Wise women reflect on aging

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Barbara Ruben
Dorothy Bailey, former chair of the Prince George's County Council, interviewed more than 100 Maryland women over the age of 70 and condensed their wisdom about life and aging into a book she titled, In a Different Light: Reflections and Beauty of Wise Women of Color.
Photo courtsey of the Wise Women Project

During a spring drive through the countryside a couple of years ago, Dorothy Bailey’s 4-year-old grandson asked her if she was 100 years old.

“I thought I would die!” she recalled, laughing. But the question did prompt her to realize that she was nearing 70. “I started thinking, ‘Where did the years go? What happened? And what does it mean to be 70?’”

Exploring that last question led her to research and write In a Different Light: Reflections and Beauty of Wise Women of Color. The recently self-published book includes interviews with — and photos of — more than 100 Maryland women over the age of 70.

“I really went in search of myself through the lives of other women who were 70. I thought about my college roommate who died at age 55, and I thought, ‘What a blessing it is to be 70,’” said Bailey, a resident of Temple Hills, Md.

Bailey, the former chair of the Prince George’s County Council, is now vice chair of the Prince George’s County Planning Board.

Her book includes luminous color portraits of each woman interviewed, together with snippets of Bailey’s conversations with them. They talk about their children, parents, faith, love, aging and many other subjects.

“What I was trying to discover was what makes them tick,” Bailey said. She would ask, “‘What causes you to get up in the morning?’ ‘What makes you smile?’ ‘Where’s your soul?’ Not, ‘what did you study and become proficient in?’” she said.

20/20 hindsight

Bailey also asked each of the women to complete the sentence, “If I knew then what I know now, I would…” It turned out to be a deceptively simple question.

“A lot of women wouldn’t tell me what their initial thought was. But when I pressed them, they would share it. However, a lot of times they would tell me not to print it, it was such a revealing thing.”

Some said they would have left their husbands or not married in the first place. Others said they might not have had as many children.

In fact, Bailey refused to divulge her own answer to the Beacon. But many in the book responded eloquently:

“Things I felt so passionately about in my young life matter so little now,” said Mary Godfrey, 75, of Silver Spring, Md. “Promotions, new cars, a bigger house, a thinner body, being well liked…These were important then.

“Now my list of passions include faith, love, friendship and caring for others. As we age, our list of passions grows shorter.”

Similarly, Beatrice Tignor, who is 72 and lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., said, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have given more time to cultivating sincere relationships. I would have spent more quality time building a stronger family.”

In the book, another Upper Marlboro resident, Lila Brighthaupt, 97, recalls her grandfather telling her about the day slaves were freed. He had lost a cap given to him by his owner and was out looking for it. He ran into a woman who had been sold to another slave owner and told her what he was doing.

“She shouted to him, ‘Don’t worry about that cap. We’s free! We’s free!’ Overjoyed, he ran into the arms of the woman. That woman [turned out to be] his mother,” Brighthaupt recounted.

Seventy-one-year-old Sarah Johnson, of District Heights, Md., spoke of the enduring power of love.

“Love is not the diamond ring or the fur coat or the trip to Hawaii. Love is the boy from your neighborhood coming over to help chop your row of cotton in the blazing hot sun,” she said.

“Love is your dad raising pigs to take to the market to pay your college tuition. Love is your husband driving to you during a snowstorm so you can follow his car tracks home.”

In the foreword to the book, Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., writes, “There is a regal wisdom etched on the faces of so many of the women in this volume…The women who share their musings are a reminder of the importance of oral histories, especially those of women of color, which are often uncollected.”

A start in civil rights

Bailey grew up in North Carolina when schools were still segregated. When her grandfather died in Lancaster, Pa., her family moved north just before her senior year in high school.

“All of a sudden I’m sitting in a class of basically all white students [and I’m] scared to death. I told them at the reunion 50 years later that when I came I was scared of the snow. I was afraid of people up north, and I was definitely scared of white people,” she said.

After high school, Bailey headed back to her home state to major in sociology at North Carolina Central University. She immediately became immersed in the civil rights movement.

“It was an exciting time. It was a frightening time,” Bailey recalled. “We were practicing Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence. So no matter what happened to you in that picket line, you were not to react, not respond. You were to keep moving.

“If you got an egg thrown at you, so what? If a brick was thrown at you, you tried to dodge it,” she said.

The differences between North Carolina and Pennsylvania were stark. When she took the bus back to college after visiting home, it didn’t matter where she sat — until she got to Washington, D.C. South of that, blacks were supposed to sit at the back. Her father suggested she sit in the middle of the bus the whole way to avoid confrontations.

