Growing up, my mama used to tell me, “Girl, you better learn to be tough if you’re gonna be a woman.” I would smile and nod along to the testament, although I wasn’t yet familiar with the implications of her advice. It took years of introspection from trial and error before I finally understood what she meant.
The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize how important it is to not only possess that strength for yourself, but also how crucial it is to have strong women in your corner.
Just imagine the level of collective progress we would achieve if our networking circles consisted of strong women who encouraged us to aim high. We might be more apt to spend quality time with respectable role models instead of comparing ourselves to the quantity of likes on the pages of Instagram models. But still, I have to believe that past the shallow sea of false lashes and painted faces, there are those who swim in the depths of the ocean just searching for something real to be inspired by.
Shortly after these thoughts took root in my head, I met Ressie Fuller. Her story is the kind that blossoms like a field of flowers, but not without a little cultivation first.
Born in the country town of Florence, South Carolina, Fuller moved to a neighborhood in Harlem, New York, at just 12 years old with her family. She had no plans to stay on a permanent basis.
“New York to me was just ugly. I had come from the country and all of a sudden you have these ugly, tall buildings with no trees, no place to run or feel safe,” she explained.
Fuller recalled feeling culture shock in her new environment.
“I had a very thick southern accent. So, consequently, I pronounced some words and the children from New York thought it was funny. I was the brunt of some pretty mean teasing when I first moved to the city,” she said.
Fuller had no choice but to toughen up. She dropped the drawl and started to sharpen her vowels. She practiced pronouncing her words with more clarity until finally she spoke their language.
“I went home every day because I was a latch key kid. One of the things I did while washing dishes was to listen to the radio, and I started to mimic the announcers on the radio to get rid of my southern accent. I chose to drop it. It was too painful not to,” she said.
Despite some of the social setbacks that Fuller faced in school, New York still offered itself as a land of cultural promise.
“When I was in South Carolina, my family were just sharecroppers. We were very poor. It was just our backyard and the woods. But in New York, whether you were rich or poor, the schools would expose us to a lot of things like opera and art galleries. It opened up a whole new world for me because I became exposed to people with different ideas,” she explained.
By the time she reached high school, her aspiration was to become a secretary.
“At the time, it didn’t occur to me to want to be anything other than a secretary,” she said. “So, I went to a commercial high school and then went on to attend Bronx Community College.”
From there, Fuller transferred to Lehman College and earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Education. She then gave birth to her oldest daughter, Anasa, and began to teach school soon after. She started out teaching business subjects but was moved into an English position within the first few years. When Fuller heard rumblings of being placed in yet another new subject, she moved with her husband at the time to New Jersey so he could pursue medical school.
After the move, Fuller met Andrea Johnson, one of the wives of her husband’s medical student friends. After hearing how unhappy Fuller was in the teaching field, she urged her new friend to attend law school. Feeling encouraged by her new network of friends, Fuller applied to Rutgers Law School when she was 36 years old.
“Rutgers was the only place I applied so thank God I got in. It felt almost magical. It’s not something that I ever aspired to. But I think the woman that encouraged me, she was so convincing that it was something I could handle. When you grow up in the country with nothing, sometimes you tell yourself that because you are African-American, because you are poor, there are certain things you can’t do. But here was this other African-American woman my age telling me, ‘You can do it!’ It was very convincing, and supportive,” she said.
Once she graduated from law school, Fuller mostly represented the interests of children. She started out working for legal services as a general practice, then moved to representing children in child abuse cases. She practiced in South Carolina for two years before moving back up to New Jersey. From there, the stint of her career was spent as the Deputy Attorney General. In 2008, she retired as the head of division of youth and family services section. At that time, Fuller found herself doing a lot of volunteer work for her church.
“In 2010, my youngest daughter, Nandi, went to graduate school at GSU and got a doctorate in Public Health. Then, she and her husband had my first grandchild. So, I said ‘OK, I’m doing all of this volunteer work here, I can go and do some volunteering for my grandchild. I moved to Statesboro with the intention of staying maybe six months to a year,” she said.
But you know what they say, when we make plans, God laughs. This August will make 10 years that Fuller has lived in our community. She may be here to volunteer for her two grandbabies, but Statesboro reaps the benefits of having her here, as well. These days, Fuller finds herself doing a lot of board work. She sits on the boards for the Averitt Center for the Arts, the library and CASA.
When she is not busy with those involvements, she spends her time on a newfound hobby: acting. In August, Fuller will star in the play “Love Songs for Miss Lydia.” She has previously performed in “The Music Man,” “South Pacific,” and “Calendar Girls.” She made her directorial debut with “Smoke on the Mountain.”
It seems that no matter what route life threw her on, Fuller found opportunity. From her personal life to her education and career, she has always mustered up the strength to conquer every twist and turn that spiked her path. Her keys to success? Good company and faith.
“I have been so fortunate in having fabulous mentors. I think, it’s the support I’ve had, and guardian angels. Things just seem to fall in my lap, and I know that it happens to everyone, but I think that God has given me courage to just seize opportunities when they drop in my lap,” she said.