Portia Shipman

by Terry Watson | November 13th, 2013
Portia Shipman (Photo by Still Shot Photography)

Portia Shipman (Photo by Still Shot Photography)

Life doesn’t always pan out the way expected. Often what appears to be a good idea one minute turns out to be a catastrophe the next. Portia Shipman knows all too well the pain of enduring the many twists and turns life can bring. Her life has taken so many different turns even she finds it difficult to keep track. She has seen good and bad, experienced hurt and disappointment, health and sickness, and betrayal beyond her imagination, but the massive amount of despair she has endured barely compares to the happiness, joy and redemption she now enjoys.

You have to take the good with the bad, she says. It’s all a part of life. Through it all one thing remains consistent. She is still standing. Shipman was born in Greensboro, but raised in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She isn’t ashamed to admit that her family basically lived in and out of various housing projects throughout her childhood. She uses it as a tool to teach other people they can overcome despite their circumstances. After several years she and her family packed up and returned to the gate city. She’s a hometown girl. She knows the area well and is well-known throughout the area. Often times the reputation of her locally-famous last name precedes her.

Second to the oldest of six siblings in a very tight knit family, Shipman took it upon herself to help out with her other brothers and sister. Her mother did her best to provide a stable home life while the family contended with the uncertainty of their father, who Shipman says was a working alcoholic at the time. Even as she got older she made sure her sister and brothers had what they needed for school or anything else.

Although she and her mother often endured a strained relationship, Shipman did her best to lessen the burden on her mother’s shoulders. She was always the type to care for others even before she cared for herself. It’s a characteristic she carried into adulthood, but would eventually come to realize if she didn’t spend some of her energy on improving her own life, she would risk losing her own life.

Shipman endured her own tribulation very early in life. At the tender age of 17 she got married. It wasn’t a marriage she was particularly interested in, but she conceded because it made sense to everyone else. The groom-to be had basic education, a car, a place to live, a job and something resembling stability. He even professed his love for Shipman. In theory, it was a perfect situation. She was told she should be grateful because it was a situation others only dreamed about. What more could she want? What did love have to do with it anyway? It was a perfect set-up. Set-up is exactly what Shipman discovered it to be. It was all a façade. He didn’t love her and it wasn’t a perfect story. It was the beginning of a new kind of life for Shipman. It was also the beginning of her downward spiral into self-hatred and low self-esteem.

“It was doomed from the beginning,” she says. “He got in a fight the day of the wedding. He left me the night of the wedding over his sister’s house and didn’t return for me until later the next day. He took control of my life. I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t dress up. I only wore the clothes he gave me, which were always big and baggy. I did everything he told me to do. I couldn’t stand to look myself in the mirror. He would make me look in the mirror and tell myself I was ugly so I began to think I was ugly. He would do things just to be mean.”

Shipman always had reservations about the marriage, but she was encouraged by her mother to tough it out. Things never improved. The verbal and emotional abuse continued, often accompanied by physical abuse. It would be years later before she would recognize everything she went through as domestic violence. By the time the marriage was over, Shipman was left with very little, including an even smaller amount of positive self-esteem. She never believed for a second that she was pretty or smart enough to deserve better, demand better or even realize that better was available. From her vantage point the only good that came from the marriage were her two sons.

Despite a series of setbacks, Shipman was never been without a will to survive. Her resolve to trudge through and move forward was always greater than all the forces against her. After her first marriage, it was all Shipman could do to maintain stability for herself and her young boys. Her self-loathing attitude continued until she came in contact with the late Mr. Kelly Bennett, a well-known businessman in Greensboro. He was virtually the catalyst that prompted Shipman to get her education, and better herself. He not only talked to her about it, but he invested in her by providing a job and educational assistance.

