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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)

The Readers React

Washington Post Staff Writer
October 2, 1994

In response to Leon Dash's series, "Rosa Lee's Story," The Washington Post received more than 4,600 phone calls to a special line set up to allow readers to leave recorded comments. About half of the callers approved of the publication of the story while about a quarter were critical of The Post for running it. Another 20 percent of the callers offered observations that were neither critical nor supportive; the remainder offered judgments that were both positive and negative. This was not a scientific survey of reader reaction.

Here is a sampling of the comments:

It was an extremely well-done article and extremely interesting. Each day I waited for the next installment of the story. Right under our noses, there are people who are living this way. The type of life they led is completely foreign to me, unlike anything I've ever read. My suggestion to The Post would be to do an article about another family that came from similar background. My great grandparents were sharecroppers and came to Washington in 1946 from South Carolina. Our lives were not at all like Rosa Lee's. No one went to jail, nobody on drugs, everybody's working, everybody got an education. I think we should see the other side of this story.

-- Gwendolyn Aughtry, Landover, Md.

I am tired of reading stories about black people and poverty. When are you going to do a story about a white person who moved from Appalachia and is still in a trailer park three generations later? This is an old story, a tired story. We're waiting to see the story of the two children who made it into middle and working class . . . .so a child who's in high school, struggling to get out of that circumstance understands what positive steps can be made. This is why people hate The Post.

-- Cecelie Counts-Blakey, Northeast Washington

I don't understand why The Washington Post is trying to engender support or sympathy for this woman. Her problems don't have anything to do with racism, she's a drug addict. She's enabling her children to become drug addicts. The only thing that poverty has to do with it is that it allows her to use government money to support her drug habit and her children's drug habits.

-- Denise Kellogg, Arlington, Va.

I am a 52-year-old black woman who has gone through some of the same things that Rosa Lee Cunningham did. I've been keeping up with the story all week. It has touched me so deeply, the things that she has endured. I started having children at 15 and it has been a struggle with raising them. I've never taken any drugs, but I was abused and I can relate to so many things that she went through. It just moved me. I'm praying for Rosa Lee.

-- Minnie Barnes, Northeast Washington

I thought it was truly excellent. I am an upper white class, middle class, let's say, girl, used to be a very pretty girl, and I am a heroin addict. I'm on methadone now. And reading your story really breaks my heart. I am so impressed with this I'm cutting it out and taking it to the clinic tomorrow to hang up because no one seems to understand and I think that you somehow in your heart do.

-- Candace Ricks, Crownsville, Md.

All people face problems, the question is how do they solve their problems. This is where the black church should have come in and helped these people, if not initially when they came to Washington, then when they got on drugs. When people leave rural areas to go to the city it seems like they leave religion out of their lives. This exodus is a point that I think should be developed.

-- A. Mills, Upper Marlboro

{Dash} doesn't seem to explain . . . how the racist structure of our society allows a situation like this to happen in the first place. The information on her life so far is beginning to show how poverty and education impacted them -- but not racism. But it's The Washington Post so I wouldn't expect that part. So I hope that, unlike in most Post stories, you will work hard explaining how the racial structure has impacted on their lives and given them the number of choices that they had and didn't let them benefit fully from the contributions they have made.

-- Wayne Young, Southeast Washington

I really sincerely hope that other people are as angered at this person's justification for all of her irresponsible behavior as I am. This is disgusting. My parents were poor Oklahoma farm kids that worked and never stole and never took anything and never did drugs. My father came from a family of alcoholics and he himself battled with it but still managed to hold down a job and educate two kids. My sister and I have never been in any kind of trouble. This woman is simply irresponsible . . . . It's not a black thing. It's an irresponsible thing.

-- Janice Dodd, Arlington, Va.

As a black person I find this story very troubling but I guess it's kind of necessary to tell this story. It's very interesting and very compelling.

-- Alan Patterson, Columbia, Md.

I'm the executive director of the House of Ruth. I was greatly impressed with Mr. Dash's reporting. I think we have a lot in common in terms of the experiences we've all shared, and what Rosa Lee's story exemplifies in a lot of the women we're seeing. I thought it was extremely in-depth with a lot of warmth.

