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Discover some little-known facts about the woman who inspired NeighborWorks

Gabrielle Sims, former community scholar | 1/6/2017 11:59:47 AM


A mural depicting Dorothy Richardson and local children is a prominent feature in Pittsburgh.

I recently had the opportunity to conduct research on the life of Dorothy Richardson, the guiding light for NeighborWorks America. When I started, I wasn’t expecting to learn much new about her life and what motivated her to save her Pittsburgh community. But by the end of my project, I had uncovered a lost history of a true American mover and shaker—an individual whose legacy has ensured that millions have access to the resources necessary to own their homes and build their communities. This project was far beyond what I imagined my experience with NeighborWorks America would be like and I am extremely grateful for the support I received every step of the way. 
 
My first encounter with the Dorothy Richardson story was at the orientation for community scholars in late May. Our orientation leader played a video showing a black housewife who banded together with other women in her community to lobby the banks to give them $750,000 to save deteriorating homes in their neighborhood. The story was interesting, but I had the feeling there were parts of it missing. I figured that information about her life was limited because most of her work was during the 1960s.
 
Although I was new to NeighborWorks America as a community scholar intern, there was something about the story that was so intriguing to me that I became deeply invested in learning more, beyond the bare facts. I knew Dorothy had to have done something incredible to inspire a national organization like NeighborWorks, because from my knowledge of American history, the 1960s was not an era when banks were eager to form relationships with black women, especially those living in low-income areas.
 
Fortunately, one of my assignments for the summer was to find out more about Dorothy Richardson because my supervisor, Bernadette Orr, agreed the story wasn’t as fleshed out as it could be. Bernadette warned me that others at the organization had tried to look into her story before, but didn’t come up with much more than we already had. With this in mind, I tailored the goals for the project so I wouldn’t be disappointed if I wasn’t able to answer the questions that really piqued my interest.

The gravestone for Dorothy's husband, Louis
Initially, I had three goals for finding out more about Dorothy Richardson: Discover her real birth date, who her husband was and what it took for this woman to establish the first Neighborhood Housing Services. (Yes, some basic facts were unknown!) 
 
Over a period of eight weeks, I uncovered more information about Dorothy than I expected. Every newspaper article, photograph and original document I found excited me. I began to understand how Dorothy Richardson’s work enabled a relationship with banks and learned many tidbits about her life and personality. For example, I learned that she mobilized hundreds of women in her organization, Citizens against Slum Housing, to hold sit-ins and protests. She was not at all the quiet woman she appeared to be in the pictures hanging in the NeighborWorks office. As a young, African-American woman with a deep devotion to my roots, Dorothy’s work inspired me and served as another reminder of the struggle it took for our country to come as far as it has.

Randy's colorful home
Toward the end of my time as a community scholar at NeighborWorks, my research took me to Dorothy Richardson’s neighborhood in Pittsburgh, where I interviewed people who knew her, visited her home and learned about the impact the Pittsburgh NHS has had on the community. Being on the ground in Pittsburgh made me “feel” everything that Dorothy Richardson was fighting to preserve. Randy, who owns a brightly painted home known by locals as Randyland, described how the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) helped him purchase his first home nearly 45 years ago. He told me that although he was ostracized by others throughout his life for being "white trash," Dorothy Richardson and the other women associated with the Pittsburgh NHS always treated him like family.
 
Although there are parts of the Northside neighborhood that are beginning to gentrify, the culture and the pride of those native to the neighborhood reign. The lesson that stuck with me after I left Pittsburgh was that Dorothy Richardson knew what is at stake if a community is lost. She knew that a community brings a sense of identity to its residents and is a place where people cultivate their dreams and raise their families. She knew these intrinsic values must be defended and was able to use the eloquence of her words and her relentless passion to evict predatory landlords from her community.
 
To have the opportunity to uncover the history of such an inspiring woman was an honor. So much of the African-American story requires learning more about the stories our history books leave out. In light of the contentious events currently going on in our country, I know the struggle is not over. But people like Dorothy Richardson have paved the way for women like me to be a catalyst for change.
 
P.S. Dorothy was born on May 30, 1922. Her husband, Louis, was a section hand on the railway before enlisting in the Air Force in December 1942, in the midst of World War II.
 




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