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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)

Subject of Washington Post Series Dies

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 8, 1995

Rosa Lee Cunningham, 58, whose life of poverty, drug abuse and petty crime was chronicled last year in an eight-part series in The Washington Post, died yesterday at Howard University Hospital.

Cunningham, who had AIDS, was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia April 18 and had lapsed into unconsciousness frequently since then. Since 1988, she had been hospitalized 15 times.

"She fought all the way to the end," her son Eric Wright said yesterday. "She didn't give up trying."

In The Post's series, which appeared Sept. 18-25, Cunningham revealed herself as a woman who stole from stores, introduced a grandson to shoplifting, used and sold drugs, worked as a prostitute and introduced her daughter to prostitution -- all part of what she called her struggle "to survive."

Some of her children repeated the pattern that she had set, much to her embarrassment and shame. She preferred to talk about her sons Alvin Cunningham and Eric, who never used drugs and succeeded in making something of their lives.

The series explored her life and what it illustrated about the persistence of poverty, unwed motherhood, drug abuse and petty crime among the growing urban underclass. For Cunningham, seeing her life laid bare was an expiation of guilt, a consummation of the years of pain and trial, a way of transmuting ugliness and degradation into something of use and value.

She told reporter Leon Dash that she was willing to reveal everything about herself -- aware that others would not admire her -- because she hoped "maybe I can help somebody not follow in my footsteps if they read my life story."

Touching readers as few stories in The Post have, the series about Cunningham's life brought more than 4,000 telephone calls from readers, about half of them supportive of the newspaper for publishing the series and one-quarter of them critical. The series won a Pulitzer Prize for Dash and photographer Lucian Perkins.

After the series appeared, she continued to tell her story. She became the focus of a television documentary by the PBS show "Frontline" that aired a month after she was hospitalized. She never saw the broadcast.

Rosa Lee at the window
Photo by Lucian Perkins
Rosa Lee Cunningham pauses to reflect while in the hospital at Howard during March of 1994. For four years Leon Dash, investigative reporter for The Post, chronicled the lives of Rosa Lee and her family for the newspaper's eight-part series.
The series made her a kind of public figure. She was invited to speak at drug treatment centers and in churches, where she described her descent into drug addiction and her ultimately successful struggle to end her habit.

Once she spoke at a residential substance-abuse treatment center on Blaine Street NE, in a building where she had once lived and used drugs. After she spoke, some listeners came up to her and said she had inspired them to try to end their own drug use. "It made me feel so good," she told Dash.

At several churches where she spoke in the fall, members of the congregation told her that they, too, had been moved by her story as they read it and heard it from her.

"Some of them told me I had been touched by God," she said, her face glowing. They told her, she added, that "I was doing God's work."

In a particularly stirring moment, Cunningham returned recently to Mount Joy Baptist Church on Fourth Street SE, which she once attended. As a girl, she stole money from the coats in the cloakroom on Sundays.

"It was heartwarming," said the Rev. Bruce E. Mitchell Sr., the church's current pastor. Cunningham came down the aisle, to the front of the sanctuary, "with tears in her eyes," Mitchell said, and "she asked for the forgiveness of God, and she asked for the forgiveness of the church, and she was granted both."

"There were claps," he said. "There were some tears. . . . She's all right now."

Her relationship with Dash began in 1988, when Dash was working on a reporting assignment at the D.C. jail and Cunningham was serving an eight-month sentence for selling heroin. Dash was interested in doing a project on the persistence of poverty and criminal recidivism across several generations, and Rosa Lee agreed to talk about her life. In 1990, Dash began the project in earnest. It lasted four years, culminating in the publication of "Rosa Lee's Story."

Their relationship continued after the series ended. "I found a friend," she often told people who asked her about it.

During the years Dash spent with her, she admitted some of her transgressions easily and others with great reluctance. Some were committed as a child and for typically childish reasons. Those she committed as an adult, she explained, more often than not were done to keep herself and her eight children alive.

"You keep talking about prostitution," she told Dash testily. "I saw it as survival."

Rosa Lee Cunningham's parents and grandparents had been sharecroppers in Rich Square, N.C. They came to the Washington area in 1932 to work with the tobacco crop in Southern Maryland but found themselves instead in the District, where Rosa Lee was born in 1936. Her father, who was an alcoholic, died of liver disease when she was 12.

When Cunningham was growing up, Washington was not a land of opportunity for rural migrants from the South, especially black sharecroppers. The city was sharply segregated by race and class; black migrants found few who would help them get a foothold.

As a young girl, she came face to face with the consequences of this racial and class divide. In the 1930s and 1940s, her family lived in dilapidated housing without running water or electricity. She spoke often about her childhood fear of the kerosene lamps that her family used for light, aware of other houses that had caught fire because of an overturned lamp. As her family grew -- her mother gave birth to 22 children, 11 of whom lived to adulthood -- Cunningham become accustomed to bedrooms crammed with many people. Privacy and a bedroom for herself were luxuries she never knew.

At Giddings Elementary School, she entered the segregated school system that the District -- and many other cities -- then operated. She dropped out in the seventh grade, four years before the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregated schools. She was 13, unable to read and pregnant with her first child, Bobby.

Her first theft took place when she was 9. She stole pennies from the desks of classmates. Later, she became an accomplished shoplifter and sold the goods she stole to support herself, her children -- and much later, her drug habit. She continued to shoplift despite repeated arrests and short jail terms. She said she stole "to survive," but some family members regarded that as an excuse and told her so.

She married at 16 to escape her mother, but she quickly moved back home after her husband began to beat her. Her eight children were fathered by five different men, and she raised them herself.

She supported them by working as a waitress in nightclubs, selling drugs, shoplifting and prostitution. She had moved 18 times since 1950, twice to shelters for the homeless, most of the time to neighborhoods where drugs were never far from the door. She was sent to jail 12 times, serving a total of five years for theft or drug convictions.

In 1988, she learned that she had the AIDS virus, a likely consequence of using dirty needles to inject heroin.

But, her son Eric said yesterday, Cunningham never gave in to the humiliation, the guilt or the sickness.

She "never, ever, turned her back on herself and walked away," he said. "She was a lot of lady."

Her oldest son, Robert Wright, died of AIDS in January 1994. In addition to Eric and Alvin, survivors include five other children, six brothers, two sisters and numerous grandchildren.


© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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