Willie Poinsette says of herself, “I’m a person of no particular importance.” She is totally wrong.
You cannot convince her of that. Still you cannot help but draw the very opposite conclusion when you hear about Willie’s remarkable life. She started out life with zero advantages. Yet she transformed herself into a person of substance, accomplishment, historical impact, and most of all true goodness. The kind of person who makes America both great and good. If you insist on this, Willie becomes shy and starts to giggle.
But like Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up.” Starting out on the bottom rung of life’s ladder, Poinsette has dedicated herself to helping others; especially the ones not helped by anyone else. She sees a person in trouble, she helps them. See sees a terrible situation, she strives to make it right.
Even at age 71 and in her retirement years, Willie is still fighting the good fight with the new organization Respond to Racism, taking on a problem Lake Oswego has not faced for decades: racist rage. Last July when Liberty Miller wanted to start the discussion of this issue she got exactly one response. It was from Willie Poinsette. Numerically, this was a dismal turnout, but quality-wise Miller could not have done better. Miller and Poinsette immediately teamed up to muscle the project along. It was time to confront racism in this city.
“Racist incidents are not isolated,” Willie said. “They happen every day at all of the schools, and when it happens someone’s child is insulted. Lake Oswego is behind the times. We have to tackle this citywide problem. We have to own it. It’s up to us to fix it.”
Willie says later will be too late. She says action is needed NOW because the times they-are-a-changing in America and they are changing for the worse. Racism is making a big comeback, and she said, “It’s time to interrupt it.” Poinsette believes this because she has experienced the very worst of times, and she is stunned by the current atmosphere in America.
“Am I back in the Sixties?” Willie said. “With the ugliness of our nation right now I’m beside myself. Now I have the chance for the second time in my life to give everything I have, to fight for the rights that everyone should have, to make the place I live better.”
Willie knows a lot about fighting, as an African-American who grew up in the Jim Crow Era. She was born in 1946 in a private home in Sumter, South Carolina, not in a hospital, because the local facility was for white people only. South Carolina was the cradle of the Confederacy, and it was a time when almost every white person in the South believed their birthright was racial superiority over the people known in those days as colored, Negroes, or much worse.
What chance did a black baby have, especially when she was not claimed by anyone for two days? For many years Willie thought she had no choice but to accept her lot. “I had no information at all about my birth parents,” she said. As for the couple, Edith and Willis Davis, who adopted her, “Mom had a third grade education. My father could not read or write.”
The Davis family lived in the sticks, at a small farm way, way out in the country, and baby Willie was so tiny she could fit inside a coffee pot. Their drafty farmhouse was so cold her parents had to keep mason jars full of warm water around her bed to stave off illness.
“Mom did what she had to do to keep me alive, whether it was giving me castor oil or going out in the forest to gather herbs to make medicine,” Willie said.Still, she had a wonderful life as a child.
“My dad and my half brother spoiled me,” Willie said. “I was happy. We were poor but I didn’t know it because my mom had this raggedy little car.” That little status symbol had to do the family quite a while.
“I did not interact with whites or educated blacks,” Poinsette said. “We lived so far out in the country that we had a mule pull us in a wagon to church. We had no musical instruments in the church so we kept time by tapping our feet on the floor. We had a joyous time afterward.”
Willie did her part to keep them going. She milked cows, churned butter (“I liked that. It was exciting.”), prepared tobacco for market, and picked cotton, which she did not like because with her scrawny shoulders she had difficulty hauling the huge sack around.
At the same time she had a huge appetite for education, although the family library was not extensive: the Bible, the Daily Word (a religious publication), the Sumter Daily Item newspaper, a hymnbook, a cookbook, and the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue.
When her school days began, Willie was the most enthusiastic student around. “I was a teacher pleaser,” she said. But an incident in the sixth grade was a turning point in her life.
“Our teacher decided to discipline the whole class for the action of one student,” Willie said. “She lined us all up and hit each one of us on the wrist with a ruler. It made a mark and raised a welt on my wrist. My mother said, ‘You are not going to hit my child.’ She decided to move to New Jersey and look for a job.”
Momma was free to make this move because daddy Willis had recently died from an illness. Once Edith found a job and got settled, she sent for Willie to join her. The years ahead were difficult and often lonely for her daughter because Edith was required her to stay in the home where she was employed. She only received one day off a week, plus every other Sunday. When the time came for Willie’s high school graduation, mom decided she could go back home to South Carolina, and Willie was left alone. She doubts she could have survived that time if it wasn’t for the support of Pat Hawes, who has remained her best friend to this day.
But hope was on the way. The bright and ambitious girl was noticed by people who could help her. Little by little her life improved, and this set the tone for her whole life.
“The teachers recognized I didn’t have means,” Willie said. “They saw that I was different and began helping me and I just started doing my own thing. People have always helped me. That is why today I always have to do things to help people.”
Still, Poinsette’s confidence was slow to build. The girl who “came from nothing” from the deep South was plagued by feelings of inferiority. “I never went to a prom in my life,” she said. Even after she earned a degree from William Patterson University she lacked the confidence to accept the chance to attain a master’s degree at Columbia University and live in New York City. Even though her supporters deeply believed in her, the challenge was too daunting to accept.
Still, as a brand new college graduate Willie’s career in education began to take off. At some level she must have had great confidence, because she chose only the toughest assignments, schools where many teachers would turn tail and run. For her first job she chose the most challenging school of them all, the fear-inspiring Patterson School #6.
“Number 6 was used as a threat to teachers,” Willie said. “Nobody wanted to teach there. But I enjoyed that challenge. There were a bunch of young teachers there and we were crazy. We tried different things and we used tough love.”
