Leon Dash
Leon Dash
Rosa Lee:  A Mother and Her Family in Urban America
ISBN: 0465070922
Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America
Mr. Dash talked about his new book, Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, published by Basic Books. It focuses on a single-parent family of eight children in public housing in Washington, DC over the past fifty years. He also talked about the problems of the African-American underclass and what can be done to address them.
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TRANSCRIPT
Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America
Program Air Date: November 10, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Leon Dash, who was Rosa Lee Cunningham?
LEON DASH(AUTHOR, "ROSA LEE: A MOTHER AND HER FAMILY IN URBAN AMERICA"): Rosa Lee Cunningham was a woman that I met in a DC jail in January, 1988 and who I followed until her death from AIDS in July 1995.
LAMB: Who's the fellow in the picture here?
DASH: That's her oldest son. He also died of AIDS. He died in January. Bobby Cunningham. He died in January, 1994.
LAMB: Why did you do this book?
DASH: I was interested in what's happening with the underclass - the American underclass. I had read studies by the Urban Institute that said that the underclass in size has tripled in the United States since 1970. And I was interested in the reasons why, and why it was perpetuating itself ... why this poverty a very deep and distressful poverty as well as criminal deviancy was going on from one generation to the next. So I went into the DC jail literally in the summer of 1987 and interviewed, over an 18 month period, 20 men and 20 women inmates who fit the profile the Urban Institute had established of what constitutes an underclass family. And in that process I also met Rosa Lee Cunningham. I selected four families to follow. Three of the families were dropped for it just became impossible to follow four families at one time. And I concentrated solely on Rosa Lee's family from September of 1990 until the series was published by The Washington Post in September of '94. Then I took a leave of absence to write a book about her and her family.
LAMB: Where was Rosa Lee Cunningham born?
DASH: Here in Washington, DC, October 7, 1936. She was born a year after her parents and her grandparents arrived here. They were sharecroppers who came out of deep rural isolation in Northampton County in North Carolina, a section just north of the north bank of the Roanoke River. They had been on the Bishop and Powell Plantation at least since they were emancipated as slaves in 1863. And they left that area because the Depression had forced down prices for the major cash crops in that area -- peanuts, ground nuts and cotton. And the person that they were working for on the plantation lost the plantation because of the Depression. So they ended up migrating to Washington looking for work and a better life.
LAMB: How many times did she marry?
DASH: Once. She married when she was 16 years old she was pregnant with her third child a man named Alvin Cunningham. And the man who was the father of the child married her because Rosa Lee's mother told the man he was then 21-- Albert Cunningham, that if he did not marry her, she would inform the police because Rosa Lee was underage.
LAMB: How many children did she have in her life?
DASH: She had eight children with six different men.
LAMB: And what's their basic outline on those eight children? Where are they today?
DASH: Oh, today ... the oldest, as we've mentioned, Bobby, he died of AIDS in January of 1994. The second born, Ronald Wright, works as a cook in a suburban Maryland restaurant and lives in an abandoned house in southeast Washington. He's both a heroin and crack addict, a criminal recidivist. The third born, Alvin, just recently became a station master in the Metro rail system, but had been before that a Metro bus driver since 1980. And then the one that follows Alvin, Richard Cunningham, he was a couple of years ago shipped off to an in-patient drug treatment facility in Denver, Colorado, but violated parole and is now back in the DC prison system at the central prison in Lorton, Virginia.

