Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives
Opening Doors of Opportunity
Sitting next to Eleanor Roosevelt at an elegant dinner seemed like a dream. Who could have imagined that Lucimarian Tolliver, daughter of a domestic worker and an alcoholic father, would be a foot away from the former First Lady of the United States? I was a senior at Howard University and could barely wrap my mind around the reality.
A few years before this luncheon, Mrs. Roosevelt had made newspaper headlines when she abruptly resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution to protest the DAR’s refusal to rent its Constitution Hall for a concert given by black opera singer Marian Anderson. Now I was seated next to her, the First Lady who had done so much to publicly confront the injustices of racism and segregation.
Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, often invited dignitaries to the campus as a way to introduce students to prominent individuals involved in humanitarian causes. I was one of only two seniors invited for this occasion. As the president of Howard University Women’s League, I was asked to sit on one side of Mrs. Roosevelt. A male student representing the young men of Howard sat on her other side. I remember being impressed by how articulate Mrs. Roosevelt was, asking questions and then listening attentively to my answers. But only in retrospect do I realize just how blessed I was to have had that opportunity.
My years at Howard University overflowed with other opportunities I had never expected. Besides the honor of sitting next to the First Lady and being selected president of Women’s League, I was the president of my dormitory, Frazier Hall, during my junior year. For my senior year, I was elected by my classmates to be one of the mentors at Sojourner Truth Hall, the residence hall for freshmen women. It was a special honor because students were asked to select a senior classmate they would most want to mentor their younger sisters. I also took great pride in participating in my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, which was founded at Howard in 1908. And of course, I was active in the chapel choir program.
I confess that a certain amount of esteem came with these leadership positions. But if ever I began to feel too puffed up and proud, the words of my wise mother came circling back through my mind. It was a simple but weighty warning: “When you strut, you stumble.”
During my junior year, I was especially pleased that my mother was able to attend a mother-daughter tea hosted by the university. She preferred to travel by bus and had saved enough money for a ticket for a long weekend in Washington. A fashion-conscious friend from Akron advised her in selecting clothes suitable for the occasion. I met my mother at the bus station, then took her on a tour of the campus where she met some of my classmates and their mothers. As evening came, my roommate and I gave our dorm room to our mothers while we bunked in another room with fellow students. In truth, we should not be credited for our gracious hospitality. We just didn’t want to share a room with our mothers, who snored!
On the day of the tea, my eyes rimmed with tears of joy. My mother felt so proud to be included in this special event. I remember glancing at her work-worn hands and thinking of all the things she had sacrificed to help get me to this place in time.
Opportunities to Give and Serve
Though I never made my goal to be the first woman of anything, I can’t help but smile a bit when I look back and see how doors opened up to me, even as a middle-aged and older woman. I was the first black woman to become president of the seven-hundred-member Keesler Officers’ Wives Club and was selected Keesler’s Military Wife of the Year. I was the first woman to serve as president of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum Commission, first woman to chair the Mississippi State Board of Education, and first woman to serve on the board of directors of the Mississippi Power Company. I also chaired the New Orleans Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and served on the advisory board for the Boys and Girls Club of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Then at age eighty-seven, I learned that I had been awarded the Mississippi Medal of Service for contributions made to improve local communities and the state.
It seemed that each opportunity came from somewhere out of the blue. And with every new task came another occasion to meet new people and learn things that would help me along the way.
Throughout my life, it seems that when I have been obedient to God, doors have opened. Although I wasn’t always aware of it at the time, the hardships of life have better prepared me for the next leg of the journey. Only when I look back across the landscape of my life do I see how each stone on the pathway led me from poverty to possibility.
“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”
What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
leaning on the everlasting arms;
what a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
leaning on the everlasting arms.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.