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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
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

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)

Part Two
Stealing Became a Way of Life

Rosa Lee Cunningham guided her 10-year-old grandson through the narrow aisles of the Oxon Hill thrift shop, past the crowded racks of secondhand pants and shirts, stopping finally at the row of children's jackets and winter coats.

The boy picked out a mock flight jacket, with a big number on the back and a price tag stapled to the collar.

"If you want it," Rosa Lee said, "then you're going to have to help me get it."

"Okay, grandmama," the boy said nervously. "But do it in a way that I won't get caught."

Like a skilled teacher instructing a new student, the 54-year-old Rosa Lee told the boy what to do. "Pretend you're trying it on. Don't look up! Don't look around! Don't laugh like it's some kind of joke! Just put it on. Let Grandma see how you look."

The boy slipped off his old coat and put on the new one. It was too big. Rosa Lee whispered, "Now put the other one back on, over it." She pushed down the new jacket's collar so that it was hidden.

"What do I do now?" the boy asked.

"Just walk on out the door," Rosa Lee said. "It's your coat."

Four days later, Rosa Lee is recounting this episode for me, re-creating the dialogue by changing her voice to distinguish between herself and her grandson. It is January 1991, and it has been five months since she agreed to let me spend time with her as part of a reporting project on how several generations of one Washington family have lived with poverty, crime and drug abuse.

Rosa Lee and son Ducky
Photo by Lucian Perkins
After selling sweaters and shirts that Ducky stole during a burglary, Rosa Lee and Ducky walk to the bus stop with the suitcase that contained the stolen clothes.
By now, I have spent enough time with her that her shoplifting exploits no longer surprise me. One day before Christmas, Rosa Lee was searching for something in a large shopping bag in her bedroom and dumped the contents onto the bed. Out spilled dozens of bottles of expensive men's cologne and women's perfume, as well as leather gloves with their $60 price tags still attached. She leaves the tags on when she sells the goods to prove that the merchandise is new.

"Did you get all this in one trip?" I ask.

"Oh, no," she says. "This is a couple of weeks' worth."

In Rosa Lee's younger years especially, shoplifting was a major source of income, supplementing her welfare payments and the money she made during 15 years of waitressing at various nightclubs. She had eight children to feed and clothe; stealing, she says, helped her to survive. Later on, when she became a heroin addict in the mid-1970s, she paid for her drug habit through her shoplifting.

She stole from clothing stores, drugstores, grocery stores, stuffing the items inside the torn liner of her winter coat or slipping them into the oversized black leather purse that she carries wherever she goes. Her favorite targets were the department stores. One of her older brothers, Joe Louis Wright, joked with me one day that Rosa Lee "owned a piece" of Hecht's and had put Lansburgh's out of business. "Man, she would get coats, silk dresses," he recalled. "She got me a mohair suit. Black. Three-piece. I don't know how the hell she'd get them out of there."

Her stealing has caused divisions and hard feelings in her family, and is one reason why Rosa Lee has strained relationships with several of her brothers and sisters. They see Rosa Lee's stealing as an extreme and unjustified reaction to their impoverished upbringing. Two of her six sons, Alvin and Eric, always have refused to participate in any of their mother's illegal activities; today, they are the only two of Rosa Lee's eight children who don't have prison records.

Rosa Lee has served eight short prison terms for various kinds of stealing during the past 40 years, dating to the early 1950s. Her longest stay was eight months for trying to steal a fur coat from a Maryland department store in 1965. She says that she went to prison rehabilitation programs each time but that none had much of an effect on her. "I attended those programs so it would look good on my record when I went before the parole board," she says.

Nothing seems to deter her from shoplifting, not even the specter of another jail term. On the day that she stole her grandson's coat, she was awaiting sentencing in D.C. Superior Court after pleading guilty in November 1990 to stealing bedsheets from the downtown Hecht's store.

"I'm just trying to survive," she says.

CHAPTER ONE: A Day in Court

Rosa Lee had chosen her clothes carefully when she appeared two months earlier before Commissioner John Treanor on Nov. 13, 1990. She wanted to look as poor as possible to draw his sympathy.

She had worn an ill-fitting winter coat, gray wool overalls and a white wool hat pulled back to show her graying hair. She had removed her upper dental plate, giving her a toothless look when she smiled. "My homey look," she called it. "No lipstick. No earrings. No nothing!"

Her lawyer's statements that day matched her downtrodden look. Rosa Lee's life was a mess, he told Treanor. She was addicted to heroin, a habit she had developed in 1975. She had the HIV virus. She was caring for three grandchildren because their mother was in jail.

