The new play I’m working on is about Miss Ella Baker, the civil rights leader of the sixties, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and a leader in the NAACP, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was among the group who joined with CORE to orgainze the 1961 Freedom Rides.
In 1961 I was in St. Louis, Missouri working downtown, changing buses and/or walking to save a nickel on the transfer. Where I transferred buses, SNCC had a table where students handed out leaflets and talked to people about civil rights and the changes that were coming. I wasn’t a student, but I had dreams. I was interested. I took those leaflets, I talked with those students, I listened with big ears. If I hadn’t been married and a young mother, I’d have joined the Freedom Rides, you bet.
Instead, I worked as a teller at Cass Bank and Trust. I welcomed our first African American woman to the bank, when others refused to use the same restroom. Dorothy was a beautiful, well-educated woman, so over-qualified it was embarrassing. She was hired as a token to prove something. Some of the older women at the bank threatened to quit, but no one did. I can’t even imagine what it took for Dorothy to work there. She wasn’t interested in my friendship. I was younger, less educated, and she was probably just trying to get through her days and home to her family. I hope she had a super support network. There we were at Cass Bank, in an African American neighborhood, a bank filled with all white employees, all male officers.
I was the first woman to be a regular teller (that is non-savings teller) when I turned 21. I left the bank less than six months later. We had one woman officer by then, and she was twenty-two. She had achieved that rank because she was a genius at computers, and she earned her want into the job by working 18-20 hours a day for more than a year, proving herself, making herself indispensable. None of the men knew how to do what she was doing, and she had suddenly had created massive income for the bank.
I don’t know what became of Dorothy. I’m certain she achieved success somewhere if not at Cass Bank, because she had everything she needed to make it. If I remembered her last name, I would write a play about her. As I don’t, I am writing about Ella Baker, upon whose shoulders Dorothy stood.
As do we all.