Rosa Lee's Story
May 27, 2010 12:32 PM   Subscribe

In 1994, Leon Dash, while still at the Washington Post, wrote a Pulitzer winning series of articles about a woman named Rosa Lee Cunningham.

Cunningham was one of the many urban poor living in the housing projects of Washington DC. The story of her family helped show the effects of drug abuse on the urban poor and the cycle of despair people on public assistance sometimes find themselves in.

In addition to the newspaper articles Dash wrote a book, and Frontline did a documentary on Rosa Lee's life.

Rosa Lee passed away on July 8, 1995.
posted by reenum (12 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
And what happened to Patty, upon her release?
posted by availablelight at 1:18 PM on May 27, 2010

This is a little odd:
While the series ran in the paper, over 4,600 readers called a special response line set up by the newspaper; they both applauded and derided the story. Some callers saw the series as a unique, frightening but important look into the world of the urban poor. But others felt that it reinforced stereotypes of black Americans as criminals and welfare recipients and did not do enough to highlight the success stories of Rosa Lee's two sons who "made good."
I wonder why those readers thought "Part 5," which consisted of 7 "chapters" and was entitled "Two Sons Who Avoided The Traps," wasn't enough. For instance:
Alvin joined the Army at 18, married the mother of the daughter he had fathered at 16, received his high school general equivalency degree and took some college courses. He has been steadily employed since his discharge from the Army 17 years ago. Divorced from his first wife in 1978, he has since remarried.

Eric followed Alvin into the Army, spent a year in the Job Corps learning the fine points of wallpapering and then tried to make a living as a singer. When that didn't work out, he bounced from one job to another before landing a contract as a street sweeper with the District's Public Works Department. He worked his way up, earning several promotions and pay raises; he learned to operate heavy equipment and secured a good job at the District's Blue Plains Treatment Plant. Then in 1992, he was laid off because of the District's financial woes. Since then, he has taken several temporary jobs while looking for something permanent.

He has raised his son on his own; his rocky relationship with the boy's mother ended in 1982, when he discovered that she was using heroin -- and that Rosa Lee had introduced her to the drug. Eric has never forgiven his mother for that. "She would do things that made me turn totally away from her," he told me.
And there's this anecdote:
There is a story that Eric tells about the divergent paths that he and Alvin took from the rest of the family. It happened in 1982, while Eric was working briefly as a D.C. correctional officer.

Getting the job made him feel good. Not only had he established himself as a law-abiding citizen, he was now being entrusted with the responsibility of guarding those who had taken the path he had avoided. "I felt great," he said. "I was in the government!"

He was assigned to one of the Lorton prisons, but he often picked up additional money by taking an overtime shift at the understaffed D.C. jail. One night, he saw Rosa Lee. She was locked up on a shoplifting charge.

She spotted Eric in his navy blue uniform and shouted out excitedly to the other prisoners.

"That's my son!" she said in a voice filled with pride, as Eric stood by, embarrassed. "That's my son!"
And from the last Part of the series:
Rosa Lee's story shows the immense difficulties that await any effort to bring an end to poverty, illiteracy, drug abuse and criminal activity. ...

But complex is not the same as intractable. Rosa Lee's fate was far from foreordained; her sons Alvin and Eric, both of whom rejected the lure of the street, are testament to that. So are many of her brothers and sisters. They, like many others who grew up poor, learned the importance and value of personal responsibility, and it gave them the edge they needed to invent a different way to live.
Seems like the piece did an awful lot to "highlight the success stories of Rosa Lee's two sons."
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:23 PM on May 27, 2010

I wouldn't call that a great deal of success either, Jaltcoh, but then I didn't grow up in Anacostia, did you?

Rosa Lee's children didn't graduate from college, didn't have mortgages, didn't have thirty year careers. Those things are the minimum measures of success for my niece and nephew, but they grew up about five away from where these tales happened, near Western Avenue, a different universe.

Her children did successfully serve in the army; they didn't do any time in jail. They had work histories that had down periods; they didn't wind up on the street. They took a part in the lives of their own children; they didn't die before they had the chance to do that.

If the definition of success is owning a tv empire, or being an entertainment/sports star, or even if it is becoming doctors and lawyers and such, then the poor are doomed and so are their children and grandchildren and on and on, because those are pretty unreasonable goals for a normal child growing up with an illiterate parent (or even two) who may not even get a full meal each day. And they don't get very old before they realize that, and a lot do give up when they see that reality.

The playing field is not level, it does not start out level and it only gets steeper each year. so, yes, these are very much success stories. Stories to be told and to bragged about throughout SE DC, even if not in your neighborhood. A working class hero IS something to be! And if we call that failures, if the trails they face prove failure no matter how well they are dealt with, if we remove the honor and deny the dignity of the people who fill these very necessary roles in our world, then we are only making the toll of poverty that much greater, and are keeping the doors -already almost shut-locked and bolted.
posted by Some1 at 2:03 PM on May 27, 2010

God, I read this book a year ago. Everyone needs to check this out. And yeah, the stories of Eric and Alvin need to be emphasized there, because we need to know that there's an exit to this sort of cycle.

Please, everybody, read this book if you can find it.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:30 PM on May 27, 2010

posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:25 PM on May 27, 2010

For some reason I'm most haunted by Junior. It's been 15 years. I wonder whether he fell into the addiction cycle, whether he's in prison or even alive.
posted by sallybrown at 6:57 AM on May 28, 2010

I tried to look up Patty (whose real name is Donna, btw), and couldn't find anything. I know they give Junior's real name in the series too. Perhaps someone with better Google-fu than me can find out and post in this thread.
posted by reenum at 7:35 AM on May 28, 2010

I spoke too soon.

Here's a 2003 case with Rocky as the defendant in a firearms possession case. It's been used as a precedent in a couple of other Court of Appeals cases.
posted by reenum at 7:40 AM on May 28, 2010

Finding all sorts of good stuff. Here's a habeas corpus petition by Demetrius Darrell Hanna, one of Priester's murderers.
posted by reenum at 7:50 AM on May 28, 2010

I found the record of cases involving Donna (Patty) Cunningham and Rocky Lee Brown, Jr. at the DC Superior Court's website. No case docs are posted, but they could be requested, as they are public records.
posted by reenum at 8:00 AM on May 28, 2010

Thanks for the followups, reenum. Given the emphasis on the fact that this was a multi-generational study....and the articles linked in the FPP are all 15 years old....I think it's begging for some updates.
posted by availablelight at 8:14 AM on May 28, 2010

Reenum, thanks!

Unfortunately it looks like Patty (Donna) died last year, and Donna's obituary only lists Alvin, Richard, Eric, Donald (Ducky, I assume?) and a sister (Deborah) as the surviving siblings, so Ronnie must have died too.

Before it cuts off, this link says: A Forestville, Maryland man, Rocky Lee Brown, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for the sexual assault and murder of his female cousin in 2003 at a local hotel...He pled guilty in December 2005, just before the commencement of trial, to second-degree murder.

From what I saw on the DC Superior Court website Rocky began serving 25 years in prison in 2006 for 2nd degree murder, after his attempt to withdraw his guilty plea (he argued his counsel was incompetent) was denied.
posted by sallybrown at 5:46 PM on May 28, 2010

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