While searching for the best way to describe her friend Felecia Wilson, Kathleen Courtney of Aquebogue recalls something she discovered traveling the rocky coast of Maine.
Driving along the scenic roads that line the Atlantic in the Pine Tree State, it’s not uncommon to see a shrub rose growing wild among the rocks in summer.
It’s a flower that normally grows in rich soil with full sunlight, but somehow, against the odds, it can be found right there along the roadway.
“I don’t know how flowers could grow like that,” Ms. Courtney said. “That’s Felecia: a rose growing out of the rocks. A woman that, no matter how bad the conditions might have been for her at times, she found a way to rise above it.”
Ms. Courtney, secretary of the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Long Island, was so moved by Ms. Wilson’s story that she recently nominated her for the organization’s Woman of the Year award. In October, Ms. Wilson, a frequent benefactor to the organization, will become the first black woman to receive the honor in the chapter’s 38-year history.
A native of the segregated South, the 59-year-old Riverhead resident is the manager of Judicial Title Insurance Agency’s new branch at 30 West Main. This new position is a major milestone in her 40-year career in the title insurance business. It’s also the latest stop on a journey that’s taken her a long way from where it all began.
Printed on the fourth page of the Jan. 31, 1963, issue of The Bee, a daily newspaper in Danville, Va., was the headline “Auto plunges into creek; three drown.”
“SOUTH MILLS, N.C. (AP) — A car crashed through a bridge railing and plunged into a creek Wednesday, killing two women and an infant girl. A bystander said the auto was moving at a normal rate of speed on a Camden County rural road when it suddenly veered off the bridge. The victims were Mrs. Alethia Skinner, 54, Mrs. Lorraine Wilson, 34, and Mrs. Wilson’s 4-month-old daughter, Priscilla, all negroes, of Rt. 1 Belcross. Mrs. Wilson left nine other children. Death was attributed to drowning.”
For Ms. Wilson, no amount of words could ever explain the heartache she felt following the deaths of three family members, including the grandmother who raised her.
Ms. Wilson describes the first eight years of her life, when she was raised by her grandparents Richard and Alethia Skinner on their farm in Elizabeth City, N.C., as some of her best years. She didn’t have the wisdom to recognize it at the time, but the simple life the Skinners lived — short on money but rich with love — gave her exactly the type of nurturing she needed.
When her parents left North Carolina for New York with her six older siblings to escape the sharecropping lifestyle, they told Ms. Wilson they would send for her — but they never did.
Instead, young Felecia helped out on her grandparents’ farm cleaning eggs, which she’d sell at her aunt’s store next door. She was paid five cents a day.
As members of Christ’s Sanctified Holy Church, the family attended services seven days a week. When she wasn’t in church or working on the farm, Ms. Wilson was in school, which at the time was segregated.
“I lived what I thought was the best life ever,” she said. “My grandparents were very encouraging people who would say, ‘You can have anything you want as long as you’re willing to work hard for it.’ And they would always tell me I was beautiful. In spite of how poor we could be, I felt we were rich.”
But not long after the death of her grandmother, Ms. Wilson’s grandfather told her she’d have to join her mother and stepfather in Riverhead. No longer living like an only child, she had to adjust to life with eight other people in a house in which she said abuse was present.
She also had to adjust to life in an integrated school system.
“That was, in a way, the toughest part for me,” she recalled. “This was the first time I was not seeing water fountains that said negro and white. It was a shock.”
Often, Ms. Wilson said, she felt she didn’t fit in at her new school. Her deep Southern accent was something her classmates teased her about.
“If the teacher would ask a question they’d all say, ‘You answer it, you answer it,’ so they could get a good laugh,” she said.
She went from being an “A” student to one with failing grades. By 17, she was the single mother of a baby girl. She had experimented with drugs and was on welfare.
During this time, Ms. Wilson often thought about something Anna Zaweski, her third-grade teacher in Riverhead, would tell her.
“She was a great teacher who took me under her wing and encouraged me and told me, ‘No matter what, you can do better. Don’t ever give up,’ ” she said.
So Ms. Wilson set a goal that she would no longer rely on public assistance to pay her bills by the time her daughter, Tayanee, was old enough to understand what being on welfare meant.
She wanted to make a career for herself. Three years later, she would.
Photo Caption: Felicia Wilson in her brand-new office at 30 West Main in downtown Riverhead. Ms. Wilson will be honored in October as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Long Island’s Woman of the Year (Credit: Grant Parpan)