And after Richard is Eric. Eric works for the US Park Service, which he does today, and lives in suburban Maryland. After Eric is Patty. Patty is in prison. I just recently saw her. And she has now moved in she was HIV positive when she was arrested in connection with a murder in December of 1992. But she's now moved into full blown AIDS. Every day is a question of whether or not she can get out of bed, she is at times, so weak and so ill.
LAMB: How old is she now?
DASH: She was born in 1958, and this is...thirty-six…
LAMB: Negative. Thirty-eight?
DASH: Thirty eight, yes. And then after Patty is Ducky, Rosa Lee's youngest son. He is in jail, a long term crack addict and petty thief. He is presently in jail. And then her youngest daughter, who asked that her name not be used in connection with the book or with anything that I write, she is in her sixth year of recovery from a long term period of heroin and crack addiction crack cocaine addiction.
LAMB: How many different places in Washington did Rosa Lee live?
DASH: She lived in 18 different places over her lifetime, twice in shelters for the homeless. She grew up in poverty very deep poverty here in Washington and never really got out of it. Either her dwellings were either slum housing or public housing of the 18 places that she lived in, including the two homeless shelters.
LAMB: How did you go about doing this?
DASH: I use a methodology where you're supposed to ... I try to get as close to the people that I'm interviewing -- as close as possible, spend a lot of time with them, many repeated interviews over the same material over and over again because, from experience, I've learned that you don't really begin to get the truth of a circumstance or a person's life from that person until you've known that person for at least four to six months. And generally then they begin to really open up about their motivations and the kinds of things that have created their outlook on life.
LAMB: There's a picture we were just showing here of you and Rosa Lee where?
DASH: At a McDonald's, at First and New York Avenue Northeast, where we spent a lot of time. She went to a methadone clinic near there every day every morning to get her methadone dose to block her craving for heroin. And we would generally meet there with other people who also frequented the methadone clinic, people that she had known for most of her life and who also were heroin addicts and now on methadone. And everyone would gather there after they got their methadone to have breakfast because almost all of them could not keep any food down on their stomach until they had had their methadone.
LAMB: What is methadone?
DASH: Methadone is a synthetic drug that was introduced in the early 1970s to block a heroin addict's craving for heroin in an effort to cut down on burglary and theft that was being conducted by heroin addicts. It was felt that if we gave them a synthetic drug that would block the craving for heroin, then that would have a substantial impact on and reduction on crime.
LAMB: How do you take it?
DASH: Orally. And you take it in front of a nurse because there also is an illicit methadone market. So the nurse has to see you swallow it. You have to stand there and drink it down in front of her, so that she knows that you're not holding it back and then taking it outside the clinic to sell.
LAMB: What would happen if someone who doesn't take drugs took methadone? Would it give you a high?
DASH: I don't know. I really don't know. I think it would be kind of dangerous because it has the effects; methadone in and of itself is addictive. People get addicted to it and can't get off of it or are reluctant to get off of it. In a number of hospitalizations that Rosa Lee went through at Howard University Hospital, her doctors talked to her about getting off of methadone, then weaning her off of methadone. But she didn't want to. She saw it as a replacement for her heroin addiction, and she no longer now had to go out and steal and hustle to get the money for heroin because she could get the methadone free. So she saw it as a maintenance drug.
LAMB: How did she get AIDS?
DASH: She got AIDS either through prostitution or sharing needles with four of her children. Four of her eight children were drug addicted, two daughters and two sons, in terms of intravenous drug abuse. And one of the daughters also was involved in prostitution. And the oldest son was involved in male prostitution -- Bobby, the boy that died of AIDS in '94. And she shared needles with all of them, and she either got it directly herself from her prostitution or it was passed on to her by sharing needles in intravenous drug abuse.
LAMB: You say that she had eight children by six different men?
DASH: Yes.
LAMB: Married only to one of them?
DASH: Yes.
LAMB: When did he die?
DASH: He was just killed in '93. He was killed by a woman who had a long history of crack addiction in a relationship that they had, where he would pay her for sex. And she beat him to death with a hammer. She was later convicted of murder, and she's now in prison for Albert Cunningham's death.
LAMB: You say that in spite of the fact that she had eight children by six different men, she also had a lesbian relationship ...
DASH: Exactly.
LAMB: ... meaning Rosa Lee.
DASH: Rosa Lee. She had a lesbian relationship that began in 1972, when she moved into a federally subsidized apartment complex called Clifton Terrace. And she met a young girl she [Rosa Lee] was then in her early 30s she met a woman who was 18 years old, Lucky, and established a relationship with Lucky. And then Lucky moved in with her and her eight children and lived with her for three years. And what I got out of that was Rosa Lee was very needy, emotionally needy. And any man or any woman who was willing to pay attention to her and give her the love and affection that she felt was missing in her life was welcome. Any person like that was welcomed in her life.
LAMB: You paint I don't remember what this scene was, but I remember I think it was Rosa Lee who was having a sexual relationship as a prostitute in the bed with her daughter next to her?
DASH: Exactly. When her daughter was growing up, Rosa Lee would have her tricks she worked in a nightclub called the Cocoa Club, which here in Washington was located at Eighth and H Streets Northeast. And oftentimes the male customers would approach her for sex when she was getting off from work, and she would tell them very boldly, "Well, I have eight children at home" and so be clear on what this relationship is "and I will need money from you tonight." And often when she came home, Patty was in Rosa Lee's bed. And ...
LAMB: How old then?
DASH: This started when Patty was about five years old and continued until Patty was about 10 years old. And Rosa Lee then would have sex with the customer, and Patty would wake up in the course of this and watch the whole thing.
LAMB: Was there ever a time when a sex partner wanted to have sex with her daughter?
DASH: Exactly. When Patty was 11, Rosa Lee prostituted Patty with an adult customer of Rosa Lee's. A man who she knew as a regular customer came by and asked her one day could he have sex with her daughter. And Rosa Lee went then and approached Patty and asked Patty would she be willing to have sex with this adult man. The man was in his 40s, and Patty was 11 years old. And Patty agreed because her mother had asked her to. When Patty first told me about that, she felt that she was helping her mother bring income into the house because the man was willing to pay twice as much to have sex with her than to have sex with her mother, which was somewhere in the area of I could never really pin down the exact amount, but it was somewhere between the area of $40 or $50 to have sex with Patty, $20 to $25 to have sex with Rosa Lee.

