Anyone who has seen the award-winning film The Ditchdigger’s Daughter will know the story of Rita Thornton. When Thornton was a child, her father, who worked as a ditchdigger, wanted all six of his daughters to become doctors. Her mother, who had similar hopes for her daughters, labored as a cleaning woman who moonlighted in factories and sweatshops. This was in the 1950s, before the women’s movement, affirmative action and equal opportunity. Back then, her father’s dream for his daughters seemed farfetched.
But next week, during NJIT’s spring commencement, Thornton will fulfill her father’s dream. On that day she will receive a doctorate in environmental science and henceforth be known as Dr. Thornton. She’s the fourth of her sisters to become a doctor. Asked how her father, who died in 1983, would have responded to her achievement, Thornton smiled: “‘It’s about time,’ that’s what my father would have told me,” said Thornton. “He always urged me and my sisters to strive for more. Both my parents instilled in us a strong work ethic. They insisted that we always do our best. Mediocrity was not an option in our house.”
Thornton’s achievements bespeak a life-long battle against mediocrity.
NJIT selected her to be graduate-student speaker during its May 18 graduation at Continental Airlines Arena. Thornton will share the stage with Gov. Jon Corzine, the ceremony’s keynote speaker. She is also the first black woman to earn a doctorate in environmental science from NJIT. Professionally, she recently became the first black woman to be named a section chief at the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). She works in DEP’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Management Program, in Trenton, and lives in Atlantic Highlands.
Thornton’s doctoral dissertation at NJIT also made history. For her thesis she studied air pollution in two Newark neighborhoods, the southward and the eastward, analyzing how pollutants near to and inside pre-schools trigger asthma in children. She also measured the presence of trace metals, such as zinc, in the air and found that they, too, were at high levels. She developed an indoor air-pollution improvement plan for the Newark Preschool Council, and encouraged the residents to speak up for environmental justice. Thornton, who also has a law degree, has a keen sense of social justice.
“When I started my research in Newark, I found that poor African-American and Hispanic children were most subject to environmental health problems,” said Thornton. “But they knew little about environmental health problems such as asthma and the factors that trigger it. Poor asthmatic children have the same right as anyone in this country to breathe clean air. So off I went to begin research that could possibly right this wrong.”
In the eyes of Joseph Bozzelli, PhD, a professor of chemical and environmental science at NJIT, Thornton achieved that goal.
“Because of her research children in these schools are less apt to get asthma and other respiratory ailments,” said Bozzelli. “That’s no small accomplishment.”
Thornton visited the two Newark communities many times, he added, zealously organizing residents and crafting consensus on how to get cleaner air in pre-schools. Suburbs and wealthier towns often have enough influence to minimize pollutants in their environs, Bozzelli said. But less wealthy towns lack the resources to do that. Thornton gave the two Newark neighborhoods a collective voice, he said, and as a result some of the pre-schools became aware of their environments and installed air-cleaning systems that filter out dangerous air particulates.
When Thornton defended her dissertation at NJIT, a group of 50 residents and pre-school educators arrived at the university to support her. Ordinarily only students and professors attend doctoral dissertations.
“That a crowd of supportive residents came to her doctoral defense is unprecedented at NJIT and shows how important her environmental research is to the community,” said Ronald Kane, PhD, dean of graduate studies at NJIT. “She made a strong case for environmental justice for poor children in Newark and residents deeply appreciated that.”
Before she was a lawyer and an environmentalist and a doctor, Thornton was a musician - a keyboard player. When she and her five sisters were young, they had a band called The Thornton Sisters. They performed on a popular 1950s television show, Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour. A few years later the band won six consecutive amateur night competitions held at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. They had a recording contract, performed around the country and saw their names lit up on marquees. But their parents insisted that the girls use music as a steppingstone to pay for college.
“Our parents told us that the crowds will love you today and someone else tomorrow,” recalled Thornton. “But if you are educated and have a skill, you will always do well and be respected.”
In 1996 Thornton, along with her sister Dr. Jeanette Thornton, wrote a book titled A Suitcase Full of Dreams. It chronicled the life and labors of their mother, Itasker, who sacrificed her aspirations to nurture her daughters. The book also tells the story of one black American’s successful struggle to pursue higher education and professional success.
A year earlier, Thornton’s older sister, Yvonne, wrote the biography of their father, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters, upon which the popular film was based.
Despite her myriad successes, Thornton has not forgotten her humble roots. She founded and runs the Thornton Sisters Foundation, which honors the silent struggles of her mother. For the past 14 years the foundation has awarded scholarships to minority women.
“My mother went to college for three years but never got a degree,” said Thornton. “She was thus consigned to cleaning other people’s houses, scrubbing their floors, cooking their meals and washing their clothes. She tried to get that ‘sheepskin,’ as she called it, but raising six girls was just too much. My father had to quit high school and worked as a ditchdigger, a janitor and a laborer to support us. The foundation lets young women of color dream the dream my father had: that all of his daughters would one day become doctors.”