Rosa Lee told Treanor that she was trying hard to turn herself around. She was taking methadone every day to control her heroin addiction and had turned again to the church. "I got baptized Sunday, me and my three grandchildren," she said, her voice breaking. "And I'm asking you from the bottom of my heart, give me a chance to prove that I'm taking my baptize seriously, 'cause I know I might not have much longer."

Tears ran down her cheeks. "I'm asking you for a chance, please," she begged Treanor. "I know I have a long record."

Rosa Lee was stretching the truth. Yes, she had been baptized, and yes, she was taking methadone. But no, she wasn't caring for her grandchildren alone. Their mother's jail term had ended several months earlier, and she had returned to Rosa Lee's two-bedroom apartment to take care of the children, with help from Rosa Lee.

Treanor hadn't seemed moved by Rosa Lee's tearful performance. He glowered at her, and Rosa Lee braced for the lecture she knew was coming. Both had played these roles before.

"Every time you pump yourself full of drugs and spend money to do it," he said, "you're stealing from your grandchildren. You're stealing food from their plates, clothes from their backs, and you're certainly jeopardizing their future. You're going to be one of the youngest dead grandmothers in town. And you're going to have three children that will be put up for adoption or going out to some home or some junior village or someplace."

That had been Rosa Lee's opening. "Can I prove to you that my life has changed?"

"Yeah, you can prove it to me, very simply," Treanor answered. "You can stay away from dope. Now I'll make a bargain with you. . . . You come back here the end of January and tell me what you've been doing, and then we'll think about it. But you're looking at jail time. You're looking at a cemetery."

Rosa Lee had won. Stay out of trouble until January, Treanor had suggested, and she would stay out of jail.

Rosa Lee came over to me, her cheeks still tear-stained but her face aglow.

"Was I good?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said, startled at her boldness.

"Thank you," she said, smiling.

CHAPTER TWO: Transformation

When she returns for sentencing on Jan. 22, 1991, a transformed Rosa Lee stands before Treanor. She looks good. She has a clean report from the methadone clinic. She seems to have done everything Treanor has asked.

She usually dresses well, but I think she has outdone herself today: two-piece, white-and-gray cotton knit suit, tan leather boots, tan pocketbook.

"What would you like to say, Mrs. Cunningham?" Treanor says.

"Well, your honor, I know I haven't been a good person. I know it," she begins.

Treanor cuts her off. His demeanor is softer, his words more sympathetic than in November. "Wait a minute, now. Why do you say that? . . . You're taking care of those three grandchildren, isn't that right?"

"Yes, sir," Rosa Lee says, keeping up the pretense.

"All right," he says. "Now you've raised one family, and now you have another one."

"Yes, sir," she says.

"Which is really too much to ask of anybody. So I don't think you should sell yourself short. You're doing the Lord's work. Your daughter's in jail for drugs, right?"

"Yes, sir," Rosa Lee says.

"And you have or have had a bad drug problem yourself."

"Yes, sir."

Then Treanor launches into another lecture about drugs. He doesn't ask Rosa Lee why she steals. "You steal to support your habit," he says. "It's as plain as the nose on your face."

But it isn't that plain. Rosa Lee began stealing long before she became a drug addict.

Finally, Treanor announces his decision: no jail. Instead, he gives her a suspended sentence and one year of probation with drug counseling.

"Now, don't you come back here," he says.


Rosa Lee sometimes puts on a public mask, the way she wants the world to see her. She fudges a little, omits a little there, even when she is trying to be candid about her behavior. By her account, her stealing started when she was a teenager. It was an older brother, Ben Wright, who told me that Rosa Lee's stealing started when she was 9 years old. Her target: the lunch money that her fourth-grade classmates at the District's Giddings Elementary School kept in their desks.

"Jesus, Ben!" Rosa Lee shouts when I ask her about it.

"What's the matter?" I say. "You said I could interview Ben."

It is a late afternoon in January, not long after her court appearance. We are talking in my car, which is parked outside Rosa Lee's apartment. We watch the teenage crack dealers come and go, making their rounds of the low-income housing complex in Washington Highlands, a Southeast Washington neighborhood near the D.C.-Prince George's County line. Rosa Lee's grandson and granddaughter are playing nearby on a patch of dirt where the grass has been worn away. The sun is beginning to sink behind the buildings as she tells me about her first theft.

The year was 1946, and Giddings's imposing red-brick building at Third and G streets SE was a bustling part of the District's then-segregated education system. The school, now an adult education center, served black children living in Capitol Hill neighborhoods; some, like Rosa Lee, came from poor sharecropping families who had moved to Washington during the Depression, and they did not have the new clothes and spending money that their better-off classmates did.

