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Rosa Lee's Story: The Series
The Washington Post, Sept. 18-25, 1994
By Leon Dash; Photos by Lucian Perkins

Part 1: A difficult journey
Part 2: Stealing became a way of life
Part 3: Paying a heavy toll for illiteracy
Part 4: Wrestling with recovery in a changing drug culture
Part 5: Two sons who avoided the traps
Part 6: Daughter travels the same troubled path
Part 7: A grandson's problems start early
Part 8: A life comes full circle, and Rosa Lee faces loss

Rosa Lee & Me: What One Family Told Me -- and America -- About the Urban Crisis (Oct. 2, 1994)
The Readers React (Oct. 2, 1994)

Rosa Lee Cunningham's Obituary (July 8, 1995)

Rosa Lee & Me
What One Family Told Me -- and America -- About the Urban Crisis

By Leon Dash
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 2, 1994

For four intense years, I followed Rosa Lee Cunningham, her children and five of her estimated 32 grandchildren. I became absorbed by Rosa Lee's story -- and deeply troubled. I also realized that the series that followed -- on the intergenerational nature of underclass poverty, crime and drug use in one family -- would disturb and anger some readers.

Although the great majority of responses were positive, it did not surprise me that many of those the series angered most are middle-class African Americans. They felt that The Washington Post, by devoting eight days to a three-generational family of welfare-dependent petty criminals, had given this growing urban crisis the wrong kind ofattention. Why, many asked, didn't I write a "positive" story about the many honest single black mothers whose children went on to lives of American success and achievement?

The answer is simple. Stories about successful individuals who have overcome societal barriers have a place in journalism, but these individuals and families are not part of the crisis in urban America. I was interested in writing about the crisis. Every one of us should be alerted to it. I wanted readers to be uncomfortable and alarmed.

Others feel the same way -- Ronald B. Mincy, for example. Ron Mincy is himself a "positive" success story of an African-American man who overcame tremendous odds. He and his two brothers were raised by their single mother in the South Bronx in the Patterson public housing project, not far from the East Harlem neighborhood where I grew up. An expert on urban poverty, Mincy earned a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He, his wife and two sons live in Harlem today out of a commitment to making a change where change is most needed.

Mincy also believes the crisis of poverty and crime in our cities needs to be written about in a way that people can understand it. He understands that this problem is growing not receding.

Every evening Mincy leaves his Ford Foundation office in mid-Manhattan and travels north four miles into a large swath of real estate with rows of boarded-up and deteriorated 19th century tenements. Nearing his West 122nd Street home, Mincy passes through a street-corner drug market brazenly operated by the newest male generation of Harlem's underclass.

Leon Dash interviewing Rosa Lee
Photo by Lucian Perkins
Leon Dash interviewing Rosa Lee in her Southeast Washington apartment. Rosa Lee was eager to tell her story because "you never know who you may help."
"As I round the corner, there are drug deals happening on the corner," says Mincy. The kids attending the nearby junior high school "are coming in and out of that all the time."

This scene is replicated on street corners in every major city in America. The adolescent drug sellers and their destitute adult clients are just the observable symptoms of continuing inner-city decay. This decay is intricately interwoven with other dead-end ingredients of life within America's bottom tier of poverty: adolescent childbearing, child abuse and neglect, foster care, dropping out of school, welfare dependence, single parenthood, chronic unemployment and neighborhood crime and violence.

"In most cases, there is not a father in {these} households," said Mincy. "There is not even a positive older brother! That is a situation that is tragic. It is an intergenerational thing."

Reams of poverty statistics cross Mincy's desk every week, but the tales that drive his search for solutions are the stories he reads every day in newspapers. A Washington Post story about a 14-year-old boy who anticipates dying by age 17 still haunts him.

This, Mincy says, is "usually the only picture" the public gets. But he argues that in reading the life stories of Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family, some readers "will realize that in addition to sort of being horrifying, this is also tragic. Some will be struck by a sort of compassion" for the growing number of persons trapped in patterns of repeated criminal behavior.

That's why I wrote about Rosa Lee Cunningham. Ron Mincy and other experts say that, among those living in extreme poverty, her family is not unique. Consider the statistics:

"Rosa Lee's Story: Poverty and Survival in Washington" ran from Sept. 18 through last Sunday. It told how the repeated imprisonment of Rosa Lee, six of her eight children and a 21-year-old grandson had no effect on their willingness to engage in new crime. Two teenage grandsons have begun dealing drugs, even though they've seen their 21-year-old cousin go in and out of prison.

Like successful African Americans, families like Rosa Lee's are not difficult to find. At the start of the project, I interviewed 20 men and 20 women, heads and members of recidivist families in Washington's jail, called the Central Detention Facility. Every family contained the same histories of drug abuse, repeated imprisonment, chronic unemployment and marginal educations extending over three generations. I selected four families to follow. From this small group, I gradually focused on Rosa Lee's family alone. Just keeping up with three living generations in her family occupied me full time for four years. Above all, I realized that most recidivists, men and women, become parents as teenagers, but that we never hear about what happens to their offspring as the parents cycle through repeated incarcerations. I wanted to know what these children face as their parents are sent off to jail.

Among the callers who complained about the series, there were those who said the articles were "racist" because they perpetuate American stereotypes about blacks living on welfare and engaging in criminal enterprises.

In fact, the stories were about human poverty at the underclass level. Tragically, many families caught in these circumstances and having a restricted vision of what their opportunities are make the same bad choices as Rosa Lee did. Many more do not.

People often asked me, "What is the solution?" There isn't one clear answer -- the many problems in families like Rosa Lee's are too intertwined. The third-grade reading levels of Washington's criminals, however, do offer one clue: They tell us when the criminals stopped learning.

Intensive work with children in the first six years of elementary school can begin to make a difference. Many of these prisoners went on to junior high school without the academic foundation to do junior high-level work much less be able to function academically at the high school level.

These men and women are not stupid. They know they do not have the academic skills to be employable in the American job market; they see crime as an alternative source of income.

Of course, providing a basic education won't save all of them. But it will give many more of them an avenue into stable employment and conventional American life. After that, you can see the connections just as you can see the connections to a life of crime -- and society should see why it needs to make sure they acquire that basic ability. There are, after all, very few high school graduates in prison.

Leon Dash is a member of The Washington Post's special projects reporting unit.


© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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