Professional wrestler Booker T’s raw life An orphan, a dropout, a felon – and now a famous, married father running for mayor of Houston

They came out bug-eyed and angry, just like the promoter had instructed. Real-life brothers in a phony sport, mean-mugging in lavender tuxedo jackets, bow ties and shades.

“Ebony Experience!” the announcer boomed.

Just like the pro wrestling gods of their youth — Ron Simmons, Junkyard Dog and all those thickly muscled black men who used to enrage fans at ringside — Booker and Lash Huffman ticked off the crowd that night, too.

The 300 or so fans in the mostly empty Sportatorium, a dilapidated Dallas bandbox built in 1934, bent their torsos over the railing as the fledgling tag team made their way to the ring. They contorted their faces and screamed every racial epithet they could think of for a black man.

“C—!”

“N—–!”

“Go back to Africa, you f—– j——s!”

Booker wanted to jump the barrier and throw haymakers. Lash, six years older, laughed, camouflaging his anger. These bigots “are everyday stuff in America to us,” he told himself, widening the ring ropes for his little brother to slip through.

It was 1992, less than three years after Lash had told Booker he needed to come up with $3,000 to attend a pro wrestling school in Houston. And now, for $100 each, they had a tryout with the Global Wrestling Federation. The script called for them to go out as heels (villains) against two beefcakes called Brute Forcz. They would then emerge as faces (good guys), aiming to win the crowd’s affection by the end of the match. If the Huffmans were entertaining, they’d get more work.

But when the promoter told them, “You have to make the guys you’re working with look good,” Lash shook his head and pulled his brother aside.

“It looks like the fix is in,” he said. “Let’s just go out there and make these guys look better than they’ve ever looked in their life.”

They played the heels to the hilt at first, scowling and grunting as the N-bombs cascaded from the stands. But then Booker began quarterbacking the match. “OK, throw me into the ropes,” he whispered to one of his opponents as the match was going on. “Now duck.”

Incredibly, the crowd began to turn. “Same dude that just called us all that awful s— is now going crazy for us,” Booker said.

When it ended, Booker went to the middle of the ring and began break dancing, ending with his shoulders on the mat and his legs twirling in the air, a move the ringside announcer christened “The Spinaroonie.”

Within a week, Ebony Experience was the Sportatorium’s main attraction. The Huffman brothers — Booker at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Lash standing 6-5 and pushing 290 — a quarter-ton of bicep-flexin’, smack-talkin’ black ’tude, were packing all 4,500 seats.

After that night, the racist bile from one man’s mouth or an entire crowd wouldn’t faze Booker, because he came to understand an unsettling truth: The same people who N-bombed him were paying his rent, and some of them went on to become his most ardent fans. If he had to smell America’s bad breath, so what? It was the price of acceptance and ascendance in the squared-circle world, a world so much grander and greater than he had known before.


Twelve years later: Another arena, this one on Long Island, New York, another white opponent who needed to look good. Paul Michael Levesque, a stringy-haired behemoth known as Triple H, eyeballed Booker up and down within inches of his face, as if he had bought his opponent at auction.

By this time, Huffman, wrestling under the name Booker T, was no newbie. Propelled by a charismatic personality, the Spinaroonie and a trademark catchphrase purloined from the 1979 film The Warriors — “Can you dig it, sucka?” — he was one of the most popular figures on the pro circuit. That’s why it was so disturbing when, weeks before Triple H and Booker were to face off for the heavyweight championship at Wrestlemania XIX in Seattle, Levesque went to sinister places to sell the card.

“Somebody like you … doesn’t get to be a world champion,” Levesque told Booker at an event in the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, pausing between sneers for effect. “People like you don’t deserve it.”

People like you?

“You’re here to be an entertainer. … Go ahead, Book, why don’t ya entertain? Do a little dance for me, Book. Why don’t you give me one of them Spinaroonies? Come on, don’t be embarrassed. That’s your job, to make people like me laugh. You’re very good at it — with your nappy hair and your ‘suckas.’ ”

The payoff had to be revenge, right? Black good guy over white meanie? When faces absorb such abuse from heels, the story is supposed to end with the face getting vindication via pin — or something that felt like the karma gods had spoken.

In the match itself, Booker T nailed his routine, breaking out an arsenal of dropkicks and clotheslines. At one point, he flipped 360 degrees off one of the turnbuckles and landed perfectly flat, next to Triple H’s head, which he elbowed. It was a feat as skillful as anything Greg Louganis ever managed off a 3-meter diving platform.

