(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
On the first day we met to talk about Dorothy’s life story, after we got settled and made some small talk, I just turned on the tape recorder and asked her what she wanted to talk about. I had a micro cassette tape recorder with 90 minute tapes – 45 minutes on each side. Usually 45 minutes was about as long as Dorothy could stay focused on the topic of her life history, and then it was with frequent questions from me to get her to elaborate. Often she would be talking about something in her past and suddenly think of something else she wanted tell me that happened just yesterday. Keeping her on track was usually my main task during our sessions with the tape recorder, but not on this first day.
Dorothy immediately began with what was the essential story of her life as she saw it. It defined who she was, where she came from, and what she had endured:
I lived in Sylacauga, Alabama until I was ten years old, then I was took away. The way they got me there [to Partlow State School] is they told me there was a big shopping mall and we could go anywhere we wanted to and do whatever we wanted to. When I got there they didn’t do nothin’ but lock us in. We couldn’t even go off the premises.
My daddy was living in Sylacauga, him and my mother. One time there was an old colored man had a little ol’ calf. My daddy went down there and got that calf and killed it, and that colored man didn’t know it. He brought the beef to the house but my mother wouldn’t cook it because she knew he stole it.
The police came and took my daddy down to the jail house and he had to own up to it. Then he had to go to court. I told that colored man that I was sorry that my daddy did so. The colored man said, “Well it was my calf, and Mr. Burdette got it.” Then they took him down to the jail and the next thing I knew, they sentenced him to prison. He stayed there a good long while then he finally got out.
In 1939 my mother died. Then my daddy and I moved to another part of town. One day my daddy and I went on a fishing trip. We went off down to the woods and my daddy tried to do something I didn’t want him to do. I hit him with a limb and I got up and ran. He cussed me and he told me if he caught me he’d kill me, so I was really afraid. I ran up to the house and hid under the bed where he couldn’t find me. Then I went to the police after going to a neighbor’s house. They took me down to the police station.
They finally sentenced my daddy after he went to court for the second time. They sent him to Kilby Prison in Montgomery. He stayed there until he died on July 28, 1944. I didn’t know it until ten years later. My Aunt Gladys came and told me, when she came to see me at Partlow.
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These were the defining moments of her life as she saw it. A little girl with limited coping skills (as we shall see as Dorothy tells more of her childhood) was born into crushing poverty. Her mother died and her abusive father was sent to prison. After enduring such hardship, she was sent to live in an institution. She was far from family, far from anyone she knew.
Once when Dorothy was visiting at our house for Thanksgiving dinner, she talked briefly about her father. “My daddy could be real mean and hateful, I was scared of him a lot of the time and didn’t like him, but when I think about it there was some part of me that really loved him, somehow.”
I would learn more about her father and her mother through our taped discussions in the weeks ahead.