Column: Telling the Story of Mary Angela Douglas
Mary Angela Douglas loves books more than just about any person I’ve ever met. Her 450-square-foot apartment is laden with book stacks that are nearly the height of Douglas on a good day—4-foot-11-inches, as she’s shrunk even more with age.
I first spoke with Douglas after she left a comment on the story I wrote about the sale of Crystal Towers, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem property for low-income elderly and disabled in downtown Winston-Salem. As the building has fallen into $7 million of disrepair, it has become too expensive for the Housing Authority to justify keeping. Its sale, though, has raised larger conversations about gentrification and the relocation of residents from downtown.
Douglas’ comment was both critical and complimentary. She pointed out the many holes in my story—like that I said that most residents were not surprised by the sale, but some were very much surprised.
I emailed Douglas to ask her more about her comment and to see if she’d like to meet in person. She graciously obliged and invited me into her home.
During our interview, I was struck by her kind words to me regarding my article. “When I read your article,” Douglas said, “I felt like sunlight through the clouds.”
Douglas went on to tell me how the headline of my article was what really stuck out to her. “From the very headline,” she told me, my article was from the point of view of the residents. She lamented that all the other articles she read regarding the sale of Crystal Towers were from the point of view of the Housing Authority. The word “residents” were in no headlines, she said, only words like “Housing Authority”, “sale”, and “property”.
Douglas expressed the way many articles speaking about the sale of the towers referred to residents in such a generic way; because these residents are all in public housing, they are all conjoined. They are not individuals; they are just a group of people living in a building behind the library.
Reading my first paragraph, though, where I described the building and why residents enjoy surroundings, she loved the way she could picture herself walking out of the building and going to CVS down the street or going to Ronnie’s Country store, even though I forgot the detail about how walking back up the hill from Ronnie’s to Crystal Towers makes you feel like an Olympian.
When I wrote the article, I didn’t even think about writing through the lens of the residents. I suppose I did it subconsciously, but I just as easily could have not. Douglas’ kind words were an affirmation and reminder for me to be increasingly aware of the subject of my headlines and paragraphs. Who is the focus of my story? As the writer, to whom do I give a voice in my story? Who is given power by me, the reporter and writer in control?
Douglas’ compliments during our interview were so kind, but they do not negate all the perspectives she showed me that I overlooked in my original article. Douglas made me realize that I could have had more voices and more perspectives. I could have broken things down even more by telling more stories of individuals. I too, in some ways, fell into the trap that so many journalists today fall– settling for the easiest story, ignoring the call to humanize the people around us.
I suppose there will always be more humanizing to be done. But, it’s worth it to never stop trying.
So, here’s the life of Mary Angela Douglas, as told to me: an individual who lives in Crystal Towers and has stories worth telling.
Mary Angela Douglas loves poetry and books. She hates the word “slam” in the same sentence as “poetry”. She loves lighthouses. She loves the ocean as an idea but not in reality because the waves knock her over. She loves God, coffee, and her little Christmas tree in her apartment. She really loves the “azure and tangerine coated” downtown public library and says that she would miss it the most if she must move away from downtown.
Some months, when she spends money on books, Douglas will eat only one meal a day, subsisting on coffee, oatmeal, and 15-bean soup. She’ll make it up the next month by using Instacart, a grocery delivery app, to buy some veggies.
She’s read nearly all these books, too—they’re not just for looks.
Mary Angela Douglas was born in Little Rock, Arkansas to her father, a journalist by the name of Robert Douglas, and her mother, Mary Adalyn Young-Douglas. Her parents separated when she was about three years old, and so she lived with her grandparents for the majority of her childhood.
Douglas is 67 now, and she spends most of her days reading, researching on her computer, and writing poems. Many of her poems are written about her sister, Sharon, who she is no longer able to visit but loves to write poetry for. She has written close to 3,200 poems.
She went to a Catholic high school due to the poor quality of the public schools in her county, and then attended Fontbonne College, now University, in St. Louis Missouri. She reflected on how dearly she loved her professors and the Gateway Arch. Before her senior year, all her favorite professors left Fontbonne, so she did too. She finished her degree in Literature in English from Excelsior College.
Her grandmother was an accomplished piano teacher, who even once taught William Faulkner’s niece, and was a woman who valued truthfulness. Her father was in charge of investigative reporting at the Arkansas Gazette. Her mother liked to write poetry. Douglas cites all these influences as her source of her value for the truth and love for poetry. “Of course you want to be like your mother, everybody does,” she says.
