As remembered by Annette Jones
May 25, 2013
Remembering Dora C. White
Born on February 12, she often said with pride that she shared that birthday with Abraham Lincoln. During 1963, the year we worked together, she told me that she was sixty-three years old, thirty-nine years older than I was. We both lived in the five hundred block of Corn Avenue in Albany, Georgia, just six or seven houses away from each other. I lived in a house covered with pink siding; she lived in a pink stucco house, along with her daughter, grandson, grand daughter-in-law and great grand daughters.
She had not always lived on my street or in Albany, having lived and worked in New England when she was younger. I first met her in early 1960, during a time when children and young people still addressed older women as "Miss" regardless of their marital status. After I met Miss Dora, I would see her sitting on her front porch when I passed by, and we would simply exchange greetings. After the Albany Movement began in 1961, we saw and talked to each other before and after mass meetings. Whenever she was on her porch when I passed by after a day of canvassing, I would stop and talked with her about the Movement and about some of the experiences I had while canvassing..
An active member of Friendship Baptist Church, she was a friendly, outgoing person with a great sense of humor, an easy smile and very expressive eyes that could sparkle with pleasure and excitement or burn with indignation and anger. Tall and slender, she usually walked briskly, not fast, but with a sense of urgency, a sense of having a definite destination or purpose. She did not hesitate to speak out against segregation laws or anything else that was discriminatory and unjust.
Having worked all along the upper eastern seaboard as a cook in many homes, she often spoke of some of the people for whom she had worked: some rich, some not so rich; some nice, some not so nice. She had retired from professional cooking, but I believe that she sometimes would cook for one or two of her former Albany employers, every now and then, on special occasions. Food and cooking were the subjects of many of our conversations.
Two Black women were reputed to be the best cooks in town, Lottie Pittman and Rachael. Lottie Pittman was the aunt of my close friend, Yvonne Taylor, and I had tasted some of her famous duck l'orange. It was delicious. Rachael, a friend of my grand parents, and her culinary feats were so well-known that her last name was never mentioned. She had been the live-in cook at the plantation of Richard Tift who may have been a descendant of Nelson Tift, founder of Albany. My grand parents often took me with them to the plantation when they visited Rachael. Sometimes we had lunch or dinner there. I always cleaned my plate. Rachael was also well-known for not sharing her recipes. Miss Dora had heard of Lottie Pittman, but she knew Rachael personally. We often talked about the two cooks, and I later came to the conclusion that Miss Dora was just as good a cook as they were.
Miss Dora and I talked about the Albany Movement and about all kinds of other things as well — places she had been, things she had done, clothes, dancing, Maine lobsters, shucking oysters, the difference between braising and searing. She was knowledgeable about so many subjects and had an open mind about new and controversial ideas. Despite the age difference between us, she accepted me as I was and understood and talked with me about problems I faced that others her age laughed at or thought were unimportant. (A year earlier, I had found that same kind of acceptance and understanding in Septima Clark when she taught me in one of her classes concerning setting up Citizenship Schools.)
It was obvious that Miss Dora thought highly of the SNCC workers who came to Albany in 1961, especially Charles Sherrod. She was drawn to the young workers, and they to her. She attended the mass meetings as did the rest of the adults in her family. She participated in protest marches, pickets and prayer vigils, and she went to jail many times. Her family worried about her because she was hypertensive and required daily medication. Also, jail food was unhealthy and medical attention for prisoners was not always forthcoming in a timely manner. Her daughter told me that she made a bargain with her mother concerning protest marches and going to jail. If Miss Dora agreed not to march and go to jail but to slow down and relax a bit, then her daughter would march and go to jail in her place to represent the family whenever the Albany Movement called for a mass march. Miss Dora agreed and for awhile she simply went to the mass meetings, leaving the marching to jail up to her daughter and grandson.
She became active again when college and university students came to Albany to volunteer to work with SNCC and the Albany Movement from the spring of 1963 throughout the summer. Officials of the Albany Movement and field secretaries of SNCC made appeals to the members of the community to provide housing and/or meals for the students. Miss Dora volunteered to provide breakfast and dinner for what eventually became fourteen students; and she provided shelter for two or three students at one point.
I was twenty-two at the time and had been cooking since I was thirteen. Miss Dora was the only professional cook I knew who would talk to me about food and food presentation, answer my questions about the ingredients in certain gourmet dishes or give me some of her recipes, including vichyssoise and savory pheasant. Since she knew that I could cook and since the two of us had talked so much about food and cooking, she asked me to help her with the two meals. I agreed because I wanted to accommodate the students and I also liked the idea of actually watching her cook and of learning some of her trade secrets.
People in our neighborhood, including grocery store owners, heard about what we were doing and donated food items such as fresh vegetables, eggs, bread, ground beef, chicken and fish. Miss Dora, I learned quickly, was like most cooks — not comfortable with somebody else getting too familiar with her kitchen. I understood so I hung back and did only what she felt comfortable with me doing. I would set the tables, and do whatever else she asked me to such as picking up donated food from donors and peeling or chopping fruits and vegetables. She especially liked the number of slices I could get from one tomato and because I could get so many, she was convinced that I had worked in a restaurant although I told her I had not. Each time I sliced tomatoes, she would say, "You sure you never worked in a restaurant?" She put me in charge of stirring food that was cooking so it would not "stick" or scorch, whipping potatoes, making tea or lemonade, making tossed salad, tasting for correction of seasoning and entertaining students who arrived early.