Patty had also at this point gone through three years of sexual abuse by two male relatives. She had been raped at age 8 by a male relative who had continued to rape her.
LAMB: How old was the male relative?
DASH: At the time the rapes began, he was 14; she was 8. And also an adult male relative who was in his 30s raped Patty on a number of occasions. And all of this had occurred even before she was 11.
LAMB: At any time in this process, did you just say, "I can't take any more of this"?
DASH: No. I understood what I was getting into. The studies are done about the sexual abuse of children. Ron Mincy, the director of poverty programs for the Ford Foundation, had done a study at the Urban Institute where he looked at the children that were going into foster care and what kind of communities were they coming out of. And when he correlated the statistics, the children that were suffering the most from familial sexual abuse, neighborhood sex abuse, psychological and emotional abuse or just neglect were all coming out of underclass urban areas. So we were very clear. And I knew that going into this project. I didn't know that I would run across it in this particular family, but I did. I ran into all the ills that I've run into or read about in studies on the underclass were encapsulated in this one family.
LAMB: How many underclass are there?
DASH: Today there are over 3 million. About 57 percent of that three million is black; 20 percent is white; 20 percent is Hispanic; and the remaining 3 percent is Asian American or Native American.
LAMB: What do you define as underclass?
DASH: A family that is female headed, chronically unemployed. The adults in the family ages 18 to 65 are chronically unemployed. Marginal educational achievement throughout the family. Welfare dependants and criminal deviant or criminal deviancy running through the family, criminal recidivism, going in and out of prison continually. A major supplement to the welfare dependents being criminal activity.
LAMB: Your full time job?
DASH: I'm a reporter with The Washington Post on the investigative desk.
LAMB: How long have you done that?
DASH: Since 1984. But I've been at The Post for 30 years.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
DASH: I graduated from Howard University in 1968.
LAMB: Studying what?
DASH: A major in history and minor in political science.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
DASH: In New York City, in Harlem and the Bronx.
LAMB: What was that like?
DASH: It was great. I didn't know that there was another life until I left New York at age 21. And now I have no interest in moving back to New York. But I grew up traveling on the very crowded subways and engaging in life in New York, which can be hectic and contentious, thinking that this is what the world was like. So I didn't know there was any difference until I left New York. But I still have a lot of fondness for New York.
LAMB: What did your parents do?
DASH: My father was a postal clerk when I was a young when I was a teenager or a young boy -- and eventually became a supervisor in the post office. And my mother was a visiting home nurse. In fact, she visited for New York City's Health Department. She was a registered nurse. And she started out visiting welfare mothers to help them look after their young children. And she eventually became a supervisor in the New York City Health Department.
LAMB: How many brothers and sisters?
DASH: One younger brother. He's 9 years old. He works for IBM in San Jose, California.
LAMB: Are you married?
DASH: No. Married and divorced, two children.
LAMB: How old are the kids?
DASH: My oldest daughter's 34; I have a 5 year old grandson. And my youngest daughter is 16.
LAMB: Who in your life affected the direction you took? How did you end up in journalism? How did you go to Howard?
DASH: Well, I went into journalism because I was interested in that. Actually, I was a transfer student to Howard University. I started out at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. And while I was there, I was the editor of the school newspaper. And I took a course in journalism at Lincoln, and that sparked my interest in journalism. And then I transferred to Howard because I wanted to do a wide range of courses in African studies, which were not available at Lincoln, but were available at Howard.

After I graduated from Howard, I took these courses in African studies and I joined the Peace Corps and went off to live in Kenya, East Africa, for two years, '69 and '70, and was a rural high school teacher in Kenya. Now I think those two years have had the most dramatic impact on me because there I lived with the Nandi people who were pastoralists, cattle herders. And they lived on homesteads and not in villages, so there were long distances between the homes and an elevation of 6,000 feet above sea level, which was on the equator, but the temperature was moderate all year round, or was temperate all year round. That's where Kenya's great runners come from. All of Kenya's great runners come from that area of Kenya, the western escarpment of the Rift Valley.

And I think that that had the most dramatic impact on me in learning another culture and beginning to understand that culture is relative. For instance, when applied here, when I talk with colleagues and friends, a lot of people who were in my social circle, everyone assumes that middle class values are universal. And they're not. The middle class dominates American life and American culture, but our values are not universal, as is particularly shown with Rosa Lee's family. Her family lived by a different code, a different value system, a value system that said anything is acceptable for survival, even prostituting an 11 year old girl.
LAMB: When did Rosa Lee first shoplift?
DASH: She was a teenager. Oh, she was about 13. She shoplifted a gray skirt and a white blouse to work as an usher in the family church, Mount Joy Baptist Church on Capitol Hill here in Washington. She wanted a stylish skirt and a stylish blouse to work as an usher in her church, and she knew her mother, from Rosa Lee's viewpoint, her mother wouldn't buy her those kinds of things. But from my viewpoint, her mother couldn't buy her those kinds of things. Her mother didn't have the kind of income that Rosa Lee felt that she had. So her mother did all of the shopping at secondhand stores in Washington secondhand clothing stores. And Rosa Lee didn't want her mother buying any secondhand goods for her to wear when she worked as an usher at the family church. So she shoplifted successfully a skirt and a blouse.
LAMB: We were looking at a picture that I want you to identify here, that Rosa Lee's there on the right. Who else is in the picture?
DASH: On the far left is Ducky, her youngest son, and in the middle is her daughter Patty, talking on the telephone. But what Ducky and Rosa Lee are doing are examining goods that Ducky has burglarized from someone's home because they're taking them that morning to the McDonald's that I would meet her at to sell them to other people who were on methadone maintenance -- men and women that Rosa Lee referred to as her drug buddies, sell them hot.
LAMB: How much did she steal in her life? And I know you talk a lot about this in the book. How about the rest of the family? Did they all shoplift?
DASH: Well, she taught all of her children to shoplift, but only two rejected that very early on as children, Alvin and Eric, the two sons who had never been involved in drugs or crime. And I mentioned them. Alvin works as a station master now on the Metro rail system. That's him when he was still a bus driver. And Eric works for the US Park Service. But Rosa Lee did a lot of stealing. I mean, she had her first sentence for stealing, 19 days in a juvenile institution, when she was 15 and pregnant with her second child. And that did not stop her. She stole a lot. She even would travel to do shoplifting, traveling to New York City, traveling to Baltimore out of Washington. She did her first long sentence in the mid 1960s ...
LAMB: How often did she go to jail?
DASH: Both for stealing and for drug offenses, 12 times in her lifetime.
LAMB: What was her longest?
DASH: Nine months. Her longest sentence she was sentenced to a year on a number of occasions, but she never did more than nine months.
LAMB: And you say, out of the eight children, only two ...
DASH: Have never been involved in crime or drugs.
LAMB: Did you talk to those two?
DASH: Quite a bit, Alvin and Eric. I was trying to figure out how they were able to avoid this because Alvin is the third born child and Eric is the fifth born child. So they had children that were ahead of them, in between them and coming after them who got involved in drugs and crime. But these two avoided it.