Rosa Lee's father, Earl Wright, was an alcoholic who worked for a paving contractor until drinking became the primary activity in his life. He died of liver disease just after Rosa Lee turned 12. Her mother, Rosetta Lawrence Wright, brought in most of the family's money, working as a domestic on Capitol Hill during the day and selling dinners from the family's kitchen in the evening, always for cash so the welfare officials wouldn't know about the additional income. They lived in a rented house in the 800 block of Third Street SE that had no electricity and no indoor toilets.

Other girls came to school with change to buy "brownie-thins" -- penny-a-piece cookies that the Giddings teachers sold with the free milk at lunch. Rosa Lee's family was too poor to spare even a few pennies. She knew it was wrong to steal from her classmates' desks, she says. But she couldn't stand being poor, either.

Rosa Lee soon found that she had plenty of opportunities to steal, if she were daring enough. Selling the Afro-American newspaper door-to-door on Tuesday and Thursday evenings during the summer of 1948, when she was 11, gave her a chance to slip into neighborhood row houses and rifle through the pocketbooks that women often left on their dining room tables. Washington was a safer place in those days, and Rosa Lee discovered that many families would leave their front screen doors unlatched while they chatted in their back yards, trying to cool off on hot summer nights.

In the fall, she found a new source of money: the coatroom at Mount Joy Baptist Church, a nearby church where her family had worshiped for many years. She had started ushering during Sunday services and was assigned to help in the coatroom. She noticed congregation members often left money in their coat pockets. "I felt like if they wanted {the money}, they wouldn't have left it in their damn pocket," she said.

Rosa Lee said she would wait until the "singing and praying" started before going to the racks of coats, patting the pockets and listening for the jingle of coins. Once in a great while she would find dollar bills.

Her coatroom thefts continued undetected until one Sunday, when Mount Joy's minister, the Rev. Raymond M. Randall, announced to the astonished congregation that someone had stolen several dollars from a member's coat pocket during the previous Sunday's service. Randall offered forgiveness and asked the culprit to come forward. If the thief was hungry, the minister said, the church would try to help.

Rosa Lee could not bring herself to confess in front of her mother, her family and her friends. "My mother would have KILLED ME! Do you hear me? KILLED ME!" she shouted at me as she recalled the scene. "And who is going to go up there and tell him that you're hungry? That would only embarrass the hell out of you!"

For the next few weeks, she stayed away from church. When she returned to her ushering duties, she was careful to steal only change. She often did not know what to do with the money she stole. Her immediate needs were small and simple: 35 cents for the Saturday movie matinee at the old Atlas Theater on H Street NE, or a dime for the snow cones that she loved. She gave away small amounts to brothers and sisters and friends, but never enough to attract her mother's attention.

Rosa Lee hid her stolen coins from her mother. "I would roll it up in a stocking," she said, and put the stocking under a rug, or under her mattress or in her underwear.

Forty years later, Rosa Lee still hides her money every night -- not from her mother, but from her five drug-addicted children. Sometimes she goes to bed with a wad of bills stuffed into her sock. "If I don't hide it, they'd steal it," she said.

CHAPTER FOUR: Out of Style

If Rosa Lee felt bad about not having a few pennies to buy cookies in fourth grade, she felt even worse about not having a stylish wardrobe to match those of her friends in seventh grade. She hated the secondhand clothes that her mother bought for her; they were almost always out of style.

Rosa Lee already felt at a disadvantage in attracting boys, and thought fashionable clothes might help. "I was dark-skinned," she said. "I wasn't like the girls with long hair and light skin. The boys always went for them."

One morning, a girlfriend lent Rosa Lee a new gray skirt with "two pockets on the hip," one of the newest fashions. "My mother would never buy me one," Rosa Lee told me, her voice still smoldering with resentment. Rosa Lee loved how she looked in it.

During lunch, the girlfriend asked Rosa Lee in front of some classmates to share her 35-cent meal. "I wouldn't give it to her," Rosa Lee said. "I was hungry!"

The girlfriend blurted out, "I didn't say that when you borrowed my skirt!"

Rosa Lee's classmates howled with laughter at her embarrassment. As she retells the story, I can see that time has not healed her wound. Her voice hardens, her eyes narrow, her expression conveys the raw power of the memory. "That hurt," Rosa Lee says. "I thought, 'God, this will never happen again to me.' "

Days later Rosa Lee walked into a five-and-dime store in the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. She picked out a gray skirt and a white lace blouse, folded them into two tight bundles, slipped them under the skirt she was wearing and slowly made her way out of the store. As she turned the corner, she crushed the skirt and blouse to her chest in glee.