When both men collapsed in exhaustion at the end, the crowd was waving handmade, pro-Booker T placards. But as Triple H feebly laid an arm on Booker T’s chest, the “referee” counted the face out instead of the heel.

Crestfallen adults and children could be seen in the crowd. These people had bought in. They were sure of the outcome, knowing it would be as sweet for Booker T. as for them.

And then … nothing. No silver lining.

Not that night.

“I found out about a week before the match that that’s how it was going to go down,” Huffman, 52, says now. “I had to make the crowd feel a certain way about a guy with a silver spoon in his mouth beating a guy who pretty much worked his way up from the trenches. I didn’t question it, argue it. I knew everyone wanted me to win. But I just went along with what they wanted.

“It was easier that way. If I didn’t go along, where would I really be now? Could I have done the things I’ve done, overcome the things I’ve overcome?”


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

There are no victims here, only volunteers. This is a story about a professional wrestler who used an artificial sport to build a real life.

It’s about a kid who dropped out of high school before becoming a convicted felon, and the big brother who refused to let “Junior” throw his life away. He found a career and his second wife in the ring. And after vanquishing multiple fictional foes, he now wants to take on education and homelessness as the next mayor of Houston.

Booker T’s loss to Triple H that night crushed many fans because, perhaps more than anyone else in the wrestling business, his reality was so integrated with his ring character that it often was hard to distinguish between the man and the actor.

He grew up orphaned and poor. He caught no breaks early, got in his own way later and somehow still found a path to prosperity in a profession that mirrors and magnifies the best and worst in its heels, faces and audience.

His career blew up nearly 20 years ago after a seemingly innocuous visit with wrestler Diamond Dallas Page to a juvenile detention center. He debated that day whether to tell his actual life story or stick to clichés about hard work and keeping your head on straight. But when he noticed that some of the hard-knock kids were rolling their eyes at Page’s motivational speech, Huffman went all-in. He told those kids everything, down to the day he got out of prison.

Some teared up. Others sat there, wide-eyed. When he finished, they stood and applauded. Page was so moved he told Huffman he needed to tell his story through his character, that his odyssey was much better than anything wrestling’s scriptwriters could come up with.

“It’s funny, you know, they love to say how wrestling is so fake and made-up,” Lash Huffman said. “And the irony of the whole thing is, the best thing about my brother is his honesty. Junior is so honest.”

Booker T inside of the ring at his gym, Reality of Wrestling.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The more his story was told, the more the lines blurred. Was this real or entertainment? Sport or theater? Is the scripted racism damaging or satire? Do the heels and faces of pro wrestling reflect the world, or are they a caricature of it?

In the end, those are false dichotomies: The answer is always yes.

It is sport and theater. It reflects society and is a caricature of it. The racism is harmless and hurtful.

Pro wrestling is entertainment and real — especially for a boy who lost his mom young.


Danny, Carolyn, Lula Gayle, Billie Jean, Donald, Lash, Bonita and the baby, Booker: Rosa Huffman had eight children by three different men. And every member of the family watched pro wrestling, including a 4-foot-6 grandmother who had an old mattress put in her backyard for her grandchildren to practice flapjack pins.

Booker’s father, said to be a serious man and a good provider, ran moonshine, gambled and worked legitimately at the local pool hall in Plain Dealing, Louisiana. Booker Jr. was just 10 months old when his father went to retrieve a block of ice for the pool hall and dropped dead of a stroke. He was 59.

Rosa Huffman couldn’t bear staying in Louisiana after her husband’s death. She moved the family to Houston, where she worked as a nurse and supported all eight children by herself.

But when she was just 49, Rosa fell through the ceiling onto her back and neck while trying to fix the kitchen fan. She kept telling her panicked children she would be OK. And she was, for a few months. But a second surgery to remove fluid from her spine left her in a coma.

After several weeks, she was taken off life support. Booker, 13, and Bonita, 16, lost the only responsible adult in their lives. The older siblings tried to play guardians for a while, but many were running the streets, bringing home drug people and others who left Booker and Bonita so afraid to go to sleep at night that they wedged a chair against the bedroom door handle. Lash, the third youngest, couldn’t take the madness. He moved to a friend’s house without telling his youngest siblings.