And it came down to Alvin it came down to a period when they were very young, and both of them were in elementary school. Alvin had a reaction of shame and humiliation when children would tease him at Richardson Elementary School about the fact that his family was welfare poor; that his family lived on welfare. And how the children knew that in those days, there weren't food stamps, and a welfare truck would come once a month with surplus federal food for welfare families and distribute that food only to those families that were on welfare. And Alvin was so ashamed of this that he would always run away whenever the truck came and blew its horn. He knew the horn. And when he heard the horn, he would run away from the house because Rosa Lee would then send all of her children out to the truck to bring in their allotment of surplus government food. And Alvin didn't want to be seen carrying the burlap bags because that clearly identified the family as welfare poor. And that's how ashamed of it he was.
LAMB: Well, what made him ashamed? How did he learn to be ashamed?
DASH: Well, the children were teasing him about being welfare poor, and that developed within him a class consciousness because these children who were teasing him were not on welfare.
LAMB: Well, why didn't that affect the others that way?
DASH: The other children?
LAMB: Yes.
DASH: I have no idea. They didn't collude. They didn't share this information as children. When I was interviewing Eric, months after I interviewed Alvin, I talked to Eric about Alvin's shame and humiliation about the welfare food truck. And Eric reacted with surprise, and he said, "He was ashamed? I didn't know that. All this time, I thought that he was lazy; that that's why he ran away when the truck came."

So he didn't know what was going on with Alvin, nor did Alvin know what was going on with him. Eric had a reaction of anger and disgust toward his mother. He loved his mother, but he also was very angry with his mother because when he's three years younger than Alvin when he entered elementary school, the children started teasing him about his mother stealing. Well, how did these children know that? Because the parents of the children were buying Rosa Lee's hot goods from her. They would all troop over there in the evenings and buy shoplifted goods that had been shoplifted that day by Rosa Lee with the price tags still on it and pay one-third the price or even less than that, and would talk about it openly in front of the children. So the children then began teasing Eric about the fact that his mother was a thief.

And that infuriated Eric, and he did a lot of fighting at school because of that. And he even fought bigger kids, much bigger than him. And if he couldn't beat them, he'd grab a brick and hit them with it. That's how angry he was about it. And he confronted Rosa Lee as a child and said to her, "People are telling me that you're stealing things. Why are you stealing things?" And she told him, "Well, there are eight of you, and the welfare check I get for you is not enough to feed you or to clothe you and to take care of you for one month." And he said, "But you get a check. I don't understand. If you get a check, I then don't understand why you have to steal to add money to the check." And she gave him the same explanation. And when he asked her again, she just chased him away and said, "Boy, that's what I do to take care of you." And that was it.

But both for Alvin and for Eric, these initial feelings on Alvin's part of shame and humiliation about living on welfare; and for Eric, anger and disgust with the stealing both these reactions set the seeds for them to reject the lifestyle that the rest of the family adopted. And they were fortunate, or perhaps they were receptive that they later on, in their early teens, each of them picked up a mentor that stayed with them for about 20 years. Alvin, in the eighth grade, Gartrell Franklin, his history teacher, became his mentor at Evans Junior High School. And for Eric, Nancy McAllister, a social worker, became Eric's mentor. Where Alvin literally and Eric literally both attached themselves to these mentors because they were looking for some kind of guidance, like most children look for. And they weren't getting it at home.
LAMB: Did you talk to these mentors?
DASH: Oh, yeah. Talked to both of them quite a bit.
LAMB: And they remember these two?
DASH: Oh, yeah. They're still in touch with them. They still interact with them, not as much or as intense, but there's a bond and a friendship there that is lifelong.
LAMB: Why did these folks talk to you -- all of them, the whole family?
DASH: Well, every ...
LAMB: And were they ever worried about their peers?
DASH: No. Not really. And I interacted with their peers, too. I mean, there were stolen goods passing in front of me, there were drug transactions going on around me. I watched them do drugs; I watched them smoke crack; I watched them shoot up with heroin. If I was going to be there, then I had to be part of all of that. And eventually, they did all of that very openly in front of myself and the photographer, Lucian Perkins. But Rosa Lee, when I approached her initially, had just come out of the most harrowing withdrawal from drug addiction when I met her in the jail in January of 1988. She'd come into the jail that previous October. She had been arrested at the corners of 14th and W Streets Northwest selling heroin while babysitting three of her grandchildren. And she was selling the heroin both for her addiction and to get enough money to feed her three grandchildren, because the mother of the three children, her youngest daughter, also, at that time, was in jail on a drug arrest.

And when she went into the jail they don't give you anything in the jail to help you ease your withdrawal from the drug -- and she didn't think that she was going to live. And she had gone around to her jail counselor, the man who eventually introduced me to her, Francis Henderson, wanted to talk to Henderson about her life. And Henderson said to her, "Well, Rosa Lee, I've got you and I've got, you know, 90 million other people on my case load. I really don't have time to talk to you at length about your life, but there's a reporter here who's doing just that sort of thing and I'll introduce you to him."