She hid the skirt and blouse from her mother. Emboldened, Rosa Lee branched out to other stores in the Capitol Hill area. "I was determined to have what other girls had," she said.

At a party in early 1950, she met a light-skinned boy who was attracting attention from the other girls. And Rosa Lee wanted to impress her friends by getting his attention; she enjoyed the other girls' envious looks when he asked to walk her home.

She thought having sex would cement their relationship. She became pregnant. "I haven't seen him since," she said.

When school officials found out she was pregnant, they told her she would have to leave school until the baby was born. She never went back. In November 1950, she gave birth to Bobby, naming him Robert Earl Wright.

Not long after Bobby was born, Rosa Lee decided to dress for church in one of her stolen outfits. She knew it was risky, but she was tired of wearing hand-me-downs when the other ushers usually came in stylish clothes. As soon as her mother spotted the gray pleated skirt, she confronted Rosa Lee.

"Where did you get this from?" Rosetta demanded.

"I stole it out of a store. Please don't make me take it back to the store, Momma!"

Rosetta was furious. "I ain't going to say nothing to you now because you told the truth, but don't bring nothing else in here that you've been stealing! DO YOU HEAR ME?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Rosa Lee, trembling as she waited for her mother to hit her.

But her mother just said: "Put it on. Let's see what you look like in it."

CHAPTER FIVE: The Stolen Scarf

Rosa Lee ignored Rosetta's order to stop shoplifting. Whenever her mother questioned her about some new item, Rosa Lee just denied that she stole it. "My mother would tell me, 'Stop that lying,' and then let it go," Rosa Lee said.

But a judge wasn't so kind when Rosa Lee was caught shoplifting a few months later at a downtown department store, her first arrest. He sent her to a facility for juveniles for 19 days in early 1951. But the lesson seemed lost on the 15-year-old Rosa Lee; after her release, she went right back to shoplifting.

When Rosa Lee was away, her mother cared for 1-year-old Bobby. Rosetta, who had her first child at age 15 in North Carolina, had accepted Rosa Lee's first pregnancy, but she was angry because Rosa Lee was pregnant again. The father was another teenager in the neighborhood. "What do you think you doing, bringing all these babies in here?" Rosa Lee remembers her mother saying.

Rosetta demanded that Rosa Lee have an abortion, but Rosa Lee wasn't about to let her mother tell her what to do -- about babies, or shoplifting, or anything else.

Anxious to win her mother's affection, Rosa Lee decided to steal something for Rosetta. One day after Rosetta came home from work, Rosa Lee took a multicolored, cotton scarf from under her coat and handed it to her mother.

Rosetta took the scarf, turned it over in her hands and looked questioningly at her daughter. Rosa Lee waved both her hands, a sign to her mother not to ask where she had gotten the scarf.

Her mother didn't. "Rose, I NEVER had something like this!"

Rosetta threw her arms around Rosa Lee. "She grabbed me, and I grabbed her," Rosa Lee recalls. "I couldn't believe it!"

But the stolen scarf, and other stolen gifts that followed, did not bring Rosa Lee the close relationship that she wanted. Rosa Lee says her mother didn't like her shoplifting and continued to badger her about it. The tension between them was always there, waiting to explode. One day, when Rosa Lee was 22 and raising five children in an apartment next door to her mother's, it did.

Rosa Lee and a neighbor had a shouting match after the neighbor had hit one of Rosa Lee's children. When Rosetta heard about it, she was angry. She stormed into Rosa Lee's home.

"She told me that all I am is a troublemaker," Rosa Lee recalled. "I told her that {the neighbor} shouldn't have hit my child. Momma said, 'You nothing but a damn nuisance,' and pow, right in my mouth."

Rosetta's blow left her daughter with one visible legacy of their relationship: an upper denture to replace the front teeth that Rosetta knocked out.

It also left a lasting impression on Bobby, who saw the confrontation. He was 8. "It was spooky," he told me. "Ain't nobody supposed to beat up Mom. As much as she went to get food for us and clothes for us. I don't care who it was."

CHAPTER SIX: 'We Started Grabbing'

On the balmy Thursday night of April 4, 1968, a few hours after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., looting and arson erupted in several of the District's major commercial corridors, overwhelming the city's police force.

Rosa Lee watched as looters carried bags, boxes and portable televisions past the ramshackle house she was renting at 149 L St. SE.