After college, Bailey returned to Pennsylvania, married and had two children. She taught school for a while.

Over the years, Bailey did graduate work in gerontology and education at Penn State and the University of Maryland. She also received an honorary doctorate in divinity from Riverside Baptist College in California.

After her mother died in the mid-1970s, Bailey decided she needed a break and moved to the Washington area to be near her sister.

“I was only going to be here a year, but I fell in love with Prince George’s County. I loved being close to Washington and the historic sites,” she said.

Bailey began working for the Prince George’s County government as a senior-level official at many agencies, including tenures as executive director of the Consumer Protection Commission and the Commission for Families, and as community partnerships director at the Department of Family Services.

The pull of politics

While Bailey was serving on the board of the National Council of Negro Women, a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates asked Bailey to manage her campaign.

“I’d never been a campaign manger. Didn’t know anything about it. So I said, ‘yes.’ I got the bug and decided I was going to be a high-powered campaign manager,” she recalled.

Bailey ended up managing the campaigns of five women, working to get them elected to local and state offices.

“I loved figuring out how people can win, and working with people, just being in the community and convincing people that this person wants to serve.

“But I never thought about running [for office] myself,” she said. That changed when a friend on the Prince George’s County Council left and another friend urged Bailey to run for the open seat.

Although reluctant at first to move from behind the scenes, Bailey threw her hat in the ring and won the election in 1994. She served on the council for eight years, twice as the council’s chair and three times as vice chair.

“I served in the leadership probably longer than anyone else,” she recalled.

She counts among her most important council achievements shepherding legislation to build FedEx Field in Landover, which was in her council district, and the National Harbor project on the Potomac River.

While on the council, Bailey founded and continues to chair the Harlem Remembrance Foundation of Prince George’s County, which puts on an annual arts festival.

She chairs the LEARN Foundation, which provides scholarships and supports education programs for Prince George’s County youth residing in communities most affected by FedEx Field. Bailey is also the president of the Prince George’s County chapter of the Association for the Study of African American History and Life.

In addition to her nonprofit and political work, Bailey also finds time to pursue acting and play writing. She wrote and performed a spiritual play, A Trilogy of Faith: the Victorious Stories of Leah, Rahab and Virginia.

She also played a councilwoman in the Washington, D.C.-based movie Three Blind Mice, which screened at several film festivals around the country in 2010.

Despite her full plate, Bailey said she was honored to be appointed vice chair of the Prince George’s County Planning Board and a member of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission last July.

The latter position is “far more time consuming” than she anticipated, and remunerated by only a small stipend. But Bailey said she is fascinated by the opportunity to oversee the area’s zoning and its development projects during initial stages, rather than when they are further along in the process, as she did on the county council.

“Dorothy Bailey’s civic and professional contributions have influenced and advanced our community for decades,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who appointed her to the planning board. He said Bailey is a “compassionate, creative-thinking and collaborative leader.”

“She has been and continues to be a strong advocate for children, youth and families as evidenced by her vision for increased educational opportunities and economic growth to enhance our quality of life,” Baker said.

Spreading the light

Bailey also travels the country talking about In a Different Light, in addition to making numerous local appearances to promote the book.

She recently attended a women’s conference in Las Vegas where she knew very few people. Yet many attendees stood an hour in line for Bailey to sign their copy of the book.

“I was thrilled. I could see that happening in Maryland. But I could not believe it [was happening there] because these people didn’t know anybody in the book,” she said.

Bailey said she thinks the book resonates with older and younger women alike.

One young woman in a recent audience asked Bailey how she maintained friendships over the course of 50 years. (Several of the women in the book are sorority sisters from college.)

She said she loves answering those sorts of thought-provoking questions, and that they confirm the accuracy of her term “wisdom carriers” — the name she gave to women in the book.

“We call the women wisdom carriers because we believe that, by the time you are 70, you should have gained some wisdom to share with someone else,” she reflected. “That you’ve had some experiences that you carry within you, within your body, within your presence. Wisdom to share with other people. And that is what the book is doing.”

In a Different Light can be purchased online from www.thewisewomenproject.com as well as from a growing number of local stores, including Onsite News, 58 National Plaza, National Harbor, Md., and Gallery Serengeti, 7919 Central Ave., Capitol Heights, Md.

Bailey will be appearing in an event recognizing local female authors in honor of Women’s History Month on Tuesday, March 13 from 10 to noon, followed by a reception on the first floor of the Prince George’s County Administrative Building, 14741 Governor Oden Bowie Dr., Upper Marlboro, Md. A display on the book will be featured there throughout the month. For more information on the event, call (301) 952-3094.