So he put the two of us together. And I told Rosa Lee my first interview with Rosa Lee lasted over nine days, just to put her life together. She was then 51. From the first day, from her earliest childhood memory up to that point in her life, January of 1988. That first interview, as I said, was nine days and then in the course of those nine days, she said to me, "I want you to tell my story, every part of it, because I'm hoping that other people who read it won't take the steps and take the path that I have taken." And I said to her, "Well, I don't think the people who need to read your story for that reason will read this story. They'll be involved in their criminal lifestyles and their drug addictions and so on. And so they really won't be interested in reading your story." And her reaction was, "That's OK. You write it like I tell it." And I said, "Fine. This is going to take some time." She said, "I don't care how much time it takes."

So given my relationship with her, which began in DC jail and when she came out in May of 1988, I began then to follow her outside prison. She, over a period of time, introduced me to all eight of her children, and told them what I was doing and that she was participating and she wanted them to participate. And they, initially, were wary, but after awhile, I just became to them a part of the family; a person who came in and out, regularly interacted with them, and chronicled their past and their present.
LAMB: What was the worst situation you ever found yourself in?
DASH: The day that Rosa Lee took a shot of heroin in front of me. Now she had told me about this there was a period there was a 14 month period where she was not using heroin, and this was after she'd gone back to heroin use. And I didn't expect her to use heroin this day and I wasn't prepared for it. And it was very painful for me to watch. When she took the shot of heroin, her daughter, Patty, injected her in her left calf; Rosa Lee was lying on her stomach on her bed and I was in front of Rosa Lee's face on the other side of the bed, sitting in a chair. And Rosa Lee looked at me, our eyes locked, just when she got the shot of heroin. And I thought that I had effectively covered my reaction and masked it so that no one could see how I was feeling. But she later called me at work and told me that she would never take another shot of heroin in front of me. And I said, "Why? I mean, what you do is up to you, Rosa Lee. It doesn't have anything to do" and she said, "Don't tell me that, buddy. I saw the look in your eyes, and I'll never take another shot of heroin in front of you."
LAMB: Did she ever describe to you what you actually ...
DASH: No, but that's all she had to say. I already knew what I was feeling. I had thought I had covered it, that the facade was the objective and distant reporter. But obviously, she had looked in deeply enough to know better.
LAMB: What kind of drugs did she take in her life?
DASH: Amphetamines, that's what she started with in her lesbian relationship. She started relatively late in life. She started using amphetamines at the age of 36. And it was introduced to them by her lesbian lover as a way to keep her weight down. Then after her lesbian friend and her broke up, she was in a lot of emotional pain. And by this time, Patty, who was 16, was a heroin addict and suggested to Rosa Lee that she use heroin to get over the pain of the break up of the relationship. And Rosa Lee did that. It was the day after her 39th birthday in 1975. And she enjoyed the feeling. The pain did evaporate and thereafter, she became a regular, daily heroin user.
LAMB: What's it cost a day?
DASH: At that period, it was relatively expensive compared to today. Then it was $40 a billy. A billy is 1/4 teaspoon of heroin. Today, it's down to for the same amount of heroin with the purity higher -- it's down to $10, $15. So it depends on the size of your habit. Your habit can require, as Rosa Lee's required, maybe three $40 billies a day, which is $120. But the same habit today, would cost you as little as $30 to $40.
LAMB: How do you take heroin?
DASH: Some people snort it in the powdered form. That's usually how people start. And eventually, they switch to intravenous drug use injecting it in a vein because it gets to the brain and the pleasure centers that much faster.
LAMB: How long does a billy last?
DASH: It can last, depending on the purity of the heroin, six to eight hours.
LAMB: Where do you buy it?
DASH: At any drug market. Rosa Lee herself ran what are called oiling joints in Clifton Terrace. An oiler joint is where heroin addicts go to shoot up their heroin either to buy heroin or if they bought it on the street, they'll take it to an oiler joint to inject it. And the process of injecting is called oiling. So that's where the name oil joint comes from. And if you don't have a hypodermic needle and the tourniquet you need to wrap up your arm to have the vein pop out, you can rent them at the oiler joint. And, of course, these things are not sterilized. So it's a very easy way it allows for the transference of the AIDS virus ... using oiler joints and using the equipment at oiler joints ... quite easily.
LAMB: Was it Rosa Lee that used her five year old grandson to ...
DASH: Granddaughter.
LAMB: Granddaughter.
DASH: Five year old granddaughter in the summer of '88. When the child's mother, Rosa Lee's youngest daughter was in jail, Rosa Lee was selling heroin, again, at the corner of 14th and W Streets Northwest, the place that she was arrested before I met her, and was using her five year old granddaughter to ferry the heroin to customers. A customer would come up to Rosa Lee to buy a $40 billy that's what the price was in '88 Rosa Lee would signal to the granddaughter to go get a billy and the daughter would go to a place where the heroin was hidden and then bring it to the customer. And the customer would pay Rosa Lee.
LAMB: How much of that were you able to see yourself?
DASH: I didn't see any of that.
LAMB: Why?
DASH: Well, Bob Woodward, then my supervisor at the investigative desk at that time, felt it was too dangerous, that we would be exposing myself and Rosa Lee to retaliation from the drug lieutenants who surround the heroin market but don't keep any drugs on them, but are there to protect their investment. And the drug trade is a very violent trade. And if they thought that I was an undercover policeman or if they found out that I was a reporter I also wanted to try to station a photographer where he could get photographs of this -- Woodward felt that was all too dangerous.
LAMB: How often was Lucian Perkins a photographer with you?
DASH: Oh, very often. But he developed his relationship independent of mine. The photograph that you showed, for example, of Rosa Lee going through the stolen goods, I wasn't there that day. So Rosa Lee and all of her children became quite accustomed to Lucian. And Lucian could go in and out of the house and observe and be there when they engaged in any activity without them really aware that he was taking photographs. I mean, he became over the four year course of the project, like a fly on the wall.
LAMB: Did your coverage of this family result in any kind of arrest after it was over?
DASH: No. None. Not one.
LAMB: Should they have followed up on so I mean, did the police read this when it was this first published in The Washington Post?
DASH: I think it was in September an eight part series in September of 1994.
LAMB: What happened to Rosa Lee after that?
DASH: She became a minor celebrity in terms of going around, doing a lot of talking, both at drug rehabilitation centers and at different churches in Washington and agencies that were involved with women in prison and women who were criminal recidivists and drug addicts. In fact, there's a humorous point I wanted to make. She was telling me about speaking at all of these churches, and she told me one day that after she talked, people would come up and press money into her hand, $5 and $10 bills.

