Willie Douglas has weathered some storms. She has been part of many of the tumults in America’s history over the last fifty years. She battled racism while working to integrate her place of employment in New Orleans. She lost one of her sons to fatal illness during the AIDS epidemic. She fled her home in the face of Hurricane Katrina–and then returned to New Orleans to help rebuild her city. But Willie’s faith has sustained her throughout. In the words of her favorite hymn:
“The world may crush you, but you don’t have to fret
My God remembers when others forget
One thing I know, yes, I surely know
Prayer changes things.”
Tell me about your background.
I was born in Mississippi, the oldest of eleven children, but my mother and father followed my grandparents to Chicago because there wasn’t jobs for blacks in Mississippi, other than cotton fields and what-have-you. After I got married and had a son, we moved to New Orleans because we heard there was work. My husband got a job, so I started back to school while he was working.
I went to the University of New Orleans for a year and then I went to a training school, because at the time they weren’t teaching courses in hospitality at the colleges. I finished, but I couldn’t get a job in hospitality. I worked as an elementary school substitute teacher for a time.
Finally I got a phone call from CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality. I went to talk to them. They wanted to desegregate the hospitality industry, so they were training people in non-violence and then trying to get them into jobs in hotels. [This was in 1969–1970.] For six months I went to that training and then they called on me to integrate the staff at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel.
I went for a job interview with an elderly white lady and she was very nice. She told me they only had jobs for cleaning people, and I was over-qualified for those. She said that they would call me back if something came up. I believed her. I didn’t feel that she had any negative feelings toward me because of my color.
But the CORE administrator thought that they just didn’t want to hire me because I’m black. So he told me that I needed to go back there and tell them that I would take whatever position they had open at the time. The point was just to get a foot in.
So I went back. This time the general manager interviewed me. He asked me if I was willing to take a cleaning position until another position came open. I told him, “Oh sure! No problem, I clean at home.”
The cleaning job lasted about a month before one of the supervisors said that she didn’t feel comfortable working with blacks. She resigned and they put me in her place. I did everything that was necessary to learn and to hold onto the job. From there I worked my way up. In 1997 I was named to Who’s Who in the Hospitality Industry.
Why did you want to work in the hospitality industry? What about it spoke to you?
I like people! I enjoyed meeting people and working with people and talking to people. Most people think we learn from college and school, but I think you learn from dealing with different people. Every time I would talk to someone I would learn something.
I’m not saying that it was easy. It was very hard! When I became director over the housekeeping department and manager-on-duty, I had to work in different spots around the hotel, and my color was a turnoff to some people. Guests would call for the manager and when I knocked on their door, they would open it and say, “I didn’t ask for a n—–, I asked for a manager.”
I had to deal with incidents like that throughout my entire career. In 1985 I became a general manager of a small hotel. I attended the staff meeting where they announced that I was going to be in charge. One of the people attending the meeting was a man who had been an engineer at the hotel for a long time. After their announcement, he stood up and said, “I refuse to take orders from a n—–.”
That was really hard for me. But I didn’t say anything! I just sat there and let him get it all off his chest. I figured it would just be a matter of time before he blew up and got fired. And actually we didn’t even end up needing to fire him. He quit.
Throughout my career, I said a lot of prayers to hold myself together so that I wouldn’t explode, dealing with ignorant people like that. It wasn’t a good journey all the way, but it was a worthwhile journey.
You turned to prayer at difficult times. Have you been a woman of faith for a long time?
I have! I was raised Baptist. But it was 1999 when I really came to know God was by my side at all times.
That was a hard time. Both my mother and my younger son got sick. My son was a fashion model. He lived in Atlanta and traveled around to model for some big stores. One day my niece called and told me that he had the AIDS virus. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t see how I would be able to make it without my son. I just couldn’t see my son dying before I died.
A couple weeks after my niece told me, he called and told me that he needed to come see me, that there was something that he needed to talk to me about. He came to New Orleans and had lunch with me and told me himself.
