A Conversation with Victoria Rowell

Victoria in 1968 at the age of eight at the Cambridge School of Ballet on a full scholarship.

Victoria Rowell is an award-winning actress, known for her work in the series Diagnosis Murder and for playing Drucilla Winters on CBS’s popular daytime drama The Young and the Restless. She has also been in many feature films, including The Distinguished Gentleman (1992), Dumb and Dumber (1994), Barb Wire (1996), and Eve’s Bayou (1997). A successful producer, dancer, and writer, she is the author of The Women Who Raised Me (2007), Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva (2010), Tag, Toss & Run: 40 Classic Lawn Games (2012), co-authored with environmental activist Paul Tukey, and The Young and the Ruthless (2013). She is the creative force behind Jacqueline and Jilly, a television series about opioid addiction, denial, and family that has been made into a feature-length movie. And throughout her career, she has tirelessly fought bias and worked to improve the lives of children in the foster care system.

Mary:

Thank you for talking with Maine Women about your story. First, to start, where were you born?

Victoria:

Yes, thank you—I was born in Portland, Maine. I was immediately placed into foster care, from Mercy Hospital, right into the orphanage run by the nuns. And it was a big deal as a Black child, because segregation was in full effect in Maine.

Prior to the Civil Rights movement, it was illegal for white family to take a Black child. But in my case, a white family marched up to the orphanage and demanded that they be considered as parents. That was Collin and Bertha Taylor, who lived in Gray, Maine. They were known foster parents in the child welfare system, and they had two very loyal neighbors who also supported their campaign: the Sawyers, and Retha Dunn, a beloved local who worked in the cafeteria at the school in Gray.

Mary:

What happened next?

Victoria:

The nuns looked the other way. The Taylors, the Sawyers, and the Dunns were all respected families in Gray, and they won my release. I lived with Bertha and Collin Taylor until I was two and a half, until government said to them, “You’re breaking the law and we have to remove this child. We found a Negro family.” The Taylors were heartbroken. They went to court, but they lost the battle.

Mary:

What a truly awful situation.

Victoria:

Victoria Rowell and Samuel L. Jackson in Home of the Brave (2006).

I was so devastated. They were devastated. They never took another foster child. When I was an adult, I found them—through fan mail, believe it or not!—at CBS Television City. I’m in my 30s at this point, and in my fan mail was a letter from Retha Dunn. She said, “I believe you were the little girl that we took care of.”

I wrote to her, went to Maine, and was reunited with Retha Dunn and Laura Sawyer. Collin and Bertha Taylor unfortunately had passed on, but I met with some of their adult children. They told me how they had never seen their father cry in his life, except when I was taken from him, and how much he loved me. And that they kept a big picture of me displayed in their living room. They kept a lock of my hair, which I now have.

I still feel the trauma of that separation from the Taylors, the sense of loss. At the same time, I received a bounty of love from the Taylors, the Sawyers, and Retha Dunn that is indescribable.

I remain in touch with one of my foster brothers, Dennis Sawyer, who lives in Texas. We think of each other no less than brother and sister, and we talk often.

[The experience was] devastating, and that’s the truth about what can happen to an innocent child. But I also want people to equally know not only the devastation, but the promise of imbuing a child with optimism despite their circumstance. That’s very important to me to convey: that I’m not bitter. I’m grateful, and I embrace and share the charge that I’ve been given.

Mary:

Has there been a movie made of your story?

Victoria:

I have tried to. You need a relationship—you need to be able to get in the door. It’s a matter of getting to the right person. [One company] wanted to fictionalize it, contemporize it, and lop off the historic piece. [Another] executive said, “This is too inspirational.” And they couldn’t get past that I was Black and from Maine. That was, like, a sticking point. Which is funny and sad at the same time, because we know there’s a rich history of African Americans in Maine.

Victoria starred alongside Kristoff St. John in The Young and the Restless.

Mary:

What happened next?

Victoria:

Next I went with a Black family on a farm. The Armstead family. It was Robert and Agatha Armstead, and they had 10 children of their own, nine surviving. Agatha’s family was from Newberg, North Carolina. And her family was part of the Great Migration that moved to Massachusetts.

Agatha was born in 1902. They were foster grandparents in retirement. She had saved $2,000, and in the 1940s she went ahead and bought this farm in Maine. And that’s where I was raised.

Mary:

How did you leave and pursue your own path?

Victoria:

Victoria’s foster parents, Robert and Agatha Armstead, on their farm called Forest Edge in W. Lebanon, Maine.

Well, Agatha was something of an artist herself. She loved to paint. She was a prolific reader, she could sing, and she was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. And she had been invited to join big jazz bands in New York City. This was before she was married even, and her mother had said, “That’s not what proper young ladies do.”

So she stayed back and got married and had 10 children. She was a devout Catholic. But she played music and had a sensitivity to being an artist then.

