Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: A Brief Reprieve in the Outside World

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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Picture post card of downtown Sylacauga, Alabama, circa 1940s

By Dorothy’s recollection, she was given an opportunity to leave Partlow State School in 1950. She would have been nineteen or twenty years old and by that time would have spent half her life in the institution. By her description, this seems to have been a trial run at living in the community to see how she might handle life outside the institution. She describes going back to Sylacauga to live with her legal guardians, the ones who and been responsible for her care for a short time after her mother had died and her father went to prison.  Here is how Dorothy told the story:

Then I got out in 1950. My legal guardians got me out. I wasn’t too used to them. Somehow, he walked in and I was fixin’ to get ready to go to bed. I said something and I run him out of the room or something – I don’t remember how it was – and I heard my legal guardian say to him, “I don’t know what we are going to do with Dorothy.” And he said to her “You watch how you speak to her, she’ll get mad some night and set this house afire.” I was listening at ‘em talkin’ but I didn’t say nothin’.”

Outhouses were not uncommon
 in rural Alabama in the 1950s
(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
One morning I got up and made me some coffee. She didn’t like me to get up before she did. They didn’t have an inside bathroom. To go to the bathroom you had to go out through an old porch then got on through the yard to an old outhouse. So I went out there and stayed, then I came on back [to the house]. She asked me what did I go out there for, and I said, “What do you always go for?” She told me not to get smart with her, and I told her I wasn’t trying to get smart with her.

They had one of these homemade toilet seats and it had three holes cut out in it. Back then we didn’t have toilet paper, not very much, and we had to use old brown paper sacks and old newspaper. There was a girl I knew [at Partlow] – I used to love to write her letters for her – she had a song that she used to play on the record player, back when they first got them little records. The song was “Don’t tear that little brown building down. She played that over and over. It was about an old country toilet. I didn’t know it and I’d make her play it over and over.   About newspapers on the wall, Oh don’t tear that little brown building down; It’s the best in the country, in the town. That girl said, “Dorothy Faye, if you knew what that song was about, you wouldn’t ask me to play it.” I said, Oh it’s about an old brown building – I come to find out it was about an old country toilet.

I was supposed to be out on probation for about 6 months and then go back to stay, but I didn’t do it. I stayed there for about three weeks [then went back to Partlow]. Many years after that they sent me to Thomasville. The way I got to Thomasville was I had to work my way through rehab.

*    *    *

“Many years after that they sent me to Thomasville.” In Thomasville, Alabama there was a rehabilitation center, the Thomasville Resource Center, where many residents from Partlow received training in independent living. It would be a little over twenty years, in fact, before Dorothy would have the opportunity to leave Partlow State School. That opportunity would come as a result of a court order in the Wyatt vs. Stickney case that brought about the de-institutionalization of many residents at Partlow and elsewhere across the country. It would be an attempt to provide more appropriate treatment for people who had been locked away in institutions, hidden from society. Next time we will hear from Dorothy what that transition was like as Partlow State School prepared her to exit the institution.

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