Black History Month is coming to a close and WNIJ wants to recognize a Rockford jazz singer and educator who some say is creating a solid legacy in the city.
Dorothy Paige-Turner can be described as sort of --well-- a renaissance woman.
In addition to singing and being a retired teacher, she writes books, poetry and plays, leads a number of youth art initiatives, speaks French and has received many awards for her work throughout the years. She was also inducted into the Rockford Fine Arts Coalition 2020 Hall of Fame.
Paige-Turner grew up in Arkansas. She said she had dreams of becoming an opera singer.
“I am classically trained. I mean, I have a degree in music education, special emphasis in voice, and I sang opera,” she explained,” “and I wanted to be the next Leontyne Price.”
Paige-Turner met her husband, who was from Rockford, in college. After graduating, she moved with him to the northern Illinois city.
She explained that she didn’t realize how much she would love teaching until she started doing it.
But it wasn’t easy for her to land a job in the city she now called home. She said she experienced discrimination when applying for jobs.
“I couldn't even get an interview even though I had the degree. I had all of the credentials. I had everything that I was supposed to have to be able to teach music,” Paige-Turner said.
But she didn’t give up and a couple of assistant superintendents gave her a chance. One was Black the other was white. Soon after meeting with them, she began teaching fourth grade at Ellis Arts Academy.
Paige-Turner had a different approach to teaching. She infused math and social studies with music. The word about her teaching style started to get around. A year later, she became an education specialist in music. She taught for over 30 years.
Paige-Turner didn’t lose her passion for singing. She said her husband was very supportive as well. Whenever an opera took place, he made sure she had tickets.
Her first paying singing gig was at Bellamy’s Lounge in Rockford. She taught during the day Monday through Friday and sang five nights a week Wednesday through Sunday.
“And what I feel was so important to let the children know, I wasn't this unreachable star,” she expressed. “I let them know that they could do what I was doing, if they wanted to do it.”
And Paige-Turner did inspire her children to reach for the stars. Rockford poet Christopher D. Sims acknowledged that she was key in his spoken word career.
Folk singer Joe Jencks said she changed the direction of his life. He’s kept in contact with her over the years.
“She started the Black Theater Ensemble in Rockford. And when I was in my early and mid-teens, she invited me to be a part of it. And I was the only Caucasian member of the ensemble,” Jencks recalled.
Paige-Turner remembered that experience.
“And he did some things in the play that really just broke his heart because he had to actually put, you know, a slave on the auction block and we had to let him know, ‘We know that that's not you,’” she said. “And comfort him and encourage him to let him know that you're an actor, playing a part.”
She remembered an excited five-year-old Jencks. She said he was in her kindergarten class and she recalls how his eyes lit up when they would sing folk songs and Negro spirituals.
Paige-Turner also used storytelling to engage the children. She credits her father Willie Paige for her love for this medium as well as music. She said his skills made neighborhood children flock to her Arkansas home.
“They knew that after dinner time, they could come around to my dad's house," she said. "And we would sit under this oak tree and he would tell us stories, folk tales, African American folk tales, African tales and sing us songs.”
She used this technique in her class. She narrated stories while the children used instruments for sound effects.
Willie Paige died in 1982. A year later Paige-Turner released her first album "Blues Of A Different Color.” She dedicated it to her father and one particular song was specifically for him.
“'Dan Fogelberg's 'Leader of the Band’ that I dedicated to my father," she said, "because it was loosely based on the kind of person that my dad was, you know, the leader of the band, because the last line said, ‘I'm just a living legacy to the leader of the band.' And that's how I see myself.”
She said she is a part of his legacy.
Although Paige-Turner experienced racism early on in Rockford she said there’s a reason why she stayed.
“I stuck with Rockford because I believe in change. And I believe that I am a change agent,” she added. “OK. I'm the kind of person that when if I saw something that I could do to help a child, raise the positive self esteem, then I did it. I did it through music.”
She expressed that the city still has work to do when it comes to diversity and inclusion. She mentions that there is a need for more people of color to fill positions of power.
Although Paige-Turner retired from her teaching duties, she continued to connect with young people in various ways before the pandemic. But now, she doesn't get to be in their presence.
Paige-Turner is not a fan of Zoom or most of today’s technology including social media platforms. In fact, she still uses an answering machine and loves to send and receive handwritten letters. She does use the online medium as needed but said most of the children are saturated with remote learning and she doesn’t want to add more to their plates.
Paige-Turner has one son and three grandchildren. Nowadays she spends time talking to her grandchildren over the phone. She also said she wants to continue to write, turn one of her works into a musical play as well as move ahead with her Reader’s Theater.
“Because that was filling a void, because African American actors don't have a platform to develop their craft in this town,” she said. “Because people just don't hire them. They just don't put them in plays and stuff.”
She is excited about a series of books that she has coming out soon. She’s traveled around the world visiting and singing and says South Africa is her favorite place. There she learned about the South African penguin. The children's books will focus on the challenges and triumphs of a penguin with autism spectrum disorder. She was able to print this book with the help of a grant from the Kiwanis Club of Rockford and the Rockford Area Arts Council. She explained that some will go to teachers in early childhood programs throughout the city. Then, she wants to make them available to a wider audience.
Out of her many accomplishments, she said this project is the one she is most proud of. But to others she is already, and will continue to be, a Rockford legend.
- Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.