Now there’s a drug cocktail that some people with the virus are able to take, and it keeps them well. But he was allergic to something in the drug cocktail, so he couldn’t take it. They tried different medications to prolong his life, but they didn’t work long for him.
It was such a hard time. Sometimes you don’t have anyone you can turn to. It was always chaotic between my husband and my son. My husband was against our son’s lifestyle. He didn’t care that he was sick. I just can’t explain how hard that was. It was a load weighing me down. I would go for a walk every evening and I would walk and I would pray. I asked God to help him and keep my son and not let him suffer, because I didn’t think I would be able to stand seeing him suffer when there was nothing I could do to help him.
About the same time, my mom got sick. She lived in Mississippi, a five-hour drive from New Orleans. For a while I’d drive up and spend Monday and Tuesday cleaning her house or whatever she needed.
Then my son got pneumonia. The doctors told him he probably wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital and he would not live longer than six months. So I went to Atlanta and moved him out of his apartment and brought him home with me. I went and got my mom from Mississippi and moved her in, too. So I had her and my son in the house, and I was taking care of both of them at the same time. Plus I was working full time. I had no support from my husband on that decision. It was a hard, lonely time.
My son wasn’t doing good. He ended up back in the hospital. When I would leave work I would go to the hospital to see him. (And sometimes before work and at lunch too.) One night I had been at the hospital until about 2 in the morning. I was on my way home. It was raining and the streets were wet and I was crying. I heard a voice say, “STOP!” I put on my brakes so hard that I spun around and a cab hit me on the side.
The cab driver got out and said, “Miss, can I help you? Are you all right?”
I said, “I’m fine.”
He said, “You have a nick on the back bumper of your car. Let me give you my insurance information. Are you sure I can’t call anyone?”
It was a while before I could get myself together to go on to the house. And when I got home I just sat in the car for a while. I felt like I could hear someone saying, “It’s going to be just fine.”
After that, all of my problems with him being sick left me. I was at peace. My prayer stopped being, “Why did it happen to my son? How can I keep going?” and became, “God, please don’t let him suffer.”
He came back home and I cared for both him and my mother. Finally, in September 1999, my mother passed. Two days after she had passed, in the evening while I was still at work, my son’s home nurse called and told me that he wanted me to come home. I said, “Do we need to go to the hospital?”
She said, “No. He is happy, but he wants you to come home.”
When I got home I said, “What’s the matter?”
He said, “Nothing. I just need you to call my pastor and Aunt Ruth and Aunt Margaret.” I thought he was preparing himself to pass, but later I realized he was thinking about me: he was trying to get people around me so that I wouldn’t be alone when he passed. He said that he was tired and that his knee was hurting him. So I rubbed his legs and told him to just go on and sleep. He went to sleep and that was it. He passed in his sleep that night at about 8:00.
God is good. I always felt like he was by my side with my child and my mother. He is always there when you need him.
What a devastating time. And then just a few years later, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Tell me about that.
At the time, I managed the Ramada Inn on Bourbon and St. Anne. Before it hit, of course I was watching the news on it. The morning of the day that it arrived, they announced that everyone should leave the city. I called my assistant and told her to call everyone and tell them not to worry about trying to come to work and that they needed to take care of themselves.
We had some guests still at the hotel. Some of the employees volunteered to take the guests along with them to Baton Rouge. So I was able to close down the hotel.
When everything was squared away, my husband and I left New Orleans and drove here to Columbus, Mississippi, where my other son was already living. It’s a five-hour drive, but it took us twelve hours. It was really bad.
We were still in Mississippi when I found out my house had been destroyed. My nephew in New York called my son and said that he could see water all over the top of my house. I guess it was on TV.
How did it feel to get the news that way?
I didn’t get upset at the time and I didn’t feel sad. I often think about this and wonder to myself why I didn’t get upset. But I didn’t. I just said, “God is going to take care of this problem as He has always taken care of problems that I have had.”