Soon, the chaos of their siblings’ lives scared Booker and Bonita into moving back into their mother’s crumbling apartment by themselves. When the water was shut off for lack of payment, they schlepped 5-gallon buckets to a service station up the street, filled them with water and lugged them back, the skin of both palms bloodied by the metal handles. Bonita says she and her brother used the water for drinking, bathing, dishwashing and “filling up the toilet so it would flush.”

“Lot of days we just ate one meal at school and went hungry at home,” Bonita recalled. “No social worker even knew we were there. I could see my brother upset about a lot of things at that point. He was angry.”

Booker took out his meager station in life on other neighborhood kids. Bonita never remembered her brother losing a fight. “He wasn’t a bully or anything like that. He just never backed down,” she said. “That was something I loved about him: You don’t run, you face it head-on.”

Booker T holds an old photo of himself and his brother Lash.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

At 17, he impregnated a 15-year-old girl, who kept the baby even though her high school beau stopped answering his phone when she called. Still, Booker got a job at Fiesta Mart to help support their boy and began lifting steaks and whatever else he could manage. He was fired soon after — not for stealing, but for trying to impersonate his sister Billie Jean, calling his manager in a comically high-pitched voice to say, “My brother isn’t feeling well and won’t be in today.”

Booker dropped out of school. Bonita had moved to Dallas for work, and none of his uncles or aunts wanted him staying with them. Every reservoir of familial goodwill had dried up, except for one.

He’d barely had a relationship with Lash in the four years since their mother had died. But Booker swallowed his pride and moved into the Willow Creek Apartments with his older brother, who told him he could stay if he got a job.

So working a mile and a half away, he began dropping frozen fries into hot oil, assembling burgers with cheese and filling cups of soft-serve ice cream. He didn’t exactly rock that red shirt and black cap. But with no diploma and a newborn son, Booker was happy to have a job at Wendy’s.


A few months later, he was transferred to a different Wendy’s across town, which meant he had to catch one bus, wait 30 minutes and transfer to another one to get to work each day. In no time, the job went from a needed employment opportunity to a dead-end gig.

Billie Jean hooked him up with her boyfriend, a prominent marijuana dealer, who routinely had pounds of cannabis on his dining room table. Booker began slinging $5 and $10 bags of marijuana on the side, often smoking most of his profit.

He saw less and less of Lash at home, falling in with a crew that included his childhood friend, Wendell Sylvester, and Zackery Claybourne, a streetwise brother who had been to prison for robbery. They began carousing the club scene, wearing matching Adidas suits and coming up with nicknames for themselves: Booker was Nature Boy (after wrestler Ric Flair), Zack was Z-Boy and Wendell became Mr. Big Stuff.

Booker and Zack both worked at the Gulfgate Mall Wendy’s off Telethon Road, where their manager kept riding them about overcooked fries, undercooked burgers and the need to scrub the rings of caked-on chili off the pots. Eventually, Zack quit and Booker was fired for not showing up.

One night as they all smoked up Booker’s sales, someone threw out an insane idea: “Why don’t we get some guns and rob Wendy’s?” It kept coming up over the next few weeks until they decided on the most wacked notion of all. Zack and Booker each had a few uniforms.

Let’s rob Wendy’s with our uniforms on.

Decades later, it’s still one of the city’s most brazen string of robberies. Pretty quickly, they stopped concealing their faces with stocking caps, walking into a restaurant with .38-caliber pistols and their work uniforms, often behind legitimate employees taking the trash out at closing time. Booker would wait outside in his aunt’s car.

Soon, the crime was less a rush than getting home in time to watch the local news — “Wendy’s Bandits Strike Again” at 11:01 p.m. Over the first three months of 1987, Booker and his friends had robbed 12 Wendy’s, stealing between $400 and $4,000 each time. In what would be their last holdup, Booker went into the restaurant with Zack and Wendell, pistols drawn.

Houston police issued a reward of $5,000 for information that would lead to their arrest. The ads began playing on a local “CrimeStoppers” segment, and one of the interested viewers was Zack’s girlfriend.

On what became his last day of freedom, Booker met Zack at McGregor Park, smoked and sold weed, and headed home around dusk. As he neared the front door of the unit he shared with Lash, he sensed an eerie quiet.

Police officers in SWAT gear had him on the ground and cuffed in seconds. Booker feigned ignorance at first, but he was picked from a police lineup by witnesses who remembered him from the night he went into the Wendy’s for the robbery.

