It was Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941 (“a date that will live in infamy”), and Dorothy Fletcher, age 13, was playing the organ at First Baptist Church of Princeton.
She did not know of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii until she went home, and her mother told her of the event.
That historic episode propelled the United States into World War II, and Dorothy witnessed life on the Princeton homefront during those war years.
“A lot of the boys and young men I knew went into the service,” she recalls. “And there were a lot of things going on in town. I remember the Victory Gardens people had, and there was a big Community Garden on Birch Avenue, near where we lived. There was also rationing for butter and eggs, and other food. I went shopping for my mother — there were three grocery stores right on the corner near our house.”
Dorothy, now Mrs. Alexander, also remembers blackouts, “when we had to be sure the shades were down and the curtains closed, so no light would show. We would also have special services in church, including when someone from the church had been killed in the war. When it was over, there were big celebrations. The bells rang, and everyone was very excited. The American Legion was involved, and the boys at the University really celebrated big-time!”
Those war years are important memories for Mrs. Alexander, but in fact, her recollections of life in Princeton go back well before World War II.
Born in 1928, she was the daughter of Robert and Mary Fletcher. The family lived at the corner of Leigh and John Streets, and Dorothy had one half-brother, John Fletcher.
“He was a lot older than I, and I really looked up to him,” says Mrs. Alexander. “He made sure that I never wanted for anything. I also had aunts and uncles on John Street.”
Dorothy attended the Witherspoon School for Colored Children on Quarry Street (now the Waxwood Apartments) from kindergarten through eighth grade. She enjoyed school, especially anything to do with music. “I remember some of the teachers I liked at school, including Mrs. Potter in kindergarten, Mrs. Griggs in first grade, and Mr. Lawrence in seventh grade. I looked up to them.
“We had a piano at home,” she adds, “and as a little girl, I started playing and liked it right away. Then I began taking lessons in the fifth grade. I really liked to practice.”
Homework and Music
Dorothy’s father died when she was five, and her mother, who had to work, made certain that Dorothy paid attention to homework and church in addition to music.
“I always had to do my homework. My mother was very definite about that,” says Mrs. Alexander, with a smile. “She also started taking me to First Baptist Church when I was a little girl. Because of that, the church has meant a lot to me. I was baptized when I was 13 by Pastor William T. Parker.”
On weekends, Dorothy and her friends enjoyed going to the YMCA, and as she says, “It was very near where I lived. We also all played outside a lot, and I especially liked baseball. On Saturdays, we’d all go to the movies.”
In 1942, she became a freshman at Princeton High School, where she sang alto in the choir. She liked English class because she enjoyed reading so much, but didn’t care for math. “Not at all! But my music teacher was very important to me.”
Dorothy was very busy during those high school years, and continued to be active at First Baptist Church. Not only did she sing in the Youth and Senior Choirs, she also played the piano for Sunday School and for choir rehearsals. She was extremely proud to be chosen as assistant organist during that time.
“Also, when I was in high school, I went to Westminster Choir College on Saturdays and had organ and piano lessons. This was a great opportunity for me.”
High School Graduation
After graduation in 1946, Dorothy worked in the laundry department at Princeton Hospital, and also attended Westminster, studying voice for two years.
“I had to leave Westminster, though, when my mother died, and I had to work to keep the house,” she explains. “But then, I met William Alexander, who had come to Princeton from Virginia, and who joined First Baptist Church. We were married in the late 1940s, and I continued to work at the hospital and play the organ at church.”
Three sons, William, Jr., Roland, and Dennis, were born, and then, Mrs. Alexander was left to be their sole support when her husband died of a sudden heart attack. “The boys were still very little, and I was determined that they would get an education, and be brought up the right way. I wanted them to have values and grow up to be productive citizens.
“I made sure they went to Sunday School and did their homework. It was hard work for a single woman, and I raised them alone, although I did have help from the church.”
Throughout these years, Mrs. Alexander continued to work at the hospital and as organist at First Baptist. Keeping a very busy schedule, she nevertheless always had time to help young people.