Although her working conditions resembled “West Side Story” and “Blackboard Jungle,” with gangs, knives and the whole delinquent bit, Davis and her colleagues developed open-ended classes with totally individualized programs. Their students were learning.
Willie learned the ropes under the legendary principal Joe Clark, who talked loudly and carried a baseball bat. He had made great strides in easing the troubles at No. 6, where his work won high praise and also sharp criticism. Clark did not pussy foot around, which is putting it mildly. He eventually became immortalized in the film “Lean On Me” with Morgan Freeman.
“Joe was crazy,” Willie said. “He was tough.” Clark was so crazy and tough that one day he ran off his vice principal so fast that she left her purse behind. He chose Willie Davis as her replacement, which gives you an idea of how tough she was. Soon she was striking almost as much fear into people’s hearts as Clark, even without a baseball bat. After a year Clark was sent to clean up an even bigger mess at Eastside High School, and Willie was chosen to replace him as principal of No. 6.
“I was his right hand man,” Willie said. “I was a tough person. I was not always nice. I admit it. Joe gave me total permission to be hard on them, but I was just trying to make them better teachers. Looking back I wish I had not been so tough at times. I could have handled situations in a better way.”
A few years after Poinsette had moved to Oregon, Clark came to Oregon for a speaking engagement and Willie went to see him.
“When he saw me he said, ‘Oh, Miss Davis! She was my vice principal!’ He was still crazy.”
Willie was still fighting the good education fight in New Jersey when she met a man who was “totally different from any other guy I had ever dated. He invited me out for a drink.” Bruce Poinsette had come all the way from Oregon to visit a friend in New Jersey. He was also from South Carolina, but he was what Willie considered “black middle class.” Bruce’s mother had been deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and his family helped to found the first hospital for blacks in South Carolina.
Considering Willie’s deep reservations about mixing with educated black people, her matchup with Bruce seemed to be unlikely. But two weeks after he had returned to Oregon, he sent her a postcard with his phone number on it. “He told me I was different from anybody he had ever met before,” Willie said.
After a long-distance courtship of one year, at age 40 Willie became Bruce’s bride. She moved out to Oregon to join him and her life totally changed.“It was a new culture, new environment, new everything.”
Nowhere was the change greater than when the Poinsettes chose to live in Lake Oswego, simply because they got a good deal on a house. It did not faze her that for the first time in her life she was going to live in a totally white society.
However, not long after Willie and Bruce had their son, Bruce Jr., they ran into an old enemy: racism. One day Willie drove to pick up her boy at his pre-school and witnessed a shocking sight.
“He was standing in a sandbox and he was quivering,” Willie said. “He was the only black kid in the school and the other kids were throwing sand at him and yelling ‘Take it! Take it!’ “Willie brought her car to a screeching stop in a parking place and strode into the school to confront the principal. Joe Clark would have been proud of her.
She was also standing tall as a teacher and principal in Portland. Again, she chose to work in the toughest schools of all and helped the people, her students and their parents, that nobody else was helping.
“I think I won the community over with tough love,” Willie said. “They realized I was there for them. I came from poverty, just like them.”
Her work with impoverished students won wide recognition, and she caught the attention of Portland School Superintendent Vicki Phillips, who invited her join the staff at the main office.
This self-confessed tough lady also had her light side. For one school assembly at Robert Gray Elementary, Willie donned a red-fringed dress and sang and danced like she was Tina Turner before a crowd of amazed and roaring students.
“The kids got out of their seats and surged toward me,” Willie said with a laugh. “It was actually awesome. It was me coming out of my little shell.”
Finally, the time came for her to retire and enjoy a well-earned rest. But she did nothing of the sort. In July of 2017 an African American resident of Lake Oswego named Nathan Sheppard wrote about a disturbing incident on his blog. A white driver in a BMW had followed him closely in an apparent attempt at intimidation. To Sheppard this was not okay and he refused to let it slide. He drove after the other vehicle until it stopped in a parking lot, where he and the other driver got out of their cars.
Sheppard told Lake Oswego Review reporter Anthony Macuk, “The man asked me, ‘Do you live around here? You don’t look like it.’ “ The man then told Sheppard he “didn’t look educated.” He finished off his sterling performance by calling Sheppard “the N Word.” With a smile.
Sheppard’s posting on his blog crashed the placid surface of Lake Oswego. His story of “The Man” drew 21,000 viewers who were shocked to discover that virulent racism was brewing in their beloved home town. The post went viral with many social groups and especially hit home hard with Liberty Miller. To Willie Poinsette, Miller’s call for action was like a blast from the past. She had been at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey, hearing a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Paterson and meeting legendary activist Rosa Parks.
“I was out there marching and very involved,” Willie said. “I wanted to do things. I never gave up the fight, and I think we’re still fighting.
“When this thing happened here, I thought, ‘Oh my God! I feel like marching again!’ “
With Miller and Poinsette leading the way, Respond to Racism immediately caught fire. An early meeting drew 60 people and a recent meeting attracted 160 people. Every table and chair at Lake Oswego United Church of Christ was put to use.
“The meeting was awesome,” Willie said. “It gave me so much hope. Students and adults were meeting together. What happened (to Sheppard) was not an isolated incident. Incidents of racism happen every day in our schools.”
With this outpouring of public awareness, Respond to Racism is ready to take action, and Willie has a clear idea of what must be done – dialogue, learning and action.
“We are what Lake Oswego needs to build on,” Willie said. “We want to engage our elected officials, city directors, housing people, school districts, fire and police, and the faith community. We need to raise enough money for the training and meetings we need to make our city a better place.
“What really excites me are the things the kids are doing. They’re not taking no for an answer. They’re not stepping down. That is what gives me joy and hope.”