Within months, Booker, Zack and Wendell were in separate 6-by-8-foot cells at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville – Walls Unit. Named for its brick facade, Walls Unit was where all convicted felons were processed through the state’s penal system. It also housed the state’s execution chamber.

Huffman recalled something his mother once told him: “Junior, you know right from wrong. There’s no gray area in between. If you don’t stop, you’ll end up dead or in jail.”

At 22 years old, he was 1 for 2.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Good behavior allowed Booker to serve just 19 months of consecutive five-year sentences for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Sylvester, by contrast, said he served 9½ years of a 22-year sentence.

Though Booker’s lying killed much of the trust Lash had in him, Lash knew his younger brother wasn’t a career criminal. He told Booker, “I’ll help you get back on your feet. But whatever you do — sweeping floors, washing dishes, digging ditches — you gotta pay your dues and walk a straight line.”

He got a job at American Mini Storage, completing his parole and getting custody of his son, Brandon, 6, who had been turned over to child protective services because his mother was unable to care for him. A part of him missed his old life: the partying, the chaos, the sense he could go buck wild at any moment. But that world couldn’t compare with microwaving Ramen noodles, adding chicken, cheese and crumbled-up crackers, and sharing dinner with his son.

As a lark one afternoon in 1989, Lash went by a small wrestling school in Houston owned by Ivan Putski, the bodybuilder/wrestler whose duels with the Iron Sheik and Jesse Ventura fueled the sport in the 1970s and ’80s. He simply then said to Booker, “Let’s start rasslin’.”

Booker thought he was joking at first, but Lash kept going. “Man, we’ve been fans for so long, and we both need something more in our lives. We’ve both got size, we’re athletic and we’ve got personality off the f— charts!”

Lash said it would cost $3,000, and Booker sulked. He didn’t have that kind of money anymore. But his boss at the storage company, Bruce Gasarch, gave Booker a $3,000 bonus and told him to make him proud.


“Cowboy” Scott Casey, a former World Wrestling Federation star, mentored Booker at Putski’s school. He also came up with his first character at the time the Gulf War had begun: “G.I. Bro, America’s greatest hero.”

Lash was given the character name “Stevie Ray,” and within two years they were on their way to Dallas and the Sportatorium for their first tag team match. Booker wrestled on the Texas Independent Circuit for two more years and kept the job at the storage company until Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling signed him for $70,000. Booker left for Atlanta and a life he’d dreamed about as a kid.

“It was an escape for me,” he said. “I had been in prison. I had lost my parents at a young age. I had no high school diploma.

“I finally found something that I really did very, very well. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m better than everybody else at this.’ I’m serious. It was like that. I knew I was better than everybody else. I had done theater and been a drum major for a while in high school. Then when I found wrestling, it was like déjà vu. Like, ‘Man, I’ve done this before in another life.’ ”

In 2000, wrestling’s once-dominant organization, World Championship Wrestling, was in a no-holds-barred battle royal with its rising competitor, the World Wrestling Federation. The WCW decided to pit its world heavyweight champion Jeff Jarrett against Booker T at the end of the season’s tour in Daytona Beach, Florida, in a card titled “Bash at the Beach.”

For the first time in his solo career, it was decided Booker T would emerge with the belt — the exact one (sans a few missing gemstones) that his childhood hero, Flair, had once worn. But in a bizarre turn of events, Hulk Hogan went off script. He had creative control written into his contract. And on the evening of the event, he told the WCW brass he wanted to be champion.

A poster of Booker T wearing the WCW World Championship belt inside of his home gym.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Organizers were furious. But they created a storyline where Jarrett lay down in the ring with the belt at his side. Hogan, looking equally angry, circled the ring with a microphone and called the WCW a “bulls— organization” before half-heartedly climbing atop Jarrett. The referee counted to three for the pin and the lights went down. This was all part of the show, but it was followed by an unusual turn: WCW head writer Vince Russo coming to the ring and launching into a five-minute tirade aimed at Hogan, calling the wrestling legend a “god damn politician,” among other epithets.

Later in the evening, Booker T’s music began playing and everything restarted. Jarrett came out as if he was still champion, and he and Booker T performed the heel-face dance to perfection. For the first time in his individual ring career, Booker T was a heavyweight champion of the world.