"Where ya'll get that stuff?" Rosa Lee called out from her porch.

"H Street," folks shouted.

Rosa Lee, 31 at the time, had a vague idea of King's efforts to improve life for African Americans. Still, the destruction did not disturb her. She did not believe the torching and trashing of businesses had any connection to her. The shops, she said, were run by "greedy" merchants who gouged customers and took "whatever little money I had."

So when her son Bobby, then 17, drove up in a Buick that Rosa Lee instinctively knew had been stolen, she didn't hesitate.

She turned to her seven other children and said, "All right! Who wants to go?" As usual, Alvin and Eric, then 15 and 12, held back.

On H Street, Rosa Lee said, "everybody was grabbing everything they could get their hands on. We started grabbing too. Didn't know what we were taking. Just grabbing, grabbing, grabbing."

The next day, when the looting began again, Rosa Lee kept her children at home. "We already had so much stuff," she said. "There was no need to go out."

CHAPTER SEVEN: Shopping for Bread

"Mr. Dash," Rosa Lee says as I am driving her to her apartment in February 1991, "stop at that High's so I can get a loaf of bread."

I glance at her, and she knows what I'm thinking. "I'm not doing any shoplifting," she says.

I have told Rosa Lee that I cannot be a party in any way to her shoplifting. So when we pull into the parking lot at High's, she makes a big show of leaving her oversized black bag on the seat. Wallet in hand, she heads for the store.

Fifteen minutes go by. My feet are getting numb from the cold, so I decide to see why she's taking so long. Her head is visible above the display counter of canned goods. She is putting something into a large brown paper bag, too busy to notice I've come inside the small store.

"ROSA LEE!" I shout.

She jumps at the sound of her name. She spots me standing near the smudged glass door. She crumples the top of the bag and walks toward me. I feel her cold anger as she breezes past.

"That's the last time I wait for you outside of a store!" I yell as we walk to the car. "You told me you weren't going to steal anything!"

She fires back, her words coming out in a steamy vapor from the cold. "I'm trying to feed my family and I don't have any money. We're just trying to survive!"

"That's dead!" I say. "Save that for the judges at Superior Court. You just threw away several hundred dollars buying dope and crack for your children."

"You know so goddamn much!" she snaps as I start the car. "I ought to go upside your head!"

"You threaten 'to go upside my head' every other day," I say.

She laughs, and the tension evaporates. She shows me what's in her bag: a loaf of bread that she bought, and the items she stole -- two cans of spray starch and a can of baked beans.

I am angry with Rosa Lee for violating my trust, and I am angry with myself. The incident is a lesson to me: Why did I think that she would behave differently around me?

CHAPTER EIGHT: Second Thoughts

A few weeks after the shoplifting incident at High's, Rosa Lee and I are talking in her apartment. After spending so much time with her, I realize I don't always ask the questions that need to be asked.

"Rosa Lee," I say, "there's something I want to work out with you about how you look at the world."

I remind her of the time she took her granddaughter to steal a coat. They were on their way to church, but Rosa Lee thought the girl's coat looked ragged, so they went to the thrift shop to shoplift.

Rosa Lee nods.

"How do you put those two together?" I say. "One Sunday going to church to be baptized, and the next Sunday going to shoplift a coat?

"I don't know," she says. "I didn't like to take her to church with that dirty-looking coat."

"But how do you take her out stealing then?" I say.

She protests that the thrift shop's white owner takes advantage of his customers, who are mostly black. "I don't understand how a thrift shop can charge so much for things," she says. "Do you know that he charges $8.95 for stuff that don't cost that much brand-new?"

"That's a rationalization, and it doesn't dance," I say.

That night, I am surprised to find a message from Rosa Lee on my answering machine in the newsroom, telling me that she had had "second thoughts" about taking her grandchildren to shoplift. The next day, she explains. "You gave me something to think about," she says. She told her grandchildren that our conversation had made her see that it was wrong to steal coats for them.

Her granddaughter immediately went to the closet and got the pink coat that Rosa Lee had helped her steal.

"What you want me to do with the coat?" she asked Rosa Lee.

"Keep it. Keep the coat. But we're not going to do any more stealing," Rosa Lee replied.

"Are you going to stick to that?" her granddaughter asked.

"So help me to God," Rosa Lee said. "I'm going to stick to that."

Rosa Lee looks at me, waiting for my reaction. I study her face. She isn't promising never to shoplift again, only that she won't involve the children. Nonetheless, she seems sincere.

"You have a powerful influence on those children," I say.

"I know it," she says.

Continue to Part Three


© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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