Raised Protestant, Douglas has kept her faith close to her throughout her life, and she became a Catholic at age 21. At one point, she wanted to be a nun.
Douglas never really aspired to a career in particular. She just wanted enough money to live and buy books. She worked in file-keeping for a newspaper, as a secretary at many places, and, most recently, at Walmart in various departments, from fabric and textiles to apparel to toys. The loss of her job at Walmart was what sent her to Crystal Towers.
She’s lost nearly every job she’s had, “I think because I come across not only as an outsider,” Douglas said, “but as kind of an eccentric person to a lot of people.”
When she began to struggle with money after the loss of her job, Douglas tearfully sold almost all her belongings—her harp, her guitar, her piano, and, once she couldn’t sell anything else, her books. After ten years of living in Crystal Towers, she’s finally built her collection back up again.
Douglas likes to laugh about how she is one of the few white people in the building. Most people before meeting her, including myself, assume that she is a person of color because of where she lives. Douglas brought this up in our conversation as she made the point that the public sees Crystal Towers as a homogenous batch of people instead of distinct persons.
Before moving to Winston-Salem, Douglas grew deep roots in Washington D.C. She loved the people and the National Gallery, especially. It was in D.C. that she worked as a file-keeper for a newspaper, but she lost her job because she complained that the newspaper’s headlines did not have enough emphasis on human rights. They were from the point of view of the Soviets and not from the breakaway Republics—the biggest news stories of the time.
Douglas describes herself as generally malleable like a Raggedy Anne doll, so much so that she often shocks people when she stands up for what she believes in. But, she always does.
“I want to be Mary Angela Douglas at the end of my life the same way I was at the beginning,” she says.
In the same way, Douglas wanted to stick up for her perspective, and here’s what she thinks about the sale of Crystal Towers: while it was widely reported that residents were not surprised by the sale of the building, Douglas was “shocked to the core.”
She recognizes that HAWS is following regulations and that she will be helped with her relocation, but she is still concerned that the housing she will be able to get next is not what she would prefer.
Larry Woods, the Chief Executive Officer of HAWS, is someone who has gained Douglas’ respect and trust due to his transparent emotions when dealing with the sale. At the meeting, she said, “Mr. Woods was very, very emotional. He was really looking at us and he really saw us.” She was put off by other Housing Authority members who attended the meeting, who Douglas felt stifled conversation and questions among residents or looked upon them with “utter, undisguised contempt.”
Douglas says that she wishes “that Winston-Salem as a city would’ve cared more.” Perhaps, she said, the people of the city could have done something earlier to save the building.
As a resident, she, too, has a unique perspective on what it is really like to be a resident in Crystal Towers. “There’s a feeling of sadness in this building,” she says.
Douglas often leaves the television on all day and night to escape the feeling and sounds of the building. There are slamming doors, loud voices, and even a neighbor who yells through the night, she said. Sometimes, she stays up all night due to the trouble she has sleeping because of her serious back problems. She doesn’t have a bed in her apartment because she cannot sleep lying down. Instead, she sleeps on a plastic chair in her living room that she has furnished with pillows.
Douglas certainly finds both solace and joy, it seems, in her poetry. “I think of poetry like, in the garden of Eden, the birds singing, and you tell the truth,” she says, “and everything is in that, and that’s your offering to God.”
And, most of all, Douglas is not the only person in the building who is bright, interesting, and has a story to tell. As Douglas says, “Every person here is a wonder.”
As journalists, this calls into conversation what we are doing with our power. Power is healthy only when it is used for the flourishing of the powerless. How imperative it is for us, as journalists, to not only listen to but also tell the wondrous, individual stories of those around us. How imperative it is for us to use our power of voice for the flourishing of others.
