Investor, Teacher, Caretaker, Spy

Since the Great Depression, Izora Hill has helped the mentally ill, raised five children, worked as a cook, a teacher, a laundress and a janitor, invested in real estate, run for office, advised political leaders and spied on them. She achieved success as

Although she worked around the impediments of racism, Izora Hill cannot, by any stretch, be called an "Aunt Tom."

She spent much of her life tending to the needs of Phoenix's upper-middle-class housewives, handwashing their underclothes, taking care of their children, serving their teas. They were dependent on her to free them of unpleasant household chores--and to keep the secrets that Izora learned simply by being in their houses.

She grew fond of some of these women, even naming her daughter Dovie after one employer.

If her employers were unintentionally condescending, she would forgive them in her own mind.

But if they were blatantly unkind or racist, Izora Hill would always extract a subtle revenge.

She would raise sand.
When she heard a racial slur at a party she had catered, before serving beverages, she made sure to drink out of each glass. Then she'd smile sweetly and bring the drinks in on a tray.

"Don't tell me you never would drink out of the same glass as a Negro," she would think to herself as she served the drinks.

She quit employers who treated her badly, waiting until they needed her most--the day before an important party, for instance. She left one employer because the lady of the house gave Izora only a cheese sandwich for lunch, even though her icebox was full of roast beef and ham.

"Give this cheese sandwich to your rats, they'll probably enjoy it better than I do," she recalls telling her employer as she collected her last wages.

Her favorite employer was Sidney P. Osborn, a Democrat who served as governor of Arizona from 1940 to 1948. She even named a son after the governor, whose wife couldn't have children of her own.

At the governor's weakest moments, when he'd come home at night fatigued and hungry, Izora sometimes tried to take advantage. She'd serve up a good meal, try to help him understand the needs of her people. But sometimes he didn't seem to comprehend her ideas.

She warned him, for example, not to destroy a neighborhood in South Phoenix to build the public housing project that now bears his name. She didn't believe in welfare and didn't think of blacks as victims.

"I told the governor not to put in that project down at Ninth Avenue and Tonto," she says. "There used to be a neighborhood there, and a theatre. But they bought everyone out and put those projects in there. He should have sent the people instead to Mobile, give them an acre to farm and two chickens."

Despite the close relationship Izora had with the Osborns, she was invisible to the Osborns' friends. Jack Williams, a former governor who was a close confidant of Osborn, says he has no idea Osborn had a maid. Lillian Stough, Osborn's assistant, says she never heard of Izora Hill.

This does not bother Izora. She doesn't remember Williams or Stough, either.

Phoenix's Republican power brokers often spoke openly about political strategies in front of Izora, the black woman who smiled and served them caviar canapes. Apparently, they did not suspect she was a devoted Democrat (she volunteered for 22 years as a precinct committeewoman, then served ten years as a state committeewoman). And, apparently, they thought she was too stupid to make sense of their conversations.

"I'd play Republican when I was out there in Paradise Valley," she says. "Then I'd go back and tell the Democrats what was what."

Izora's political spying spanned the 1940s and 1950s, when she did most of her domestic work; the party leaders to whom she fed the information are now dead, so verification of her stories is difficult. Still, she has stories. Her favorite spy tale, one she tells often, deals with a plot by Republican officials to move the Maricopa County Hospital to vacant property the county would buy from the GOP cronies.

At first, she says, the Democrats didn't believe her. Then Republicans began pushing a $10 million bond issue for a new county hospital.

Democrats dispatched their spy to more parties for further details. There were lots of details. And lots of cronies.

The flap that ensued lasted more than a decade and is well-documented in newspaper clippings. At one time, 19 landowners competed to sell properties for the new hospital site. The hospital was eventually built on state land.

There were times when being an invisible maid had its advantages. At other times, Izora preferred visibility and a place at the Democratic table.

She recalls that in the 1960s Charles Hardy--now a federal judge she calls "Charlie"--once ended a meeting of county Democrats so Izora could make a doctor's appointment. He reconvened the meeting when Izora returned.

When Izora learns that Hardy can only remember that she was a black woman active in the Democratic party, she seems stung. She is also somewhat perplexed that former governor Sam Goddard can't remember much about her. She carried his petitions around everywhere she went.

But former governor Rose Mofford remembers Izora Hill well. A hard party worker, Mofford recalls, always getting people to sign up to vote. Smart. Spoke her mind.

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