-- Christel Nichols, Northeast Washington

As an African American woman who was born in the North and educated in the South in college I was so moved by it that I almost cried. It's one of the best history lessons ever. It should be published in every history book across America.

-- Erica Simpson, Hyattsville, Md.

I know as an African-American woman, I feel eyes upon me in stores, and this story I think perpetuates this myth -- that if I come in with my kids and a diaper bag, I'm going to steal something. Also, if you're going to write a story about poverty, why don't you talk about the flip side, the great number of people who work more than one job to try and take care of their families. I know that's how it was in my family . . . . So, congratulations on perpetuating a myth.

-- Susan Smith, Annandale Va.

I'm glad The Post has done something in-depth on poverty and racism and abuse. My only concern is I wish the underlying causes could be explored, the why more so than the what. Leon Dash is to be commended, but we need to look at a little further.

-- John L. Moore, Northwest Washington

I'm a divorced young black female. Too often this type of stuff goes on in the black community. . . . People think I'm a very strict parent when it comes to my children, but stories like this cause me to be even more strict . . . . It just baffles me to find out how people can turn out like this . . . . Apparently they didn't have a vision or hope . . . in life. Without a vision, you suffer.

-- Doris Rainey, Laurel, Md.

It's one of the most poignant, emotional experiences I've gone through in reading. I read all kinds of articles and books . . . but this one just kept drawing me in . . . . Any journalist who takes six years needs to be listened to, I think. I don't understand how some of her children did turn out all right. That's the real heroism.

-- Ruth Worthen, Roslyn, Va.

I'm a middle aged, white housewife in suburban Virginia and I think this has been a really interesting article to read. Being a person that sometimes judges people without thinking, I was able to stop and see a different perspective -- to not be so quick to judge the lifestyles of people. It's hard to imagine people living like that but when you describe the circumstances around the decisions they made, it just shines a different light on it.

-- Debbie Miller, Sterling, Va.

I didn't like the articles because the recurrent message was that society is at fault, as in so many of these types of articles. The series glosses over individual responsibility. My grandmother was a slave -- the term was serf in Russia -- and she came here as a teenager and worked in a shoe factory all of her life. She never learned to read and write in any language. Her husband worked in a shoe factory all of his life and they managed to squirrel away money and raise their children. She made sure that her children took advantage of the educational opportunities here. That's the key to escaping poverty. The lack of education and the values system in poor families, that's the common denominator that keeps the poor poor. It's not society, it's broken value systems within families.

-- Annemarie Brown, Falls Church, Va.

I'm a judge in Superior Court. I've been reading your story about Rosa Lee. I've been assigned to a drug court here now for almost three years. I am so caught by your capturing the essence of what this whole problem is. I think this is a story that deserves a Pulitzer Prize . . . . This is the kind of thing that may actually change some people's lives, if they take it to heart.

-- Bruce Beaudin, Northwest Washington

It's a phenomenal story, one of the best things I've ever seen in the newspaper. It tells what the real story is and how people get trapped in these cycles. Getting out is not quite as easy as comfortable middle class folks like me have been led to believe. Mr. Dash was very even-handed -- neither overly sympathetic nor overly harsh.

-- Maria Wheeler, Ashburn, Va.

I'm concerned that you don't make it clear enough that Rosa Lee isn't typical of most women on welfare and that most women on welfare don't commit crimes and do drugs. You risk perpetuating a stereotype unfairly.

-- Susan Manning, Wheaton, Md.

As a black person who started out in the ghetto and now lives rather comfortably in the suburbs, I have a huge sense of guilt and of obligation, for people like her whom nobody seems able to help. Someone should do a cost-benefit study of her and her children, the cost from all sources, that goes to maintain Rosa Lee and how much positive is coming out of that. The point being, as Jesse Jackson says, that it may cost us more money to keep people in jail than it ever does to educate them and keep them out. Maybe that's not all of the solution but at least if the Caucasian public would understand that locking up people . . . may not be the best public policy.

-- Calvin Young, Fairfax Station, Va.

Being an African-American male and 37 years of age, I keep getting negative images of African-American people in the newspaper. This disturbs me. It's on the front page, I'm not learning anything from it, I don't see where the racism has perpetuated the drug use or the illiteracy of the family and I think that they perpetuated it themselves. I think that the story should have been more geared to the children who made a success of their lives, how they were able to escape, what people could learn from them and how they got around the poverty.

