. An all-girl band, they played at debutante balls and fraternity and soroity dances from Kentucky to Canada.
The band had Linda on drums, Jeanette on the electric guitar, Rita on the piano, Yvonne playing alto saxophone - and their mother on the electric bass. Daddy was the manager and driver, while Momma made all the sequined and fringed uniforms.
They started out playing jazz, but when soul and rock 'n roll became the rage, the Thorntons changed with the times.
They appeared twice on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour in 1952 and won twice. Not only did they play and sing, they danced an Irish jig, someone having told Thornton that Mark was Irish and if they wanted to win they should dance a jig.
They won amateur nights at New York's Apollo Theatre, and appeared with stars like Dee Dee Sharp and the Shirelles. They worked their way up to $750-a-night engagements. Rita said she, found out when she was 16 that the $35 they thought they were paid for their first performance acrually came out of their father's pocket.
"We were very poor, but we made it somehow," Linda said. "No one can understand the things we went through. We never had toys, but we were busy with our instruments. We were never on the street, because we were always either playing in the band or studying. We couldn't go to parties with friends because we were the ones playing for the parties."
Linda said she started performing when she was 6, and continues until she was 18. Rita members, playing publicly at such an early age her feet didn't reach the pedals on her piano.
"We just kept plugging, through thick and thin," with the guidance and encouragement of their parents, she said. Their mother died earlier this year.
The story of Thorntons has spread. The New York Times recently did a story about them; this week they will appear on both the Today show and To Tell The Truth.
Thornton said people look at his family now and can't see the struggles and the bad times.
"Back in the '40s, the black man didn't have a chance. People never see the bad I went through," Thornton said, "People used to step on my feet, and I'd have to be the one to turn around and say 'excuse me,' lowering myself less than a man. I played the part of an Uncle Tom because I had to but I knew what I was doing. Thank God, I don't have to do that anymore."
Now, he said he is happy. "I feel great. I see myself in my children."