Willie Belle Oliver, 88, of Lawndale, a single mother who reared five daughters in North Philadelphia's Raymond Rosen housing project and sent two of them to college, died Saturday, Dec. 30, of complications from an aneurysm at home.
Mrs. Oliver was a no-nonsense person who was unflinching when confronted with difficult circumstances. A protective, dedicated mother, she instilled in her daughters the understanding that the family's social environment should not be a determining factor in what they would become.
"We were different because of what our mother taught us," said daughter Addie.
The girls heeded her advice: twins Veronica and Jennifer graduated from Cheyney University and Moore College of Art and Design. Veronica became a social worker, and Jennifer worked at various times as an art teacher and social worker.
Eldest daughter Lorraine O'Neal became a data entry operator for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Greater Philadelphia. Delthea Sumter was a clerical worker for Sprint, and Addie Oliver retired in 2009 as an office manager with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Assistance.
Mrs. Oliver managed her daughters' college education by sheer will power, O'Neal said. "She was determined that no obstacle could be in our way. 'Reach for the sky and get it,' she would say."
"My mom was a simple woman," said Addie Oliver. "Anybody will tell you she lived for her girls. It was about education, raising us right, and being decent people. It didn't matter where we lived. She was an amazing woman."
In return, Addie moved into her mother's home and took care of Mrs. Oliver during the last three years, as her health failed. "I wouldn't have it any other way. She deserved it," Addie said.
Living in the Raymond Rosen Houses was challenging. Until the high-rise towers near 23rd and Diamond Streets were demolished, they loomed over the city as a symbol of what Inquirer columnist Acel Moore called "a fearful, other Philadelphia where crime, violence and drugs flourished."
On April 30, 1995, the towers were imploded with dynamite as city and federal housing officials looked on. The towers were replaced with street-level units.
O'Neal and Addie Oliver said that when their mother was living there, conditions had not become as dangerous as they were in the late 1980s and 1990s. "Her apartment was immaculate. It looked like it didn't belong there," O'Neal said.
"I was responsible for cleaning the hallway and emptying the trash every night," Addie Oliver said.
Mrs. Oliver moved to Mount Airy in the mid-1980s and later to Lawndale.
Born Willie Belle Williams, she grew up in Aiken, S.C. Her father was Evan Williams, her mother Addie Hicks Williams. She was the oldest child, with six brothers and a sister. Like many African Americans of her generation, she moved to Philadelphia seeking opportunity for a life free of the strictures of the Jim Crow South. She never finished high school as a teenager. Instead, she completed her GED at age 49.
In the 1940s, she married Calvin Coolidge Oliver, an Army veteran. They had five children before separating in the early 1960s.
To earn a living, Mrs. Oliver worked as a clerk at the W.T. Grant Co. at 11th and Market Streets in Center City. The store was known for its lunchroom, which served hot dogs on buttered rolls. The store was eventually replaced by a CVS pharmacy.
When not working, Mrs. Oliver enjoyed being a homebody, her daughters said. She cooked and cleaned. In the early days, "if she had to stay up all night to polish our shoes and iron our dresses, she did," Addie Oliver said.
In addition to her daughters, she is survived by six grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.