Dorothy Francis Hatton-Lee was just a freshman at Frederick Douglass High School when she had to drop out to help her mother take care of 11 brothers and sisters.
Eventually, she did complete all four years of high school when she was 22. School officials told her she was too old to receive a diploma.
On March 12, Hatton-Lee celebrated her 100th birthday — and this spring, she will finally receive her high school diploma.
“The staff at the school did look her up, and now we know my mom is Douglass’ oldest living alum,” said her daughter, Rosetta. “So they’re going to give her a cap, a gown, everything.”
The graduation ceremony was initially scheduled for March 14, but it has been postponed until May because of restrictions around the coronavirus outbreak.
Born in 1920 in Arkansas, Hatton-Lee was the oldest of her siblings. Her family moved to McBaine when she was 3 months old, and she went to high school in Columbia where she later raised her own seven children.
She also earned a GED when she was 53 and retired at 65 from her job as a cook in a nursing home in Columbia.
Hatton-Lee’s children keep a family album with stories and pictures to share. While doing research to add to the album, her son James discovered his mother had finished all four years of high school. They had no idea.
“She wouldn’t even tell us that she actually went all the way to 12th grade,” her daughter said. “She said she only got to eighth grade. So when James did his research, we found out.”
Her mother now lives at The Bluffs in Columbia, and her children say they visit often.
When asked about the upcoming high school graduation, she was suspicious about the reason, and yet she was also humbled by the prospect.
“I’m too old for a party,” she said with a laugh.
Her daughter added: “All she knows is that we’re taking her to Douglass and that something is happening.”
Even at 100, she still seems as as playful as ever.
About a month ago, her children heard from The Bluffs that their mother was complaining about being tired and down.
“Oh man, we got in a car with mashed potatoes, macaroni,” Rosetta Lee said. “We all came down here.”
When they arrived at the facility, they found their mother smiling and bubbly. When her confused family members asked about her complaints, she had a ready response:
“Well, it got y’all down here, didn’t it?”
Besides seven children, she also helped raise her grandson Herold Lee, who grew up calling her “Momma.”
“She would treat him like a son,” said another daughter, Barbara Lee. “And he would treat her like a mom.”
She’s always been a mother figure, a beloved one, her children say. They believe helping to raise nearly a dozen siblings when she was just a freshman in high school helped her become more understanding.
“She would tell us to grow up and be our own person,” Rosetta Lee said. “Because she had to raise 11 siblings, she didn’t have time to do that while she was growing up.
Daughters Barbara and Rosetta say they have never heard their mom curse or say anything negative about anyone.
On the contrary, they say she is full of positivity.
“She always told us, ‘I’ll make it to 100, so y’all better get ready,'" Rosetta declared.
Hatton-Lee now has 12 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren — and she has been present for every single one of their high school graduations.
Now, they’ll be able to go to hers.