Editor’s Note: According to results of the 6th annual Power of the Sister Vote poll, presented by Black Women’s Roundtable and ESSENCE, 90% of Black women respondents overwhelmingly favor Democratic Party presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the vice presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris, to win the White House in November. Below is a personal story from one of the Black women voters in the 90%.
The year was 1968. Six days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, some 500-miles north in Dayton, Ohio, a baby entered the world amid a firestorm of controversy. Her name was Sheila. Her birth certificate labeled her caucasian, but she was bi-racial; born to a 21-year-old white woman and her Black boyfriend ten years her senior. To further complicate matters, the young mother had a history of being arrested for prostitution and her boyfriend, who was incarcerated at the time Sheila was born, had been arrested multiple times for running an illegal after-hours nightclub.
Race was relevant because Sheila was born to an interracial couple at the height of the 1960s racial riots and civil unrest. Race was the reason she was not wanted. Race was the reason her mother was forbidden to keep her in the home she lived in with her white family members. Race was the reason Sheila was left at an orphanage when she was one month old, while her two white sisters — one a year older and another a year younger, each from different fathers, were welcomed into the home and raised with their birth family.
Sheila was the middle child. She was half Black. And her life was not valued.
Much of what happened over the next year and a half of her life remains a mystery, hidden in a file of sealed birth records. What is known is that Sheila was shuffled between multiple foster homes until her two angels arrived — a young African American military couple looking to complete their family by adding a little girl.
Her name was changed. She relocated with her new family to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where her father was stationed. And alas, baby Sheila was given a shot at a whole new life.
Fast forward 25 years. A chance encounter with a United State’s senator coming off an Amtrak train from Washington to Delaware would forever change this little broken girl’s perspective on life and the possibility of success.
You see, former Vice President Biden, at the time, you didn’t know it, but that baby was me.
In the 1990s, I had graduated with a degree in journalism from the historically Black Delaware State College. I worked three jobs to make enough money to put myself through school and raise my daughter who was born my sophomore year. I was a single mother and was just beginning my career as a news reporter for the local station in Dover.
YOU saw me differently.
You were one of two United States senators representing our great little state. Like so many women who suffered trauma in their lives, I had been struggling to fend off the many mental demons carried over from my childhood; feelings of unworthiness, feeling unwanted, and feeling less-than because I was adopted.
Given where I came from, not much was expected of my life. Yet, I had these audacious dreams and goals rooted in my spirit of being on television and living in New York City one day.
Most dismissed me. But YOU saw me differently.
The very first time I met you, I was covering a news story, and I was young, inexperienced and very “green” as they often refer to unseasoned reporters. I was hardly ready to compete in the highly competitive and cut throat world of news… but I was determined to make it. I asked you for an interview and you were so kind and charismatic, taking the time to ask my name and how long I had been at the station. You answered my questions, offered a few pointers, and wished me luck.
I didn’t see you again in person until this particular day on the train; a commute I later learned you made almost daily to be home with your family after losing your first wife and daughter to a tragic car accident that also almost claimed the lives of your two sons.
I was returning home from Washington D.C. As I attempted to leave the train — my arms full of bags, and my little girl in a stroller, a kind businessman offered to help. Noticing my struggle, he quickly swooped up the stroller and carried my daughter off the train, handing her back to me on the platform. When I looked up to say thank you, to my surprise, it was you. You didn’t immediately recognize me because I was dressed down in jeans, a t-shirt, and baseball cap. I reluctantly reintroduced myself, reminding you where we had met, but before I could finish my sentence, you stopped me and asked me to come work for you.
Pictured above: The author and her daughter
You didn’t know my history or anything about me, and I certainly wasn’t dressed the part, but it didn’t seem to matter. For the first time in my life, I felt like someone of significance truly saw me.
You said you could use help in your press office, which lacked diversity, and I would be perfect to come on board as a press assistant. When I explained being on television was my dream job, you asked me to give you a year, and if I wasn’t happy you would personally help me get back to the news business.
I hope this letter provides a sense of joy knowing you made such a difference in my life.
For the next year, I worked in your Delaware office, occasionally traveling to Washington, learning and growing in a way that would set me up for my future successes. You took me under your wing and gave me the guidance, leadership skills, confidence, and example I needed to soar in life.
Most importantly, you believed in me.
I would like to think I was special but, the truth is, I have watched you operate and treat everyone with the same level of attention, care and concern. From the time you enter a room, you make it a point to address everyone, and get to know them personally. Whenever I was in your presence, you took the time to explain things to me and always asked my opinion, even though I must have been the lowest on the totem poll in the office. I recall accompanying you to interviews on the Charlie Rose show, meetings with dignitaries, and events with Hillary Clinton and Carol Moseley Braun, to name a few. On each occasion, you introduced me as if I was somebody important, and made sure they, too, took the time to get to know me.
Your dedication to making the world a better place and your commitment to standing up for minorities and women was evident with every conversation. To be in your presence was to witness your passion for initiatives such as midnight basketball, which you hoped would give young people a place to be and something to do late at night to keep them out of harm’s way — “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” you would always say.
You were so proud of authoring the first Violence Against Women Act after hearing countless personal stories from abused women who were fearful of reporting domestic violence. You wanted to ensure women in abusive situations were supported, and that they had the law behind them to give them the courage to leave.
I learned so much from you. Even in the face of so much personal loss and your own near-death encounter with two brain aneurisms, you never stopped wanting to help others. At one point, I considered taking on a 2nd job to help cover the cost of daycare because press events often fell outside normal business hours. But instead, you gave me a raise.
As fate would have it, I did eventually to return to the news. And true to your promise, you and the staff could not have been more supportive. Never had I been in an environment where everyone believed in me so much, even throwing a going away dinner to wish me well.
I took with me so many career and life lessons that I live by to this day — “Be as good of a listener as you are a storyteller,” you once told me. And always tell a personal story and give examples to drive your point across so people can see you are personally connected, and feel that you are talking with, and not at them.
I moved up the ranks from Richmond to Norfolk, Virginia, and a few years later landed a job as a news anchor and reporter in New York City, where I went on to win an EMMY Award and the rest is history.
Although my time on your staff was short, working for you and bearing witness first hand to the incredible teacher, mentor, leader and human being that you are has made an indescribable impact on the person I am today. The career advice and life lessons will forever be etched in my memory, and have led me to become the journalist, mentor, mother, philanthropist and businesswoman I am today.
Although I have not seen you since then to personally say thank you, I hope this letter provides a sense of joy knowing you made such a difference in my life. There are many Baby Sheilas whose lives have gone a different way.
The country deserves to have a man like you as President.