No pro wrestler actually wins his title in the ring, of course. The decision is made backstage or weeks before by company presidents and scriptwriters. But once the belt is bestowed on you, it means your employer believes you are ready to be its most important ambassador. WCW believed an African-American with a backstory better than any they could write would sell. And Booker T sold.

Although promoters often wanted him to play a stereotype, he made a conscious decision to try for crossover appeal. He refused suggestions that his walk-up music be gangsta rap. He enunciated all his words. The only from-the-’hood line he used was his trademark slogan, “Can you dig it, sucka?”

“If I was wrestling a white guy and he was a good guy, they would cheer for him and boo me if I was a stereotypical black guy,” he said. “But me not being the stereotypical black guy, I can get away with it and be cheered just as much as him.

“They were cheering for Booker T — not the black guy coming out from the curtain.”

It wasn’t exactly “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” But for many people in the crowd, he seemed like a good guy with a remarkable backstory, and they were happy to cheer for this black man.

Booker realized how famous he had become one night in 1995 at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He was eating a steak dinner when an older gentleman interrupted him. “Are you Booker T? My kids love you. You mind if I take a picture with you?”

Booker did a double take. Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons knows who I am?

“You know why the fans were sad [about the Triple H loss]?” he said. “Because I touched them. And that doesn’t happen very often in this business, where someone of color can make them feel that way. I always worked on emotion. On telling my real story. My goal was to make them cry.”

A year after he was made champion, the WCW was taken over by the WWF and rechristened World Wrestling Entertainment. Huffman signed on. More than a decade after Putski’s wrestling school, he was now contractually obligated to WWE CEO Vince McMahon.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

It’s been 14 years since his Wrestlemania loss to Triple H. You want Huffman to be angry, resentful even, that McMahon and his writers wouldn’t let his character win that night.

He’s not.

“I never lost a wink of sleep over that,” he said. “Let all the fans know because they ask me about it all the time. They wanted Booker T to win the title more than I wanted to win myself.”

Triple H, he said, “was just playing his part, however f—– up that part looked.” At the time, Triple H denied any bigotry on his part, saying, “Why would anybody think I am a racist? Did I ever mention the word ‘black’?

Asked for comment, a WWE spokesman responded with this statement: “WWE is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide. Just like other TV shows and movies, our entertainment programming features fictional characters who play the role of protagonists and antagonists. Over the years, WWE storytelling has evolved along with the social landscape, and today WWE offers family-friendly, PG-rated programming.”

“They used me and I used them — that’s how I looked at it,” Huffman says now. “I was never down with being the stereotypical brother, and I made sure of that as my career went on.

“But at some point, you also realize white guys invented the sport and still control it. If you want to work, you gotta play by their rules and sometimes be who they want you to be.”

Perhaps that’s how you last in an entertainment genre that routinely traffics in ugly stereotypes about African-Americans.

One in which Rowdy Roddy Piper once pretended to feed bananas to a poster of Mr. T, saying he would “whip him like a slave.” And Ventura used to refer to black wrestler Koko B. Ware (James Ware) as “Buckwheat.” Kamala (Jim Harris) was billed as an almost-mute African savage. Tony Atlas was remade into Saba Simba, replete with shield, spear, headdress and a cringe-inducing “tribal” dance.

When Lash and Booker came to the WCW in 1993, their storyline called for them to play two convicts, won in a card game by cigar-chomping, seersucker-wearing manager/plantation owner Col. Robert Parker. At some of their first shows, the Huffmans dressed in prison jumpsuits and leg shackles because that’s what their white bosses thought would sell. Naming a modern tag team composed of two African-Americans Cryme Tyme seems almost benign in comparison.

Moralizing about it, expecting cultural enrichment and organic diversity is like expecting NASCAR fans to lower those LDL numbers. It’s the world of the Tonga Kid, the Mad Hungarian and an Asian-American man with perfect diction called Mr. Fugi, who practiced speaking broken English. Every minority is crudely stereotyped in the squared circle.

“Understand the only thing that has ever been real for me with wrestling is the entertainment and the performance in front of the crowd,” Huffman said. “In the end, it was all a show. … If it was real, I would have been one-time heavyweight champion because I would have beat up everybody.”

Late in his career, as a heel named King Booker, Huffman won the now-retired WWE World Heavyweight Championship, a belt the company created in 2002 for its Smackdown and Raw brands. But since the WWE’s origin in 1963, through 50 champions and more than 130 belt changes, no African-American has won its highest-profile title, the WWE World Championship. John Cena had 13 title reigns. Triple H had nine. The Rock (Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is Samoan and whose father is African-Canadian) held the title nine times.

