Of all the kinds of local history that we preserve at The History Center, one of the more interesting ones is our own. We document the work we've done, and, when we can, the people who have come before us. So we were especially delighted when a former colleague, Dorothy Bliss, emailed last year asking if we wereinterested in a donation of her records from her time here at The History Center in the mid-20th century. She had collected Ithaca Journal articles, photographs and other memorabilia, and also offered a brief narrative introduction to an autobiography she was writing. We were excited to receive Dorothy's materials, not only because they offer insights into a long-past era, but because Dorothy is African American, and her observations on race relations in mid-20th century Ithaca are invaluable.
Dorothy Simmons Bliss (Mrs. Wayne Bliss) started working at the DeWitt Historical Society (as we used to be known) in 1956 as a secretary to the curator, typing, taking dictation, mimeographing materials, and cataloging and labeling artifacts. At first she made $31.60 per month, a modest amount which gradually increased. At the time she was a wife and the mother of two young children, and she became adept at juggling the responsibilities of her family with working outside the home. On her work days, she wrote, "I would run practically all the way home during the noon hour so I could see that everything was okay with my children when they came home for lunch." In addition to her work at the DeWitt Historical Society, she took on freelance typing jobs for a variety of clients, often working for African American Cornell graduate students. Dorothy was glad for the example these high achieving scholars set for her children, and welcomed the encouragement they gave them.
Dorothy candidly relates the struggles and indignities she suffered at the hands of her boss, as well as others. "He thought that our race was moving too fast and that I was not ready to move up to more prestigious employment. My progress was slowed." One white researcher complained about having to sit near Dorothy as she did her work. But Dorothy was determined to control her anger and maintain her dignity despite this disgraceful affront. She movingly recounts her reaction: "I swelled up inside and didn't cry in her presence. But oh dear what does one do?" She then shares a source of strength and comfort: "So many have described having to bear up under insulting situations to put food on the table. Maya Angelou would write a poem entitled 'Still I Rise,' published in 1978. I would like to have given it to this woman right after she made her remark to me." Dorothy's situation is emblematic of what so many Black people have faced, and echoes the cries of today's Black Lives Matter movement, as well as Black people through the ages in America. It's painful to acknowledge that The History Center (then the DeWitt Historical Society) can't claim to have been any different than other employers of the time. That our atrocious behavior wasn't unusual doesn't diminish its shame. We're grateful to Dorothy for putting a spotlight on this sordid part of our past, and we're deeply sorry for what she experienced at our supposedly enlightened institution.
Dorothy worked here until 1960 and later went on to work at Cornell University. Last year she celebrated her 100th birthday and is currently working on her autobiography. Her materials are part of our Black History Collection, and when her autobiography is published it will be added to a Dorothy Bliss Collection.