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March 13th, 2013

Grandma Lillie: she was the wind beneath my wings

Lillie Howard

Being that March is the celebration of "Women’s History Month", I felt that it was apropos for my column to be dedicated to the woman that was the wind beneath my wings. This is none other than my grandmother, Lillie Bowser Fielder.

Grandma Lillie raised me and she instilled in me the strength which came from inside of her. She worked in a dress factory on Chambers street, which is now a church, and on weekends she sold dinners out of her apartment on Smith Street. She was a missionary at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a member of the Elks, and also an Eastern Star.

My grandfather, William Fielder, worked on the railroad and they had a dream to one day own their own home. Around 1947, a fire broke out on Smith Street and it was then that they decided to purchase their own home, which was at 116 Smith Street.

It was a three-story house that had a basement and a beautiful backyard. Grandma created a garden and planted seeds that brought forth cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers and corn. There was also a grape vine in the yard which brought forth fat, juicy purple grapes. She used to make jelly from the grapes and it was oh so delicious.

Grandma knew that I wanted to be a singer - I was singing by the time I was five - and she did everything to support that. I took voice lessons for a couple of years with Mr. Paul Simmons and I also took piano lessons with Mr. Alsdorf. Grandma made me feel like I could be whatever I wanted to be.

I got married at a young age and at that time I had one child - Raymond, Jr., Super - but I still wanted to pursue a professional singing career. Grandma Lillie told me to go ahead and pursue my dream and she would take care of my son.

I did that in 1957 and within a couple of months I had an audition with Billy Ford, who himself was auditioning for songwriters Bob Crewe and Frank Slay. They were there because they wanted to record a duo because duos were hot at that time. They asked me to sing, they liked my sound and they pulled a song sheet out for Billy and I to sing together ("La Dee Dah") and that’s when Billy & Lillie were born. "La Dee Dah" hit the top of the charts and the rest is history.

During that time, I often came home when Billy & Lillie weren’t on tour. On one of those occasions Grandma Lillie seemed to be very sad. I asked her what was wrong and she said that Urban Renewal was going to take over the neighborhood that we resided in. She couldn’t believe that they were going to have to give up their lovely home. They tried to hold on as long as they could but eventually it was finalized. Her and my grandfather looked around and eventually wound up purchasing a home at 54 Lander Street, which at that time was a decent area. It was a beautiful home, but it in no way compared to 116 Smith Street. Grandma wound up having a stroke and died in August 1962 before being able to move into their new home. That was the most painful experience of my life because the wind beneath my wings was no longer there.

There were a lot of families that were devastated due to Urban Renewal, but I don’t know of any devastated to the extent that Grandma Lillie was. If she were alive today, I know that she would be saddened to see the present condition of Lander Street. She would also be wounded to see that there are no more people like Rev. Burton, Mr. Ellsworth and Helen Potter, Rev. Samuel Hodge, Sr., and Mr. Glen Hines. She would be shaking her head to see how little has been done in the areas that were ruined by Urban Renewal and how this devastation was allowed to escalate into the areas where a lot of the Urban Renewal families had relocated to.

As I sat in a recent meeting listening to Mayor Kennedy and City Manager Herbeck unveil their plans for the city of Newburgh, my heart was overwhelmed. It was a beautiful presentation that will benefit some, but the same people that were affected by Urban Renewal will be affected by the city’s new plans.

How many will be able to afford to continue residing in Newburgh once these new plans evolve? How many of those kids out here on these streets are going to be able to remain here? I didn’t hear anything that was going to be put in place to seriously address their problems, except to be continuously arrested. The real sad part of that meeting was that there were not that many people of color in that room. This made me realize that this was representative of the way that the City of Newburgh is going to be once these plans are finalized. Some will benefit, of course, but very many won’t.

Sad to say, but I just heard about an incident that happened earlier that day. Someone was called "nigger" at a "Hot Dog" establishment on Broadway, and people were picketing outside. Wow! Is this what the future holds for Newburgh?

Race relations is a dominant factor that should be seriously addressed in this country and until it is nothing is ever going to seriously change. We must make the change start here! Also, there is a video circulating on the internet about the way things were in Newburgh when Mr. Mitchell was the city manager back in the late 1950’s. If at all possible you should watch it because it will seriously open your eyes.

Granny, I thank you for instilling within me the determination to keep on standing up for what’s right. I also thank you for telling me, "you can break down a woman temporarily, but a real woman will always pick up the pieces, rebuild herself, and come back stronger than ever!"

This column is dedicated to the one who was the wind beneath my wings - Lillie Bowser Fielder! This is Lillie’s Point of View.

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