And I said, "Well, how much money have you collected going around speaking at churches?' And Rosa Lee said, "Why do you want to know that?" And I said, "Well, I'm your agent, you know. I get 10 percent of everything you collect." And she laughed and said, "Well, then you'll never know how much money I've collected."
LAMB: Here's a picture and it's chapter ...
DASH: That's at the family church down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
LAMB: You rode down with her in the car?
DASH: I took her there. I went and looked for her family first in April, and then I took her down there to meet her family in June. This is where the family that stayed behind when her parents and grandparents migrated to Washington; family that she had never met. I went down and looked for them in April of '93 and found the whole all the family that had stayed there all the relatives who had stayed there. And they all asked me, "Well, why don't you bring Rosa Lee down here so we can meet her?" And a cousin said, "She can come and stay here with me."

And so I went and told Rosa Lee that, and she was kind of skeptical at first because she had been there once before when she was 7, and she remembered that she stayed in her grandparents' sharecropping shack on the Bishop and Powell Plantation, and she remembered that there were no outhouses and there was no toilet paper and that the house had no caulking in between the boards and the wind blew right through it. And all of these for her were terrible memories.

When she had gone down there for that two week period in the '40s, she had sworn to herself if she ever had a choice, she would never go back. And when I first approached her with that, I said, "I found relatives of yours in Rich Square, North Carolina." And I said, "They'd like you to come down and visit. And I'll take you. No problem." And she said, "Well, I don't want to go down there." And I said, "Why?" You know, her reaction was so negative, I was surprised.

I said, "Why don't you want to go?" And she said, "Well, you know, I was down there when I was a child and they don't have any outhouses or anything; they don't have toilet paper." I said, "All that's changed, Rosa Lee." She said, "Oh, no, no. It couldn't have changed that much." I said, "I was at two of your cousins' houses, and they all have indoor plumbing now and what you're reacting to existed in the 1940s, but they all live in substantial houses now. One cousin has a brick house and an elderly cousin, her grandmother's first cousin, a 90 year old woman, lives in a substantial wood frame house." And she said, "OK," but she was still kind of skeptical until actually we got to the cousin, Hilda Lawrence Tann.