It was from Bennett that Shipman and her mother inherited a new, barely-off-the-ground, home healthcare business. It was just what she had been looking for. It was the perfect opportunity for her to be able to adequately provide for her children. Sure there were learning and growing pains, but they were to be expected. Shipman had done her homework. She studied all about the business and knew what was required. In 1989, she and her mother started Shipman Family Home Care in the kitchen of her mother’s apartment. She was determined to make the business work. Early mornings and time away from her children were sacrificed. By now her family of three had expanded to a family of five-Reginald III, Johncie and twins Terri and Torri. She had been married three times. Each marriage, although all not as traumatic as the first, always ended with the same refrain. Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Girl marries boy. Girl discovers boy has serious issues and in one case a penchant for robbing banks. It was all too familiar; each of her husbands had a drug dependency problem, but Shipman was determined to at least get it right with her livelihood. Her children depended upon it.

Tensions were always high between Shipman and her mother, but Portia hoped the business would provide a foundation for them to build a better relationship. After all, they would be partners. The reality is that the two women didn’t view the venture the same. The family business grew; eventually bringing in hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. Shipman ran the helm with operations and her mother managed the finances. She says she witnessed the lifestyle of other family members gradually improving, yet hers remained the same. She would soon discover that she had absolutely no future in a business she helped build and grow and considered herself part owner.

Shipman’s revelation was devastating to say the least. Perhaps she was misunderstood. Perhaps they didn’t quite remember exactly who helped start the enterprise. Perhaps her day would come. Perhaps she just needed to be a little more patient. After 17 years of ups and down, ins and outs, periods of strife and confusion, Portia was convinced she no longer belonged in the family business. It was a hard pill to swallow, but in 2007 she left and didn’t look back. She admits she felt very lonely and isolated during that time in her life, but she was encouraged by friends that stood by her and supported her just like family. Shipman continued to maintain a close relationship with her father, Elbert Lee Shipman, Sr. His complete recovery took time, but like family, they were always there for each other.

Following the day she resigned many stumbling blocks fell along her path, but Shipman not only survived; she thrived. Always resourceful and tenacious, she found work throughout the community. The two-time NAACP Mother of the Year award winner did everything from news reporter to consultant. She managed a teen youth club and even ran a rooming house. Tragedy struck the Greensboro area in 2006 when Sherri Denese Jackson went missing for 19 months. Shipman rose to the occasion and became the family’s official spokesperson. She fought hard on behalf of Jackson and her family making sure her violent death would never be forgotten. In 2008, Shipman and her twin daughters founded the Sherri Denese Jackson Foundation, for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (SDJF) Inc. The foundation is federally recognized with 501(c)(3) status (which is no small feat). It wasn’t until Shipman really poured herself into the foundation that she realized she too had been a victim of domestic violence. SDJF focuses on raising domestic violence awareness, empowering women and advocating for and remembering victims.
“Now when I see women who don’t love themselves I reach out to them and let them know how beautiful they are inside and out,” says Shipman. “I instill that into women during SDJF women’s empowerment groups and to any woman or man I meet. We may have blemishes and stuff that we don’t like about ourselves but those things are just blemishes. I have prevailed over all the situations I’ve had in my life. I have overcome them. I’m better for it.”

Prevailing. Overcoming. Surviving. Thriving. Each word adequately describes Portia Shipman. In addition to those terms she can add restored. All the love and hard work she put into her family’s business wasn’t in vain. It was training ground. She says Shipman Family Home Care will always be part of her history, but now she is more focused on her future. And her future is Reliable Home Care Services. In January 2012, she opened her own homecare agency and to date the business is skyrocketing. In September 2013 she became the first healthcare union on the southeast portion of the United States. She has over 50 well-qualified employees, providing a range of services. It’s not the original family business, but it’s her family business none the same. All of her children are integrally involved. She even has plans to eventually teach her grandchildren-Jamyah, Lil Reggie, Madison and Lyric-the business. As Shipman puts it, “they are my legacy and I want them to have it.” She wouldn’t have it any other way. “I tell my story because there are a lot of people out there who assume they know the truth about people; about me, but they don’t know the real truth.” Portia Shipman simply wants her truth told.

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