Katherine Laws. I want to thank you so much for the time you took to “hear me out”, for your kind and penetrating vision. and most especially for coming all the way to visit me in my home. It was a JOY to speak with you and for me, personally even more of a joy to read your article. I still keep wishing for a “It’s a Wonderful Life” Frank Capra kind of ending to the saga of Crystal Towers where kind foundations and citizens (whom I KNOW exist in abundance) from all over Winston Salem could come to the rescue at the last moment and pour silver and gold and the like into Mr. Woods hands to meet the shortfall of this building and prevent, for many of us, the sadness of leaving Downtown Winston just when she is about to bloom in her most beautiful manifestation. It’s still not too late for this to happen. And I would like Mr. Woods and all the HAWS staff to know that I am deeply grateful to ALL of them that I could be sheltered here for ten long years and I am sorry for any inconvenience I may have ever caused them. They had and continue to have a very difficult and complicated job. Most especially I want to thank Michelle Greene, currently the property manager, who has been a tried and true person throughout the past decade in my opinion. Small correction, I didn’t work in toys at Walmart but there were toys in the infants section where I worked when I worked in 3 departments at once: boys and girls and infants and the earlier department I worked in was Fabrics and Crafts, not textiles, though it would have been cool to work in textiles as that has been so much a part of NC history and expertise. I was talking a mile a minute as I recall and I think I may have left some gaps which led to your reporting those small points in that way. Mea culpa. Also, I went to Catholic high school pure and simple for the atmosphere of prayer and reverence toward God. There were fine high schools in Little Rock in the public school system but at that time, no prayers. It made a huge difference to me and most especially to my Grandmother. And just one more thing, as Columbo the TV detective said, though never to such a just and merciful person as yourself, I WISH THE CITY OF WINSTON SALEM WOULD CONSIDER WITH ALL THE TRULY BEAUTIFUL PROPERTIES FOR LOW INCOME PEOPLE THAT CAME INTO BEING DURING MR. LARRY WOODS TENURE HERE IN WINSTON SALEM SINCE 2006 AS CEO OF HAWS, JUST AS WE WERE ASKED TO CONSIDER ALONG WITH GEORGE BAILEY IN THE CAPRA MOVIE, WHAT WOULD WINSTON SALEM BE LIKE NOW IN TERMS OF PUBLIC HOUSING OPTIONS IF MR. WOODS HAD NEVER BEEN BORN, HAVE NEVER COME HEREAS HE DID, ALL THE WAY FROM THE GREAT STATE OF NY? SURELY, HE DESERVES, LIKE GEORGE BAILEY, TO BE BAILED OUT BY FRIENDS AND THE PEOPLE IN CRYSTAL TOWERS NEED TO BE ASSURED THAT THEY MATTER TO DOWNTOWN WINSTON EVERY BIT AS MUCH AS THE SHINING, REDEVELOPED DOWNTOWN. AND WOULDN’T THIS BE A CHRISTMAS MOVIE COME TO LIFE IF YOU ALL COULD FIND A WAY TO SAVE CRYSTALTOWERS AND TO HONOR THE DEAR PEOPLE HERE. Thank you Katherine. You are a shining star. As is your teacher Phoebe Zerwick who, in my estimation has GOT to be one of the finestjournalists of our time. Or any other.
Comment by Mary Angela Douglas on December 5, 2018 at 2:06 pm
I applaud Katherine Laws on the skill applied in telling this story. I hung on every word because it is of the kind of story I think many of us want to read. It is so powerful in fact, that in any healthy society it should be the spark that lights the fire and rallies the community to save the towers for the sake of those people who call it home. To preserve their right to happiness and their right to live there. If they want to live somewhere else it is their right to decide. For those of you who don’t know, Douglas may very well be North Carolina’s greatest poet and intellect and spiritual adviser. A deep and sincere thanks to you Katherine Laws for writing this story and I wish you a long and prosperous journey as journalist.
Well done indeed!
Comment by Don Henze on December 5, 2018 at 5:31 pm
Katherine, I am continuously amazed by you. I am so proud to see the voice you have developed starting as a devoted high school freshman and continuing as a college student. You have clearly embraced audience and perspective. With such a natural gift and developed talent, you have the power in your pen to bless so many.
Your adoring teacher,
Mary Craig Hunsuck
Comment by Mary Hunsuck on December 6, 2018 at 4:22 pm
It’s refreshing to read a story written in the first person where the writer is so gently corrected about inaccuracies by the subject of her original story. Katherine’s and Mary’s love of the English language is a beautiful theme throughout and it appears the two are truly good friends and soulmates. Despite the sorrowful predicament, the story is heartwarming and captures the human spirit.
Comment by Donald Griffith on December 6, 2018 at 4:27 pm
I was a classmate of Angela’s at Fontbonne and she stayed at my house at one time. I’ve often wondered what happened to her. Thanks to the power of Google– I finally found a search string that worked!
Comment by Ann Buermann Wass on March 18, 2019 at 7:55 am