A legacy of responsibility

Woman tells about growing up trapped within two worlds

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— At age four, Rita Williams already had experienced the death of her mother and abandonment by her father. She was left in the care of Aunt Daisy, the last surviving black widow of a Civil War Union soldier.

"I grew up almost at a crossroads, where the conversations and concerns and perspective that I lived with at home were all influenced by people looking at America in the 1800s," Williams said.

Williams used her access to a multi-generational legacy to create a historical record in her novel "If the Creek Don't Rise." The underlying theme of the story is about going from having nothing to becoming a person who is self-supporting and able to contribute, Williams said.

Williams' mother and aunt were hunting and fishing guides in Steamboat Springs' Strawberry Park in the 1930s.

"There is just no place on the national consciousness that there were black Westerners, pioneers and cowboys." Williams said. "My people really accomplished extraordinary things, and when we look at Strawberry Park today, nobody would have known of that existence."

Aunt Daisy was 21 when she met her future husband, Robert Anderson. He was 79.

"Daisy was starving at the time she met him. He offered her a life that wouldn't involve her having to step off the sidewalk if a white woman was walking towards her," Williams said. "That may not be pretty in terms of how we are supposed to have romance and love and flowers, but that's the reality of it."

Anderson was born into slavery and became a soldier in the 125th Colored Infantry of the Union army. His infantry fought American Indians, which created a considerable conflict for Daisy, Williams said.

"It struck me as such a dichotomy that Daisy's grandmother was a Cherokee and she had married an Indian fighter."

Williams became Daisy's personal project to right the racial wrongs of the past, but it was a tall order for the young girl.

"I felt like I had a telescope backwards and forwards and was privileged to see that much, but I felt like it was a huge burden," Williams said. "I think what I did for a long time was try to figure out what's real."

While Daisy cleaned at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, Williams sat in the Jeep and watched the dancers.

"I would hear them engage in conversations that didn't question whether or not they would survive. What I saw was possible and incomprehensible and I wanted to become an artist, myself," Williams said.

She later had the opportunity to attend Perry-Mansfield and The Lowell Whiteman School. She went on to earn a master's of fine art from the California Institute of the Arts.

She has used her writing to put together a novel that reflects the unique account of the lies that families live. Williams' biggest struggle while growing up involved people telling her about all of the things she could never become.

"People were telling me, 'Oh, you're a rancher's daughter, but you can't be because black people don't ranch.' My aunt said that I could never be a dancer because that's what floosies do. One homogenous group everywhere I went was clear that I should be one thing," Williams said. "Most importantly, I can be all of those things, whether or not somebody co-signs it."

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