“It’s still the one title that no [African-American] has ever won,” Booker said as we ate lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, a few hundred yards from his Reality of Wrestling training gym. (He has another facility an hour south of town where wrestling shows are taped for TV, and he also promotes boxing and MMA cards.)

“Why I never won it? Look, it’s their company. It’s almost like, I went to play a pickup game at the park. The one kid who’s got the basketball, he may be an OK player but maybe not the best player. But he’s on the team. It’s his ball. If I’m not a big person about that, I’m going home.”

It’s worth noting that Booker still works for WWE, where Levesque is now an executive vice president, as an announcer on Monday Night Raw. Booker never slammed the WWE for its decades of race-baiting. But then, how could he when he never objected to playing his part in the wincing black-white bits?

He played Triple H’s victim during that racially loaded promo. A few years later, he and Sharmell, his stage partner and real-life wife, conveniently stood off to the side as McMahon called John Cena “my n—–.” (“Tell me … he didn’t just say that?” Booker responds in what he acknowledges is one of his worst acting jobs. “I got so much grief for that from the black community. Part of the show.”) One time, he used the N-word himself while talking about Hulk Hogan during a promo, although he later acknowledged it was a mistake.

He retired as a full-time wrestler in 2012 and officially in 2016. With distance comes perspective.

“Look at these poor cats, New Day,” he said, referring to a current black tag team, a three-person outfit allowed to keep the two-man title under the “Freebird rule.” (Because why wouldn’t you have three black men following a rule named for three whites who once showed up for a match at Comiskey Park in Chicago with their faces painted as Confederate flags?)

“They’re the new token black guys,” Huffman said. “It’s as racist as it’s always been, most black wrestlers still being put in the back seat. I just never spent too much energy on it, other than not getting my total just due as being a champion, which I deserved.

“I woulda been a great champion, great ambassador. I know I would have.”

Does he get to play both sides of this fence? On his way up, Booker permitted wrestling to use his race. Now that it’s over, he gets reflective.

Was he genuinely hurt by his profession’s racism or not? Again, it’s a false choice.

He cared and he didn’t care. He didn’t care what sold the product. But he did care that he had to play by rules that kept him in the box labeled “Black Guys.”


“I look forward to having a dialogue with the voters of Houston, and if I am so privileged to serve, I will fight for them as hard as I have fought for myself and my family over the last 30 years,

— Booker T. Huffman’s Twitter account, December 2016

“You’re a mess,” Booker says to his 6-year-old son, Kendrick.

“You’re a mess, Dad,” Kendrick says back.

“Yeah, Daddy, you’re a mess,” echoes his twin sister, Kennedy.

Booker never really retired from wrestling. He just went into business as a suburban father. His pectorals and arms are still Royal Rumble-ready. He does 400 pushups each morning, not out of vanity as much as to ensure a 52-year-old father of young twins remains on this side of the soil as long as possible. (Brandon, now 33, had his own trouble with the law growing up. He lives in Houston and works in marketing.)

Booker T speaks on the phone while his twins, Kennedy and Kendrick, play on his shoulders.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The felony conviction from 30 years ago still follows him. When he began traveling for wrestling shows internationally, Booker was frequently questioned by immigration agents. He had trouble at first getting a liquor license for his venue that hosts wrestling shows and boxing cards. And he needs a pardon from the governor before he can legally be a candidate on the November 2019 ballot.

“The paperwork is already in,” Booker said. His three personal references: Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, Triple H’s wife and the chief brand officer of WWE; Joanne Herring, the Texas socialite who persuaded the U.S. government to train and arm the Afghan mujahedeen fighters during the Soviet war on U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson’s behalf; and Gasarch, his former boss who lent him the money for wrestling school.

Incumbent Sylvester Turner, an African-American Democrat, was a longtime member of the Texas Legislature before winning the mayor’s office in 2016 on his third attempt. Booker has yet to declare a political party, but he’s serious about his campaign. He’s hired an aide and an adviser to help formulate a platform.

Houston’s growing homeless problem, inspiring the city’s youth and fixing its educational system are his first priorities.