Officials were saying that you had to come back and clean up your property. So I went back to New Orleans. Once I got there I could see all the destruction and how much people had lost. It was horrible. Sadness washed over me then.
Even though I felt sad, it never did get to the point where I was just constantly thinking about the sadness. I’d worked for the owner of my hotel for 18 years, so he asked me if I could get the hotel back up and running. He also asked me to help any staff who wanted to come back to the city. He owned some apartments in a suburb, Metairie, so he provided some of those apartments.
Once I started working with the problems of my staff and on the problems of the hotel, my problems seemed small. I worked for about another year, helping people solve their problems, before I retired.
How did you come to join the LDS Church?
When I lived in New Orleans, some LDS missionaries lived nearby. I’d see them ride by on their bikes.
Sometimes they would have been caught in the rain and I would drive into my driveway and discover them sitting on my porch waiting for the rain to stop. So I became friendly with them. Sometimes I would let them read Bible verses or say a prayer for me. I was friendly with them.
In 2006 I retired and moved from Louisiana to Mississippi to be close to my older son and his family. When I moved into my new home, my first visitors were Mormon missionaries.
Had the New Orleans missionaries given them your address?
No! They didn’t know where I’d moved! It was God who sent them. He knew that I needed a change in my life, so he sent them to visit me.
One of them, Elder Simmons, stood out to me. Once he found out we were from the flood, he and his companion would come just to talk to me, or to help me do yard work, or whatever I needed done. He wasn’t always trying to get me to join the Church. Lots of times we would sit on the back patio and talk with tears coming down our faces. You just knew that he felt in his heart what he was saying to you. We’d talk about how life can be very hard sometimes and about how it’s even harder if you don’t have a strong belief in God. Eventually, he baptized me.
I understand you are once again caring for a family member.
Yes, my husband. Things had been difficult between us and I had made up my mind when I moved up here to Mississippi that he would stay in New Orleans and we would go our separate ways. But for some reason that didn’t happen. He came here to Mississippi. In 2009 he had a stroke. So now I am his primary caregiver. I don’t have other family nearby, other than my son. I was a counselor in the Relief Society presidency, and I had gotten in the habit of going to the temple, but all those things have stopped since my husband had his stroke. That’s not easy, but there is a reason for things and I strongly believe that there is something that God needs me to learn from this experience.
At one time, my husband’s condition was so bad, I had to do everything for him. Now he can do some things for himself so I have started going back to Church regularly. It’s very hard sometimes, but I will get through it.
Joining the Church has given me a different outlook on the plan that our Heavenly Father has. I love the Baptist people that I grew up with, but growing up I had the idea that my only hope of going to heaven was to be a perfect person. And I always worried, “I am never going to be a perfect person.” But I have learned that Heavenly Father has a place for me. Now I believe there is hope for me and people like me. There will be a place and God will give me a chance to improve my shortcomings and become a better person. I just need to keep believing in Heavenly Father and trying to do the right things and asking for forgiveness on things that I don’t do.
I read the Bible more now, since I became a Mormon, than I ever did before. When I was in the Baptist church I would only hear what the pastor or preacher said that I should or shouldn’t be doing. Now I’m learning how to read and understand it for myself. Now I read and I see some things that I am doing right, so I feel better about myself. I strongly believe in the teachings of the Mormon faith. They have helped me a lot.
At A Glance
Willie Mae Wright Douglas
Location: Columbus, Mississippi.
Marital status: Married 54 years.
Children: Two sons, one age 54 and one who would have been 49 (he died in 1999).
Schools Attended: Amite County Training School, classes at Ochsner Hospital, University of New Orleans, Delgado Community College.
Languages Spoken at Home: English.
Convert to the Church: March 1, 2007.
Favorite Hymn: “Prayer Changes Things,” Mahalia Jackson.
Interview by Annette Pimentel. Photos used with permission.