Every morning, after I ate breakfast at home, I took the five minute walk to her house. Students would start arriving about seven thirty, most of them having been picked up from different areas by Charles Sherrod before daybreak. Breakfast was usually almost ready because Miss Dora would have started without me. Sometimes some of the students would help set the tables or bring the food from the kitchen. But Miss Dora was always in the middle of things, rushing about and seeing to it that things were as they should be and that grace was said. Sometimes she ate with the students, but mostly, she just seemed to enjoy watching them eat and trying to get me to eat a second breakfast. Sometimes, she succeeded.
At eight o'clock or a little after, I left her house to go canvassing for the voter registration drive. I returned at about four forty-five to help with dinner. The food was common food, whatever was available, but she made it special because of her use of special sauces, herbs and spices and because, unlike many southerners, she did not overcook the vegetables.
The students came from such schools as Princeton, Rutgers, the University of Michigan, Antioch, Brandeis and Barnard. Among the students who sat at Miss Dora's tables for meals were Faith Holsaert, David Bell, Peter Titelman, Bert Steck, the late Bob Cover, Martha Prescod, Wendy Mann, Peter Rothstein and Joni Rabinowitz. For some it was their first time eating southern dishes such as grits, collard greens, catfish, and corn bread.
The morning meal was always hectic because the students were trying to eat and leave on time to get to their designated areas to canvass. The evening meal was more relaxed because it signaled the end of the work day for us. We would be hungry because most of us would have had just a piece of fruit for lunch, if that, as we canvassed. Our stomachs would make loud protests as Sherrod led us in grace and in verse after verse of "Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees" while we stood holding hands around the tables. We would finally sit down and eat heartily, grateful for the food and the togetherness. There would be meetings and strategy sessions at SNCC's office later during the evening and night, but right after dinner we would cleanup, sit awhile and talk or sing Freedom Songs before leaving.
Miss Dora enjoyed those times. Although she had to have been tired, she hated to see us leave. One evening, she put a Scrabble set on one of the tables and asked who wanted to play a game with her. At first, the students were hesitant, but when they saw Miss Dora's eagerness to play, they looked at each other and seemed to get into the spirit of things as they sat down around the game-board. I kept score. It was an interesting game: a time limit for producing a word was never mentioned and there were no calls for word checking. I had not realized the depth of the students' affection for Miss Dora until I watched them fill the board with two, three and four letter words that earned few points, all the while exhibiting the behavior of those who have scored big time. Miss Dora really enjoyed that game — and of course she won....
At about the middle of the summer, she appeared to be agitated or upset about an incident that involved a SNCC student, Joni Rabinowitz, being wrongfully accused by the federal government of participating in the controversial picketing of Carl Smith's grocery store. Time passed, she seemed to calm down and everything appeared to be going well. However, she was stressed out more than she appeared to be, and she had a stroke. We were all shocked and saddened, and we anxiously awaited word of her condition. In the meantime, my family allowed me to prepare the two meals for the students at our house. Miss Dora's family kept us informed of her progress.
After several days, she was allowed visitors. Different students, Black and White together, went to the hospital everyday to see her. Since the hospital was not desegregated, the students' presence was greeted with hostility and viewed as "upsetting" by some of the hospital staff. Miss Dora's daughter asked me to tell the White students not to go to the hospital so that Miss Dora could recuperate in an environment as stress free as possible. The students were disappointed, but they understood and complied with the family's wishes. Miss Dora was unable to speak clearly and unable to walk. When she was released from the hospital, I visited her. She was confined to a wheel chair; however, I felt confident that given her fighting spirit, she would recover. I cooked for the students until most of them went back to college in the fall of 1963 and the others went to Mississippi or to other southern states. I remained in Albany until I went back to Spelman College in January, 1964. At some point, Miss Dora and her family moved several miles south of our neighborhood to Tremont Avenue, and I visited her there. After I graduated in June, 1964, I visited her from time to time. She did not recover as I had hoped. She still spoke indistinctly, she was still unable to walk and she was still confined to a wheel chair. She recognized me and I was grateful for that.
In November of 1964, I married the brother of her grandson's wife, and my husband and I left Albany for Baltimore in 1965 where he attended graduate school. We came back in 1966, and Miss Dora's condition was the same. My husband and I visited her during the two years before we left Albany to live in upstate New York. Then she suffered another stroke from which she did not recover. She died at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital on March 30, 1969. She was involved in many components of the Albany Movement's fight for civil rights, all of them important to the battle. She was on the frontlines at the beginning, speaking out, picketing, participating in protest marches and going to jail. When her health began to fail, more than any of us knew, she did not abandon the fight. She retreated to the rear and continued to fight by providing shelter and sustenance for the troops. I will always remember her and the eagerness with which she approached each day, the dedication she exhibited to the Albany Movement, the optimism she held for the future, the confidence she had in young people and the ability she had to reach out and make a difference in the lives of others.
Copyright © Annette Jones White, 2013