“I’ve known Dorothy, whom I call ‘Mrs. A,’ for 42 years,” says Princeton Township Committee member Lance Liverman, who is also chairman of the trustees of First Baptist Church. “I grew up in the church, and went to school with her son, Dennis. She has been like a mother to me and a friend. She’s been more like a teacher to so many youth at First Baptist. She gives her time, energy, and her love to young people.
“I think she is a treasure, not just to the church but to the community. She is extremely important to me — a dear, dear soul. One of the reasons I’ve done well in my life is because she was a surrogate mom to me. You don’t always know the impact you have had on someone — it can just be a kind act. That was Dorothy Alexander. She’d say to me, ‘Do well. Keep yourself together.’ It means more than we know.”
Mrs. Alexander, who has worked tirelessly — and enthusiastically — for the church, has received many awards and honors, including the “Distinguished Service Award” from the Deacons’ Union of Trenton and Vicinity; the Service Appreciation Award “For Your Faithfulness in Using Your Musical Gifts to Serve the Lord as State Organist of the New Jersey Convention of Progressive Baptist”; and the Progressive Women’s Fellowship of First Baptist Church, among many others.
She has traveled all over the country to play the organ at church conventions, very often with her friend of many years, Princeton resident Ida Belle Dixon, long-time member of First Baptist and former president of Progressive National Baptist Women’s Department of New Jersey (a post previously held by Mrs. Alexnder).
“I met Dorothy in 1937, when I first came to Princeton. She was just a young girl, playing the organ at the church,” recalls Mrs. Dixon. “She was so dedicated, never missing a Sunday — I think her mother made sure of that! She just loved music; played for the Senior Choir, the Gospel Chorus, and Male Chorus, as well as for the Sunday School.
“Her contribution to First Baptist is so essential, I hardly have words for it. Music is just her life. I’ve been closely connected with her because of the choir in which I sang, too. Also, Dorothy and her son Dennis would sometimes sing duets for church events. She had a beautiful alto voice. She was and is one of my favorites at the church. My friendship with Dorothy is everlasting.”
Having been born and reared in Princeton, Mrs. Alexander looks upon her home town with great affection. It is not only the location of her church, but also the home of long-time friends and the source of so many memories.
“I wouldn’t want to live in any other place. Princeton is still a town where we know each other, and there are a lot of good people. I have many friends here. Of course, the town has grown. There are many more people and much more traffic.
“One of the things I really think about is that people are good here. You can count on them. If you need someone, they’ll be there for you, and give you a helping hand.”
This is true of her sons, she emphasizes. “It was hard work for a single woman. But now, if I need them, they’re right there for me. My proudest achievement is my three boys!”
She is also very proud of her grandson, Jared Fletcher Alexander, and looks forward to seeing him as often as possible.
Mrs. Alexander continues to enjoy playing the piano at home, reading biographies, and listening to music. In addition to hymns and other church music, she likes Ella Fitzgerald. “I always liked to hear Ella sing — such a wonderful sound!”
The church is still a major focus, and she never misses Sunday services. She serves as “Honorary” organist, “standing at the ready, in case she is needed,” reports the Reverend Carlton E. Brascomb, Pastor of First Baptist.
“We can say that Sister Dorothy has been a source of stability and inspiration for the music ministry of First Baptist Church for many years. Sister Dorothy is also a mentor to many, including myself. As pastor early on, I was trying to prepare what to do for my first wedding, and she made sure I knew what to do and when to do it!
“And, of course, we all love that beautiful smile, when she walks in.”
Another sign of the esteem in which she is held by those at First Baptist is cited by Lance Liverman. “Because we understand how much of her time and energy she gave to the church for many, many years, we have chosen to continue to pay her organist’s salary for the rest of her life. It is something we very much want to do.”
Indeed, the importance of the church — along with the music — cannot be underestimated in Mrs. Alexander’s life. As she says, “The church has meant so much to me throughout my life. It’s the way I was raised. I always look forward to being in church, and I admire the people there.
“I was taught to honor my mother and father,” she continues. “It is one of the Ten Commandments, and I recommend that everyone do that, especially while you have your parents. You will never have another mother or father. It’s very important for me to go to church and believe in God. It will always help you through hard times.
“I have to say that I am so thankful to still be here! To be able to do what I love to do, to play the organ, and to be with the church. This is a blessing.”