We got to her house and we pulled into her yard. And Hilda has a big ranch style tan brick home. And she said, "Oh, it's a lot different," because she was thinking of the sharecropping shack, or sharecropper's shack with the rusty roof tin roof and the gray board planks where the wind could blow right through the house. That was her image of that area, and she had no desire to stay in a house like that again.
LAMB: Rosa Lee Cunningham got how much public assistance? How many different programs that we hear about all the time, came to her?
DASH: Well, she was on Aid to Families of Dependent Children, the oldest program. And since ...
LAMB: Is that welfare?
DASH: Welfare. There's general welfare, then there's AFDC, Aid to Families of Dependent Children. And she started on that in 1950 when her first child was born and she didn't get off it, in between trips to the prison, but she didn't actually leave the welfare rolls until 1990, when she turned over three of her grandchildren to the oldest to the youngest of her daughters, who had then had a year of recovery from heroin and crack cocaine addiction and wanted to take her children responsibility for her children herself and have the AFDC check transferred to her. Then Rosa Lee entered the Social Security program of supplemental security income because she was HIV positive and considered medically disabled. So when she left the welfare rolls, she went on to the Social Security rolls.
LAMB: Public housing?
DASH: Public housing quite a bit.
LAMB: What did that mean?
DASH: Well, that meant that you had housing that was at least intact in terms of ... we visited all 18 sites where she lived and some of the buildings were still standing. The ones that were still standing that were not public housing were boarded up. In fact, even one of the public housing projects, apartments that she lived in, we went to, that also was boarded up because the deterioration from the lack of maintenance had set in. But the private housing was all slum housing.
LAMB: What would she pay for public housing?
DASH: Oh, as little as $28 a month.
LAMB: What would she pay for private housing?
DASH: That same amount, just about. One of the houses we went to she said from the third floor, you could see from the third floor to the basement. The top floor was three stories up, but you could see all the way into the basement through different parts of the houses because the floors in the house had deteriorated so badly. And she only paid, in the '60s, during the riots in Washington, in 1968 she was living there, and she was paying something like $22 a month for that house, three story row house.
LAMB: Food stamps?
DASH: Oh, food stamps, since the program began in the '60s the late '60s.
LAMB: From public housing, food stamps, AFDC ...
DASH: Right.
LAMB: ... SSI, all that?
DASH: All of that.
LAMB: We miss anything there? You said that the trucks would show up with ...
DASH: The surplus food, before food stamps brought in, yes. Federal Spam, cheese, beans, a lot of pinto beans, she said.
LAMB: But when she needed drug money, you say that she would finagle all this stuff somewhere?
DASH: Oh, and aid the Medicaid assistance. She also received Medicaid.
LAMB: That would be the local vs. the national Medicare?
DASH: Right. Well, no. Medicaid is for the poor, Medicare is for the elderly. All right?
LAMB: But isn't there more state involvement with Medicaid?
DASH: With the Medicaid, there is.
LAMB: Right.
DASH: And she would use her Medicaid prescription card to buy Darvon and Xanax and 120 pills at each purchase, and it would only cost her $50 50 cents for each prescription. But then she would sell the pills for $2 each to fellow drug addicts who came to the McDonald's after they got their methadone because a lot of them, they said I have no idea if this is accurate that they experienced a high if they took Darvon, Xanax or both right after they took their methadone.
LAMB: How close did you get to her?
DASH: Fairly ... very close. I mean, after the series ran in '94, I dissolved what professional barrier I had maintained between us and was willing then to act as an adviser and a friend, though she started calling me at home at six in the morning, and I had to tell her I said to chat because the methadone would wear off about 4:30, 5:00 in the morning and the methadone clinic didn't open until 7:30. So for those two hours before, when she woke up, when the methadone wore off, and she always had abdominal pain when the methadone wore off. And until the clinic opened, she was wide awake and with nothing to do. There wasn't a lot on television at that time of the morning that she wanted to watch. So she would call Alvin, her son that she was closest to, or call me. And I said, "Well, Rose, you know, at 6:00 in the morning is not the best time in the world to call someone to chat. You may be wide awake; I am not. Please call me in the evening." And she got into the habit of calling me about 9:00, 9:30 at night because that's when her favorite programs went off television. And she generally went to bed by 10:00.
LAMB: When did she stop prostituting?
DASH: I think in the early 1980s. And she said, essentially, it is because she had lost her looks. She was too old. People were men were not interested in buying sex from her. She had reached ... she had crossed over into an age group in her late 40s that she could no longer successfully prostitute.
LAMB: How old was she when she died?
DASH: Fifty eight.
LAMB: What year did she die again?
DASH: December I'm sorry, July, 1995.
LAMB: And where were you when she died?
DASH: I was at home. I had seen her July she had been in the hospital. She entered the hospital on April 18th, and this is significant. It's the same day that one of her grandsons -- 15 year old grandson -- there was a funeral for him that same day, the same day she entered the hospital. He had been killed on April 11th in a drug shootout, in a shootout in his community that grew out of rivalry between two groups of boys called crews over the drug trade; the Fourth Street Crew that Reco Leon Cunningham was a part of, and the Linda Pollin Crew. And Reco, her 15 year old grandson was driving a car with another one of his buddies in it and they tried to assassinate a boy from another crew who was driving a Lincoln Town Car. That boy retaliated and killed both Reco and the other boy, Dontae Hammond. And that was on April 11th, 1995. Rosa Lee called me at home that evening, and when the phone rang, I didn't think it was her because it was so early. I picked up the phone and it was her, and she said, "Leon Dash, Reco is dead."

And I couldn't believe it. I had now known Reco since he was 8 years old. Now here he was at 15 and he was dead. I said, "What are you talking about?" She said, "Yeah. He was killed in a shootout this afternoon. He's now ... his body's over to DC General Hospital." So that was a lot to swallow. Then a week later was his funeral and that morning I went to the funeral...
LAMB: Well, didn't you get the Pulitzer right in here? Pulitzer Prize?
DASH: That day...
LAMB: That day?
DASH: That day, that morning, I went to the funeral, Reco's funeral, which was a very there wasn't a dry eye in the place. It was a very painful funeral. Everyone was upset, as you can imagine. And I was upset. I had known this boy since he was 8, when he was a gregarious, open child. And I had watched the transition into the criminal lifestyle that he was involved in, and there wasn't anything to do to stop it. He wasn't listening to anyone. And now he was dead, and here he was in this casket.

And when I went around the funeral home and I was looking for Rosa Lee, someone told me "Rosa Lee went into the hospital at 4:00 this morning, suffering from pneumonia. An ambulance took her." So this was her about 18th hospitalization since I had known her for both AIDS related illnesses and drug overdoses. So I wasn't alarmed. I didn't think that ... I had seen her just a couple of days before and she seemed strong and healthy and as feisty as ever. So I went, after the funeral and the funeral and the wake and the burial all took place one right after the other the same day I went to the office. And by that time, the office was abuzz with a rumor that myself and Lucian Perkins had won a Pulitzer for explanatory journalism. And, of course, that came across the wires that afternoon the news wires. And then there was an office celebration which I didn't feel, you know, I didn't ... it was sort of a mixed feeling. I felt ambivalent about the whole thing because I'd just come from Reco's funeral to here. I wasn't really worried about Rosa Lee at that point, but I still had that I still had some emotional pain from the funeral, and here I was supposed to be celebrating winning a Pulitzer. So it was an odd day for me.

