Dorothy Merritt-Anderson was born in Nettleton, Mississippi in 1923, where she had to pick cotton instead of finishing elementary school. Her father wasn’t around, and her mother couldn’t raise her because she had to work as a nanny for a white family. Dorothy married young, coming into a plot of land that was soon illegally repossessed by a lumber company. She took a job as a waitress, serving food, busing tables and eventually earning enough money to buy that land back outright.

In the mid-1960s, she moved to Chicago and bought a house in the North Lawndale neighborhood, one of the only places Black people could buy homes at that time. She bought the home on contract, a rent-to-own home purchasing agreement that targeted Black Americans, forcing them to make high monthly payments and only allowing them to receive equity in the home when all of the payments were made. If Dorothy made one mistake — missing a payment or giving the homeowner grounds to evict her — she’d lose the home. She worked in a factory making car headlights for nearly 30 years in order to afford those payments. She never made a mistake.

She was in church every Sunday, serving on the pastor’s aide committee and offering advice to members of the congregation. She made it a point to dress well for church, putting together outfits with fancy church hats and pristine bright dresses. In true southern tradition, she spent her Sunday afternoons welcoming visitors, both friends and family, to her home. She cooked with the best of them, putting together meals of smothered chicken, dressing, greens, ham, spaghetti, cabbage and banana pudding, offering that food to anyone who stopped by.

She was a studious note taker too. With no more than a sixth-grade education, she wrote down everything she could. Names of people, phone numbers and news events were scrawled in notebooks, bibles and on the backs of mail advertisements. She noted when someone called, when someone visited, when it snowed, when there was a heat wave, when someone’s birthday was, when someone had passed away. She even wrote down national news events, like when the first airplane hit the twin towers and when Barack Obama got elected.

Dorothy Merritt-Anderson raised seven children, three grandchildren and 51 more great-grandchildren. She was my great-grandmother and the matriarch of my family. I spent my summer days with her when my mother had to work. She offered me food to eat and a bed to sleep in. She told me stories about her childhood and taught me valuable life lessons. She showed me love on the most profound level, and only asked that I be good and hold onto my faith in return. She is the reason I am here, at this University, writing to all of you.

Dorothy passed away on Jan. 15, 2022.

Her death has left an irreplaceable hole in my heart. But I take solace in the fact that the way she lived her life offers me guidance on how I ought to live mine.

I often find myself somewhat obsessively focused on accomplishing as much as I can before I graduate. But, reflecting on my great-grandmother’s life, I have realized that achievement isn’t what really matters. My great-grandmother was never a woman of means, and she couldn’t have even conceived of studying at a University like this one, but she found love and joy and purpose in the relationships she built with others.

I’ve also come to learn how important it is that we live authentically. My great-grandmother experienced the bitter racism and misogyny of 20th-century America, and still she remained true to herself. She was honest and confident in the face of prejudice, using her authenticity as a source of power. Her life has forced me to consider all of the ways that I’ve been less than authentic in my own life, the ways that I’ve presented different versions of myself to different people in order to please or succeed, and it’s made me think about what it means to live openly and honestly.

Ultimately, though, my great-grandmother’s life has also shown me that life’s simple principles are often the most powerful. By the time I was born, my great-grandmother was in her 70s — she had seen it all and done it all. Out of all of the complicated lessons she had learned, the ones she shared with me were simple: trust God, be patient and keep perspective. Though my own life has gotten increasingly complex, those lessons have taken me the furthest.

My hope is that the story of my great-grandmother’s life has taught you something, that it has changed your perspective, even if only marginally. Because if it has, then it means that her life continues to impact others. It means that her legacy lives on.

Caleb Dunson is a sophomore in Saybrook college.  His column, titled ‘What We Owe’, runs on alternate Thursdays.  Contact him at

Caleb Dunson is a former co-opinion editor and current columnist for the News. Originally from Chicago, Caleb is a senior in Saybrook College majoring in Political Science and Economics. His column "What We Owe," runs monthly and "explores themes of collective responsibility at Yale and beyond." Contact him at