Agatha saw me twirling outside, feeding animals, and she said, “Oh my, what do I have here?” I just would be dancing, interpretive dancing across the fields with the slop.

She saw that I loved to dance, and she found a book that had stick figures of the six rudimentary steps of classical ballet. And she taught them to me. She’d get on the piano, and I would practice in the living room, every night. I had no idea—of course, we didn’t know the nuance of fluidity between the classical movements. We just practiced steps. And Sears and Roebuck used to sell point shoes. She just went ahead and ordered a pair of black point shoes out of the catalog as a Christmas gift one year.

Then her daughter-in-law Laura Armstead, a school teacher in Massachusetts, saw a posted notice offering a full summer scholarship to study at the legendary Cambridge School of Ballet, in Harvard Square, and the wheels started turning.

Victoria and Christine Murad at the ballet barre from 1968 at the Cambridge School of Ballet.

I was eight years old. Agatha put me on a bus in Rochester, New Hampshire, in my capri pants, shell top, and red Keds. Agatha’s son, Richard Armstead, met me. He was a Boston police officer, and he whisked me off to the audition. But it had taken so long to get there that we had missed it, after all of that planning. Esther Brooks, who’s still alive, in her nineties, announced the audition was over. Since I was there, however, she said, “Let’s see what you can do. Go get changed into your leotard and tights.” And I just looked at her, like, what is a leotard?

She realized I didn’t have any ballet attire with me, and so she instructed one of the little dancers to show me to the lost-and-found. I went in there and pulled out red tights and a leotard that was too big. Then she demonstrated some steps and wanted to see if I could follow along, and I had no problem with that.

She was mystified, and she said, “Well, darling, I’m not familiar with any ballet schools in rural Maine. Where did you study?” I told her that my . . . it was very hard for me to say foster mother, because a stigma seemed attached . . . so I just said, “My mother taught me.” She was flabbergasted and announced to my uncle, who was waiting in the waiting area, that I had won a full scholarship. Esther and the subsequent artistic director made sure that the full scholarship lasted for eight years, before I moved to New York City.

Mary:

How did you go on from all of these difficulties to be successful?

Victoria:

A shot from the Viacom CBS show Diagnosis Murder for a script Victoria co-wrote called The Red’s Shoes.

Love. I love the Taylors. It’s still in me, me talking to you is them.

I believe God blessed me with my life because He knew—and Mother Earth knew, the universe knew—that the responsibility therein was not just for self, but for others. And that my responsibility was not going to be an easy journey. That asking for justice for others is difficult, that it will be punitive. I’ve asked for justice for all of my life because of my background. I have pushed for diversity, not only in front of the camera, but in the “C suite,” the corporate suites, the corner offices. Because if we don’t have diversity corporately in entertainment and across the strata of corporations, we don’t have a level playing field.

But this is an extraordinary hour. We are doing more than saying how sad, how horrible. We are marching. We are having real conversations. Systemic changes are happening, deals are being papered.

Mary:

What keeps you going?

Victoria:

What keeps me inspired is my women’s intuition that this story is bigger than me. It’s not about me. It is about all the women who raised me. And not just raised me, but sacrificed in their own lives. That’s what my book is about. It’s an homage to them. I want to tell their stories and tell how, in the unlikeliest of ways, they all gave me a rich inheritance of wisdom, practicality, love, and they taught me the incalculable value of forgiveness.

I was raised by strong salt-of-the-earth Maine women, and I remain encouraged. I remain steadfast, faithful, clear headed, and determined, and one should never underestimate determination.

Victoria and fellow actors, including Raul Esparza in center, from Law & Order where she played a judge named Delilah Hawkins.

Mary:

Is there anything you haven’t done that you would like to do?

Victoria:

I would like to revisit my early dream of owning property in Maine, on beautiful Peaks Island. I’ve always wanted to go to Cranberry Island. And just lots of places that I’ve not been in my home state. I want to go to Malaga Island, which has a rich history of African heritage, where they coexisted with Native American people.

I look forward to working on my next book and continuing to produce content that impacts on people’s lives. I’ve developed a relationship with the Maine Film Office, and I want to, at long last, produce The Women Who Raised Me movie and shoot parts of it in Maine, where it organically began.

And a lifelong dream of mine is to get a college degree. As I was emancipated from foster care, I was told by my social worker that college was not an option—that higher education just wasn’t in the cards for foster children. And that’s well documented. So I put all my eggs in the ballet basket.

Still, I always wanted to go to college, so in my early 50s, I approached [many Maine colleges]. To every one I said, “Look, I’d really to get my college degree from your institution. Is there a way we could make this happen? I will pull up stakes in California and move to Maine.” This was in 2015, so not that long ago. I said, “I will do everything in my power to promote the college, to promote admissions,” if they would look at my life experience as part of my credits. They didn’t think I was serious. I compiled everything, as requested, submitted it, and got no response. So that’s something I’d like to continue to look at—to get my college degree from the state of Maine.

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