Well, right after all the celebration died down, I left and went over to Howard University Hospital and went up to the receptionist and said, "Which room is Rosa Lee Cunningham in?" And the receptionist looked it up, said, "Oh, she's in intensive care." In intensive care? She had never been in intensive care. And so I went up to intensive care and they had this big sign "Only family come in." So I stood outside the glass door. But she had her mouth ... they had a breathing apparatus and a tube strapped around her mouth and they were pumping oxygen into her. It was very obvious. So I knew then that she was fighting for her life. Well, she never left the hospital alive. She did get off the respirator and did regain consciousness and I did we had a number of conversations during that period. She was in the hospital from April 18th to July 7th. And the last time I saw her was July 4th. And she was unconscious and I couldn't wake her when I went to see her in the hospital. And so I knew, I had already seen her son, her older son, deteriorate in the same way from AIDS.
LAMB: Bobby.
DASH: Bobby -- at the same hospital, Howard University Hospital. And that was July 4th the last time I saw her. July 7th, at 7:30 in the morning, her son Eric called me at home and said, "Mama died at 2:30 this morning," and that her funeral was a week later. And I went to the funeral July 15th.
LAMB: What did you think of her?
DASH: I liked her. I thought that she had made some very bad choices, particularly the prostitution of her oldest daughter. That was a horrible choice and almost unforgivable. But there also were things that she did that she thought were her only opportunities for day to day living. She didn't see herself as having a lot of choices or a particular avenue of opportunity for the future. Her life was always governed by what was needed today, never tomorrow. She always existed in today. Tomorrow was a far-off place that she might get to and might not.
LAMB: Who's this gentlemen?
DASH: That's Rosa Lee's oldest grandson, Rocky Lee Brown Jr. His nickname is "Junior." He is in prison serving a 15 to 45 year term for his second armed robbery conviction.
LAMB: When did this happen?
DASH: Oh, actually, the armed robbery took place in February of '94, the second armed robbery.
LAMB: Have you seen him lately?
DASH: Oh, yeah. And I'll be seeing him again soon. He's now 24. I saw him in January. I just recently saw his mother, who also is in prison.
LAMB: That's Patty?
DASH: That's Patty. Yeah.
LAMB: What do you talk to when you see these folks?
DASH: I ask them what they are doing. Well, Patty and I talked about the fact that she's moved into full blown AIDS now. A lot of that ...
LAMB: This is the picture we have here of Patty and her mother.
DASH: Patty and Rosa, right.
LAMB: How old was she here, by the way?
DASH: That was taken ... we determined that she's 38 now. That was taken when she was about 34.
LAMB: And what's her life like now?
DASH: Well, she's in prison, and every day is a struggle just to get out of bed, because she's weak and feverish often.
LAMB: How many children did she have?
DASH: Only one. She had Junior, the boy ...
LAMB: Were there any abortions along the way for any...
DASH: There were two. Patty did, two back door abortions with coat hangers. She had Junior when she was 14 and she had Junior essentially because she wanted to be a woman. And she felt that having Junior at age 14 would move her from the status of adolescent to adult.
LAMB: Who are these two?
DASH: That's two of Rosa Lee's sons. That's the oldest, Bobby, on the right and Richard, her fourth born son, on the left; both of them inside the DC jail together at the same time in June of 1991.
LAMB: You said Bobby was a homosexual?
DASH: Yeah.
LAMB: And how old was he when he died?
DASH: Forty three.
LAMB: What caused all this?
DASH: Poverty. Ignorance. One of the most significant things for me in Rosa Lee's life is that she attended DC public schools up until the seventh grade and she was illiterate. She had never been taught to read.
LAMB: How many of her eight children graduated from high school?
DASH: None. Alvin, who is the station master now at the Metro Rail System, got a GED in the Army and went on to do college study, but he's the only one.
LAMB: You have two daughters?
DASH: Yes.
LAMB: One 16?
DASH: One 16.
LAMB: One 30 ...
DASH: One 34.
LAMB: Thirty four.
DASH: Right.
LAMB: You talk to your own daughters about this?
DASH: Oh, yeah. Quite a bit. .
LAMB: What do they do?
DASH: My oldest daughter is a physician's assistant and mother of a five year old son. And my youngest daughter is in the 11th grade at East Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina.
LAMB: What do they think of what you do?
DASH: I think they have mixed feelings about it because a lot of people, particularly middle class black people, are defensive about looking in depth or in detail into the lives of the black underclass because they feel the society, the larger white society in America, will ascribe all of this behavior to all black people.
LAMB: Can you find whites living the same way?
DASH: Oh, yes. Twenty percent of the underclass is white. But it's mainly ...
LAMB: And they're in the same kind...
DASH: ... a rural population. It's not...
LAMB: With drugs, shoplifting...
DASH: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: ... prostitution?
DASH: Right. Criminal and abuse of children, prostitution of children, everything. But they but middle class blacks, because of the legacy of racial oppression in the United States and the argument by some whites that blacks are genetically predisposed to this behavior, middle class blacks are very defensive about this particular aspect of black life, the black underclass, and want more emphasis put on middle class achievements. I understand that.
LAMB: Leon Dash is our author guest for this Booknotes and the cover of the book looks like this and that's a picture of Rosa Lee Cunningham and her son Bobby, both now deceased.
DASH: Yes.
LAMB: Thank you very much.
DASH: Thank you.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1996. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.