Sunday, November 04, 2007
Requiem for a most courageous hero ... .
Let me tell you about this vital life force called Ethel Dotson:
She came to my attention only in recent years -- pressing environmental issues at city council meetings; speaking to the injustices and the constant dangers of ignoring the brownfields under our feet; toxic lands left over from war-related industries created during World War II. She was the bane of corporate interests -- the chemical laboratories and petroleum refineries that dominate life in this community. She challenged them all fearlessly on our behalf. Ethel watched as those poisonous lands were restored to use by ambitious real estate developers with short memories -- re-defining what brownfields means, and creating housing where her life experience would surely prohibit. Ethel and her siblings were born to WWII war worker parents in Seaport -- one of the temporary housing projects built on the lands of former chemical plant; a site that -- in the years since -- has produced a cell of cancer victims far above the national norm. She was relentless in her warnings.
Foremost of Ethel's concerns, however, was her almost obsessive dedication to the restoration of the tiny International Hotel that housed black railroad men on their layovers prior to and during the decades preceding WWII. She continually called out for whatever action might be necessary to save this important landmark. My ranger partner, Lucy, and I visited her there one day and got a tour of the 20 tiny upstairs single-occupancy rooms and the cluttered large reception room on the ground floor that reflected her personal taste for the flamboyant. She proudly showed us her collection of newspaper articles and vintage photographs that spelled out the history of her struggle to protect the building for posterity -- for the telling of this important Black migration story that preceded that of World War II. The stories of black waiters, cooks, and Pullman porters who discovered the West Coast and the Bay Area (as did the men of my own family) at the far western end of their railroad runs on the Acheson, Topeka & Santa Fe and Southern and Western Pacific rail lines -- decades before World War II.
Though still under a system of informal racial segregation, the Bay Area provided a sanctuary for black families where these men might bring their wives and children out of a hostile south. Ethel purchased the little crumbling building some years ago, knowing that it would some day be important to the telling of those stories. She knew that one day Richmond would be an important destination in Black Tourism. She was preparing for that. The development of Rosie the Riveter World War II/ Home Front National Park might well lend importance to those stories, and she gave her life to saving this critical element for the preserving of that history. But it is important to note that her work on saving the structure predates the existence of the park by some years.
The tiny hotel lay just across the street from the vast Pullman Yards where those famous sleeping cars would pull in for cleaning and restocking before being coupled to trains that would take travelers back across country. The Pullman company maintained -- only a block away at the corner of South Street and Carlson Boulevard -- a standard full-service hotel for whites, only, (conductors, brakeman, engineers, etc.), but did not accommodate black workers. That "white" hotel was torn down years ago as the neighborhood changed. The huge Pullman yards currently house a number of warehouse-type discount businesses. The train tracks leading into the huge buildings have long since been filled in or paved over for parking. Ethel's little hotel has little to identify it, except for her persistent reminder of its importance to the telling of the African American story. It was probably built sometime in the 1920s or before. She had succeeded over the years, in getting the City to grant it historic landmark status. Federal recognition is yet to be achieved. She'd gotten herself named to the Commission on Historic Preservation in the hope of advancing that goal over time.
Because of her instinctive sense of its future importance, she lived in it, alone, without utilities (no gas service) and therefore no heat for years. I'm sure that she saw the need to protect it by taking up residence against the day that the wrecking ball would descend upon a building that would be marked for abatement as abandoned property at some point. She never could hope to be able to afford, financially, what would be needed to fully restore it. Meanwhile, she was determined to hold it by sheer moral force until the cavalry arrived to save the fort!
Lucy and I (with the full support of our superintendent) were able to include Ethel as one of our informal "docents" on a later bus tour, and to add the International Hotel to our interpretive agenda as one of Richmond's historic points of interest. She was so proud! At some point there may well be ways to create culturally-specific tours that will allow us to tell the multiple stories this developing park has to tell. At that time, Ethel's little hotel will be as important to African American history as the Maritime Child Development Center is as the progenitor for Head Start programs in the field of education, or, as the Kaiser Field Hospital marks the birth of the HMOs.
A member of city staff came to my cubicle one day recently to tell me that Ethel was at Alta Bates hospital -- that her cancer had progressed beyond hope of recovery. That she was expected to die within the next two weeks. They didn't know our Ethel. That was at least two months ago. On that very day I drove in to visit -- in full uniform, hat, badges, and all. This visit was meant to give at least a hint of how important she was not only to me as a friend, but officially, as a sister non-traditional historian, and that she and her quest for recognition of that little hotel would be fulfilled somehow. That there were many who had heard her plea over the years and that the issue was vital to us all. I counted upon not having to say the words that would make a promise that I had no power to keep in any real sense. She knew that and made no demands. Instead she gave me contact numbers for her son, told me that she had given him her Power of Attorney, and that I should get in touch with him upon her death. She never actually uttered the word, "death," but only "after ... ".
I need to tell you that I'd never seen her looking so radiant. Her hair was not massed atop her head as usual (creating its own unique turban), but snaked its way across her pillow in unbelievably intricately-woven thick wooley braids that would have reached her waist had she been standing erect. Her smooth cinnamon-brown skin was free of cosmetics -- with not a scintilla of her bright red rouge. No lipstick. No dangling earrings nor rings-on-every-finger. No floor-length colorful ethnic gown or multiple bracelets. Just Ethel. Lovely against the pillows and so pleased to see me. She was comfortable and glowing from somewhere inside. This was an Ethel I'd never met. She spoke of having been "...close to death only the day before and then brought back." She believed she'd experienced a miracle. She told me that she was in no pain and that she was expecting to be going home to her mother's Parchester Village house that very afternoon. Ethel was at peace. It made me recall the words of a wise friend at the time of my mother's passing. "No life is complete without a death." I believe that Ethel knew, and gracefully accepted the inescapable truth that life is finite. She had used her time on the planet well, and I believe was keenly aware of that -- deep in her soul. Seen as a Cassandra by many, I truly believe that her persistent warnings with regard to environmental injustice were heard and that some will quietly carry on her work as collectives of the concerned over the years.
I leaned over and kissed her cheek and took leave after our brief visit. This would be the last time I'd see her.
...now we'll need to get to work on restoration of the International Hotel -- as we celebrate the life of one of Richmond's heroes. The late Northern California NAACP president and union organizer, C.L. Dellums; the legendary creator of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A.Phillip Randolph; and yes, former Pullman porter and later Justice of the US Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, were there to welcome her home -- a fantasy that came to mind as I dropped off to sleep last night ... .