Doris Topsy-Elvord Legacy of Leadership
By Dianne Anderson
Everyone’s mom – “Mother Doris” – was always guiding and mentoring generations of leaders that wanted to follow in her footsteps where no other African Americans had blazed political trails before.
Her sphere of influence opened doors that had never been opened to the Black community in Long Beach.
Her son Stephen Topsy said his mom’s legacy was greater in so many ways than the titles she earned at the highest positions of city government. She was a caring and ceaseless giver, always supportive, not only for the immediate family, but for all those who called on her.
“She was ready to help people and to get things done in the community,” he said. “Anything you wanted to do in life, she would give you advice and tell you to move forward and how to move forward if she could.”
Back when he was a small boy, he recalls how she worked at the 19th Street Park in the 1960s before it became King Park, all while continuing her higher education. He watched her set up programming with the Neighborhood Parks and Rec on family nights, and facilitate meetings.
She went on to work as a California Youth Authority counselor, and later with Los Angeles County Sheriffs and the Probation Department. Both he and his brother also entered the field of probation, working alongside those who knew and respected his mother’s dedication to civil service and leadership.
“She always wanted to help guide and help people advance and become leaders, even the kids and the inmates knew my mom,” he said. “That was one of her main goals, just to help people move forward and help things get better in the community.”
Ms. Topsy-Elvord passed away last week. She was 90 years old.
Vice Mayor Rex Richardson was one of numerous close friends and colleagues that expressed an outpouring of love and memories on Facebook.
“Personally, I have a deep respect, admiration, and love for Mother Doris. She was always incredibly generous with her time and support for our Long Beach community and for those that follow in her footsteps,” Richardson wrote. “I’m honored to have had the opportunity this summer to recognize her contributions to our city by dedicating the new Doris Topsy-Elvord Community Center at Houghton Park in her honor, ensuring future generations will know her tremendous legacy of leadership.”
Councilmember Al Austin said that when he decided to run for the District 8 seat, he contacted Ms. Topsy-Elvord for insight and advice. When he was first elected to office, he called on her again to swear him in, an honor of a lifetime.
He described her as a quiet force, always developing people and working behind the scenes. He said that he spent hours in her living room, talking, hearing stories and the local history.
“Understanding her perspective on policy and governance, I’m really blessed and honored to have had the time with her, but also consider her a mentor and friend,” he said.
As the first Black woman to serve as city councilmember, also serving as vice mayor twice unanimously elected by her colleagues reveals the extent of confidence that she elicited in the community, he added.
In a big city like Long Beach, being elevated to Vice Mayor is a high responsibility. He said her appointment to the Harbor Commission is another testament to how much she was trusted.
“Her many policies helped develop the Port of Long Beach to the powerful entity it is today,” he said, adding that she quietly invested in people. “There are literally countless individuals that now work in city government or other public agencies today that go back and owe their careers in some way shape or form to Doris Topsy-Elvord.”
Every position or seat filled bore her mark of excellence.
Naomi Rainey, president of the Long Beach Branch NAACP, said the loss has been personally devastating.
“However, the way she lived and all that she taught–not just me, but others–will get me through the pain of losing her. She was genuine and honest with a big heart. Doris had limitless passion for people, her work, and the community she loved: Long Beach. She gave so much love and kindness, she became known as “Mother Doris,” she said.
Ms. Topsy-Elvord earned her bachelor’s degree in social welfare from California State University, Long Beach, and a master’s degree in criminal justice administration from Chapman College.
Jesse Johnson counted her much closer than a friend, and said she will be remembered for how much she gave, but especially the way that she gave.
Johnson, who led up diversity outreach for the city’s business development, said she was an inspiration and opened doors that had been shut tight to people of color. Among her numerous endeavors, she was a co-founder of the African American Heritage Society, served as president of the city’s Civil Service Commission, and a strong voice for the voiceless.
“For the city of Long Beach, she intervened so many times when it was unjust, especially toward African Americans,” he said.
She also helped bring the Midnight Basketball program local while she was on council, and she was happy to serve as an honorary Board member upon his request. Anytime he needed direction in life, he would take it to “Mother Doris.”
“If you had a personal or professional situation, if you are at crossroads, she was always there to listen and give advice. She’s been doing that ever since I’ve known her,” he said.
Originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi, Ms. Topsy-Elvord moved to Long Beach at around middle school age, where she attended St. Anthony’s through high school. For the longest time, Johnson said she was the only Black student, but a lot of influential people in the city went to St. Anthony’s.
“She had a personal relationship with all of them. She had a lot of influence in the city, and she made so many changes for the better. When there was any wrongdoing, she would talk to the powers that be to make sure it was straightened up,” he said.
Clairessa Spencer, past president of the Long Beach Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, said that Ms. Topsy-Elvord will always be loved as a pillar in the community.
She was a valued voice within their sorority, always willing to share her ideas and political knowledge.
“She would always share her life and about what it was like growing up, all the changes and how she was advocating for equality and representation in the city. She just always was that kind of open book, like a living history book of Long Beach,” she said.