“I love you better than I love life,” Donald Thornton told his six daughters. “But I'm not always gonna be around to look after you, and no man's gonna come along and offer to take care of you because you ain't light-skinned. That's why you gotta be able to look after yourselves. And for that you gotta be smart.”
Donald Thornton, a ditchdigger in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, decided to do the grandest thing he could think of: make a success of his daughters' lives. With the help of his equally remarkable wife, Tass, who worked as a cleaning woman, he cajoled, prodded, and inspired his girls to hit the books while steering them away from the kind of trouble that would keep them stuck in a life of poverty. And all the while, Donald Thornton worked two full-time jobs to keep a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and proper clothing on their backs.
The Ditchdigger's Daughter is an inspiring portrait by a loving daughter of a father whose pervasive common sense, folk wisdom, and untutored but right-on insights gave his children their road map to a better life. It is the story of a man who dared to dream that his black daughters would someday become doctors—and who guided them to achieve the seemingly impossible goals he set for them.
It is also the story of an astute businessman who formed his bright and talented girls into a rhythm-and-blues band that played Harlem's Apollo theatre and won a recording contract, which Donald tore up when he discovered it required his girls to leave school. Instead, the Thornton sisters played colleges on weekends, earning enough money to pay for their education, yet not allowing their music to interfere with their studies.
Today, all six of Donald Thornton's daughters are successful, independent, accomplished woman who've risen to stand on equal terms with anyone. Two of the Thornton sisters are indeed doctors; one became a dentist, one a lawyer, one a nurse, and one a court stenographer—a tribute to a remarkable man whose strong values and fierce love for his daughters gave them a lasting belief in themselves and the strength to overcome the many obstacles they faced on their astonishing road to success.
Dr. Yvonne Thornton is Director of The Perinatal Diagnostic Testing Center at Morristown, (New Jersey) Memorial Hospital, and an associate physician at Rockefeller University Hospital. Dr. Thornton lives in New Jersey.