Those who knew Dorothy Mitchell-Kincaid best, whether those who went to grade school with her or came to know her later in life, all had the same takeaway upon learning of her death Wednesday.
She was a woman of conviction and moxie and one who wanted a better community — not simply for herself, but everyone. That was her life’s calling, acquaintances said.
Blount County Commissioner Jackie Hill grew up in the same Alcoa neighborhood as Kincaid, 73. Hill lived on East Stephenson Street and Kincaid, West Stephenson Street. They attended school together through high school and a year at Tennessee State University.
“We were tomboys,” Hill recalled. “We were into basketball and chorus and band. All of the girls on Stephenson Street hung out — east and west.”
When they graduated from Charles M. Hall High School, they all were in the top 5 of the class.
Kincaid was a leader even back then, Hill said. She also noticed when others were treated unfairly. Kincaid’s mother did some domestic work for a woman who had a handicapped daughter. Those were the days of segregation, but Kincaid befriended the girl and brought Hill and their other friends along to forge a friendship.
“She always had a caring heart,” Hill said of Kincaid. “If you had an issue you needed help with, she would do everything she could to help you.”
When Kincaid was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, she saw firsthand how hard it was to get help. So she started the Beloved Community Outreach Foundation, a nonprofit that assists people with chronic illnesses. It continues today.
Another dear friend, Marjorie Stewart, lived on the same street as Kincaid for more than 40 years. The two met as they rode the same bus to Knoxville every day to work. Kincaid worked for TVA.
Stewart said Kincaid was most proud of her work with the Hall-Oldfield youth choir years ago. There were more than 100 children who participated. “She always wanted to make kids feel like they were important,” Stewart said.
At Kincaid’s request, there will not be a funeral service. But Kincaid’s pastor, the Rev. Willa Estell, said a celebration of life is planned for October at a Beloved Community Outreach Foundation event. She leaves behind her husband, Fred; two sons, William Fred Kincaid Jr. and Daniel Kincaid; and grandchildren.
The day will be filled with remembrances of a woman who loved her community. “She wanted justice and fairness to reign everywhere,” Estell said. “She lived so much of her life fighting for equality and justice.”
Other important issues for Kincaid took her to recent marches in Washington, D.C. Kincaid was an active member of the Blount County Democratic Party. In the 1980s and 1990s, she worked at the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee, to help the people of Appalachia.
For many years, she interviewed several members of the black community to record oral histories. Many of the people who told their stories have since passed on. Hill said those stories are now preserved because of Kincaid’s passion. The local library and Berea College have copies.
“She grew up in the neighborhood and knew a lot of the people who came before us,” Hill said. “She wanted to make sure there was a record. We can’t forge a future if we don’t know our history.”
It was Kincaid who convinced Hill to run for political office. Hill had retired and was looking at some years full of gardening and relaxation. That is until Kincaid told her how she could make a difference. Kincaid also encouraged Tanya Martin to run for a seat on the Alcoa City Commission. She won, too.
Hill was able to visit Kincaid in her last days. She was at peace, her friend said.
Kincaid remained steadfast in her belief that we should all be a voice for goodness, Estell said. She said sometimes Kincaid’s passion was mistaken for something else, but adding not with those who truly knew her. She was authentic and the same person morning, noon and night, the pastor said.
“It will be easier,” Hill said, “to make the transition knowing Dorothy is on the other side.” She said Kincaid lived life doing what she deemed important.
“You don’t mind when it’s your time to go if you’ve done that,” Hill said. “The footprint is still there. The things you started are in place and you gave it your all.”
The Daily Times reached out to Kincaid’s family through friends. They did not want to comment.
‘No’ not an option
In an early May interview with The Daily Times coordinated by her friend Lisa Misosky, owner of the Bird Bar and Southland Bookstore, Kincaid sat in the living room of her East Edison Street home in Alcoa.
She sank into her rocking chair as she joked with Misosky. “Last time I was over at Lisa’s I felt so sorry for her,” she said with a laugh, knowing Misosky, like many, was concerned about her health. “If I lean too far to the right Lisa jumps!”
“I don’t jump!” Misosky responded, smiling. “I just check to make sure you’re awake.”
But Kincaid’s mortality, by her own admission, didn’t seem to bother her in the final months of her life.
“I was diagnosed in April of 2012. They’ve given me a year ever since then. Pay no attention to the diagnosis,” she said.
According to those close to her, Kincaid knew exactly how much time she had. That didn’t keep her from planning and laughing whenever she got the chance.
“My oncologist was sitting right over there the other day,” she said, pointing to her couch. “I told him, ‘You need to do research on me! You need to know what I do in the morning and what I do when I go to bed at night.’”
What anybody studying Kincaid’s day-to-day life would have found was that she had a quiet but fighting spirit, a friend said.
“The thing I remember about Dorothy is you just didn’t tell her ‘no,’” Misosky said Thursday, a reflection echoed by others close to her.
“Everybody is going to pass away,” Misosky continued. “When you know you have less time, you start thinking about your legacy a little bit differently.”
Kincaid inspired a wide range of community members to become socially and politically active, leading by example as she invested time not only in local issues but in a wider activist community at the Highlander Center in Jefferson County, a place where social advocates such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Pete Seeger also spent time.
Blount County Democratic Chair Sarah Herron said she was one of many people who Kincaid not only inspired, but mentored.
“She is someone who empowered people,” she said, adding this ability was founded in Kincaid’s vast wisdom. “Probably one of the most frustrating things about her was that she was always right. ... She was someone who didn’t just lead, but she ignited things.”
Kincaid traveled throughout Appalachia, which helped her understand people from all walks of life, Herron said. She also crossed paths with numerous leaders on whom she often left a distinct impression.
“She was fearless and she was smarter than she let you think she was,” remembers former Great Schools Partnership President Buzz Thomas. “She had a bottomless pit of insight, but she wasn’t aggressively trying to impose it on everybody.”
Kincaid’s humility combined with her passion for change and improvement in her own neighborhood — she often wore a shirt representing the “13 streets” of Alcoa’s Hall Community — were consistently cited by those who knew her from a distance and those who sat in her living room.
“At the very core, she loved people and had a fierce conviction for doing the right thing,” Herron said.
“One of the last things we did together was listen to music,” Herron said through tears. “And there’s a song by India. Arie called ‘What If?’ And it’s about what if Rosa Parks didn’t sit at the front of the bus, what if Martin Luther King didn’t (do what he did) ... you know, it’s about what if people didn’t take a stand and do the work. Then it talks about how we can change the world.”
“This is my theme song,” Herron remembers Kincaid told her before she died. “Never forget it.”