-- Anthony Frizzell, Northeast Washington

This is a deeply moving series . . . the American 20th century version of Oliver Twist.

-- Ken Kerle, Northwest Washington

The thing that impressed me most about the series was the two success stories of Rosa Lee's children -- the two that made it. And what really helped them was the intervention of two people in their lives -- one was a social worker and one was teacher -- and the other children did not have exposures to people that could help them and act as role models. It seems to me that all the resources that we spend on crime prevention and drug prevention, we really need to be spending on children.

-- Donna Labadie, Gaithersburg, Md.

As an African American and an honors graduate of Stanford University, I'm totally disgusted with this article because you're reinforcing every negative stereotype about African Americans. I think it would have been in your best interest if you had focused on heart transplant surgeons or business people, people doing volunteer work in the community, and run an eight-part series on them, something positive instead of something so negative. I think that the editor, Steve Luxenberg, should be horsewhipped. This is frustrating and it is untimely especially with all the racial division in this community.

-- Kim Metters, Arlington, Va.

It's a sham, this article about this woman who should have been in jail, who should have been incarcerated a long time ago, who's now teaching the third generation to steal. I think it's a shame that the guy who wrote this article made her out to be a hero. She's a fine example of what society has to look forward to. I don't know that you're not partially culpable as an accessory for some of her thieving.

-- Thomas A. Stallone, Bethesda, Md.

I appreciate you writing the story on Rosa Lee. She is my aunt. I don't know too much about my fraternal family because of the breakup of my family, the lack of closeness and unity after my grandmother's death. My grandmother, Rosetta Wright, was a strong loving woman who did everything to keep her family together and I loved her for it. I am a young African American, and it's interesting that I never knew this about this side of my family.

-- Ms. Wright, Prince Georges County, Md.

I have mixed feelings about this story. When I read this story, I think: Why is The Post spotlighting this family instead of spotlighting African-American families who have made it? It makes me wonder what's going on with The Post. Because of the climate in D.C., if you walk down the street and you're black, everyone thinks you're a criminal. I come from a family of 11, have been in and out of prison, I have a master's degree and make over $51,000 a year. The question you ask, you want to know why in some families in D.C., some people make it and some people don't. It's elementary -- you want to.

-- Conice Washington, Laurel, Md.

Never before has a newspaper article affected me in such a way. This past week, I feel like Rosa Lee has become a part of my life, and it's so easy for us to disregard a person in Rosa Lee's situation. But because of these articles, I've become much more compassionate to the circumstances of such despair. We are losing generations, and I hope that Rosa Lee's story will make a difference in educating others in her situation, and more importantly, changing the way America regards such people.

-- Toni-Marie Chieffalo, Northwest Washington

I think the series is really . . . educational in terms of showing exactly how messed up the family can be. By going into a lot of detail, instead of just making generalizations, you can see the inner workings of this family and how the cycle repeats itself. I think it's useful especially because it seems like there is a racial divide in the city, that a lot of people don't understand the issues that the poor face and don't understand why Marion Barry got reelected. The white people basically are just clueless about what poverty really is . . . .

-- Gail McGrew, Silver Spring, Md.

I read all eight installments before I called because I didn't want to make a hasty judgment. My concern is that I think everyone has this image of the African-American community. I would like to see an eight-part series devoted to something equally positive that's going on in the African-American community. I would like to see struggles of middle class people who go to work every day, who work hard, who practice Christian values, who raise their children, whose kids don't end up on drugs and who go on to raise normal, stable families where education and Christianity is the cornerstone of family living.

-- Yvette Lewis, Silver Spring, Md.

When I first began to read the story, I had a different opinion altogether. But at the end of the story, my opinion had really changed. I think Rosa Lee is a very brave woman, she's been through hell. I pray for her, her daughter Patty and all her children. If there's anything I could do for her, I would. I am constantly praying for her to keep the faith that she will overcome and everything will work out with the help of God. The Post would be doing the public a favor if they ran more stories like this.

-- Doretha Parks, Northeast Washington


© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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