By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
During her youth, many light-complexioned African-American women masqueraded as whites to avoid the hardships of segregation. Izora Hill chose the hard life of a black woman when she could have passed for white, and it never occurred to her to do otherwise. She learned early on to "raise sand," an expression she picked up as a child in Oklahoma that means letting people know, one way or another, when a situation is either stupid or unjust.
And she has raised sand frequently since she arrived in Phoenix in 1936. Rejected from nursing school because she was black, Izora became a maid to famous politicians, a real estate investor, an aspiring madam, a political candidate, a spy for the Democratic party, a mother of five children, a cook, a teacher and a janitor.
Finally, 25 years ago, in a time when banks did not gladly lend money to either African Americans or women, she paid cash to build the boarding home that had been her dream. There, she has cared for people who, by reason of their mental illnesses, suffered as much prejudice as she herself had endured.
Personal responsibility has become the trendy buzz phrase of racial politics in the 1990s. Increasingly, African-American leaders and the politicians who court them are stressing the importance of hard work and self-reliance to the improvement of the nation's black communities.
"She had a dream," her son Richard says, "and she was a strong black woman. She was determined to get over and around her obstacles. And she did."
Izora Hill moved to Phoenix from her parents' farm near Boley, Oklahoma, in 1936, at the invitation of a sister who believed that Izora could attend nursing school at St. Joseph's Hospital.
"The only thing I wanted to do as a child was grow up and play the piano with a diamond ring on my finger and be a nurse," she recalls.
As she grew up, nursing outdistanced the piano. But she was often an uninterested student; her teachers told her she'd never amount to much unless she worked harder. She remembers telling them more than once: "You just wait and see."
She excelled at what she loved, especially the science courses that were the prerequisites for nursing school. After graduating from high school, she planned to attend an Alabama nursing school for black women. But it was the Great Depression, and her siblings convinced her that it would be cheaper to live in Phoenix with them.
Once she arrived, she learned that no nursing school in Phoenix would accept her. She was black.
Izora says she wasn't angry. But it becomes clear that on some level she must have been disappointed--and determined to work around the racism.
"When you are raised up with that kind of stuff, you get used to it," she says. "You get so used to it that you don't expect anything but that. You figure if you can't get one job, you get the next best thing."
The next best thing was day work--washing laundry on rub boards and pressing clothes with an iron set on the stove. There was no air conditioning, just a fan set above a pot of water in the middle of the kitchen.
Her first job was prophetic, now that she looks back on it. She cared for a schizophrenic who was locked upstairs in his mother's house, hidden from neighbors. When the mother entertained, it was Izora's job to keep the young man quiet. At night, the boy slept in a playpen because he tended to eat the cotton stuffing of his mattress.
She liked soothing the boy. Later, in the 1950s, she worked for 12 years at the Maricopa County Accommodation School and the Valley of the Sun School for children with mental disabilities. When children died, it was Izora's job to wash the corpses.
She worked several jobs at once. Day jobs. Night jobs. Weekend jobs. She was determined to make enough money never to be dependent on a man.
She did marry--twice--and had five children. Her first marriage, to Paul Raibon, broke up when her husband asked her to move to Florida, where wages were even lower than in Phoenix. She stayed and kept her jobs going. Raibon never really understood her decision but called her to his deathbed. Her second marriage, to the late Mack Hill, never officially ended, although the two lived separately, geographically and emotionally, for years.
She loves her five children, who pitch in to keep the boarding home running. "I wouldn't mess with you if I didn't love you," she tells her kids even today.
But she's not sure she really "love loved" her husbands. She didn't care when the relationships grew distant, and, she says, didn't care when her husbands went out with other women.
"They always said I was too independent," she says of both men.
Work consumed her. She socked her money away in real estate. She learned to cook, catering parties at night. Christmases, people booked her a year ahead. She'd pop her own dinner into the oven at home, race off to serve two dinners elsewhere, come home and pull out the kids' presents, which she'd bought on layaway at Woolworth's the previous July.