“You’ve got to go to the young people and look at it from their perspective,” he said. “We’ve heard forever, ‘Respect your elders,’ and it’s made us help little old ladies across the street and pay attention to our senior citizens. But I’ve never heard one time, throughout my 52 years, someone say, ‘Respect your young people.’

“We’ve got these classrooms of 40 kids, and it’s so disruptive the kids can’t learn anything. My mother-in-law works in the school district. She sees it daily. Something needs to be done about that. I’m not against public schooling, but I feel like the money that’s going into public schools needs to be appropriated properly.”

No Houston media outlet has taken the town’s temperature over the 2019 election, so it’s hard to say whether Booker’s candidacy will be received well. But he says with conviction, “I think I can win. I’ll get the young vote, the millennial vote.

“Sylvester Turner, Harvard [Law School] grad. He’s a very smart guy. But it’s not about him. It’s about my legacy, how many people I can help while I’m on this earth. Thing about it is, if I win I win, and if I lose I win. It’s not about just winning. It’s about getting off my couch and doing something.”

Maybe 20 years ago, the idea of a pro wrestler becoming mayor of a major American city might have been politically fraught. But we are in the post-Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger world now. A reality show host is our nation’s president. Why would we think Booker T can’t win? He’s already completed an apprenticeship of what it takes to move the masses in America.

“I pretty much made some dirt when I was a kid and made sure I got a big broom as an adult so I could sweep it,” he said, laughing. “I’m still sweeping to clean it up.”

Almost exactly 30 years after his robbery conviction, he still has nightmares of that swarm of police in riot gear. Strangely, there is also gratitude for those 19 months in prison, a reminder of the 336 months of freedom that followed.

A few years ago, he was contracted to give a speech to a group of wealthy Houston residents and wondered what he could say to motivate millionaires. “They’re already rich.”

He decided to tell the story of the Wendy’s Bandits feeling young and invincible before their fall. They gave him a standing ovation, unaware that Booker had a surprise for them.

“I want to introduce you to Wendell,” he said, pointing to a man immaculately dressed in fine Italian wool like many of the others in the room.

Booker had run into Sylvester at a gas station. He had no job, hadn’t shaved in weeks and looked hungry. Booker got him cleaned up and asked if he would accompany him to the speech.

Sylvester, who says he’s been straight since he got out of prison in 1995, now works as a driver for a trucking company. Although Booker says he wanted to keep helping him, the two men have since lost touch.

We want a world of bright lines. Heels and faces. But that’s not real life. It’s not the wrestling world, either. Both are messy. Complicated. Good and bad are mixed together, and both can be profitable for anyone willing to play their part.

Can you dig it, sucka?

UVa grad Martese R. Johnson to incoming class: Get ready to encounter racism on campus ‘Quite often we emphasize to incoming students the virtues of our community, neglecting to share the bitter realities …’

Martese R. Johnson, a 2016 graduate of the University of Virginia, wrote this letter to incoming students as a commentary. He is the black UVa student who was injured while being arrested by Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officers in March 2015.


Dear Class of 2021,

Welcome to the University of Virginia, and Wahoowa! In the past, when I’ve written letters to accepted students, I aimed to congratulate them and describe the high quality of education they would receive at our university. It was to foreshadow the inevitably frequent encounters students would have with diversity, change and growth on grounds. I would explain how UVa was going to provide each of them with the resources to become dynamic, engaged global citizens. I would boastfully describe our “Community of Trust,” accentuating what it means to champion honor and excellence. With these virtues in mind, I would assert that students should feel elated to become members of our achieved community, joining us in time to celebrate the university’s 200th year of existence.

I will not do any of those things in this letter. I would instead like to begin by apologizing to each and every one of you. I am sorry.

Halfway into my first semester at UVa, I was called a nigger in front of peers at a white fraternity party. It took two semesters to see that very same word written across our university’s popular Beta Bridge, accompanying cartoon graffiti of a creature with an obscenely large penis. Semesters later, I’d come to terms with the lamentable truth that, more often than not, the university would fail to live up to its prodigious advertising campaigns. The skewed nature of the beautiful student anecdotes that had been shared with me before matriculating had been revealed, representing merely the highs in a wildly tumultuous university climate. College would not be the perfect racial and cultural melting pot that could prove my elders wrong in their steadfast anxiety toward prolific racial intermingling. Instead, my experiences at the University of Virginia taught me exactly where their deep-rooted interracial anxiety had originated.

By the middle of my college career, I’d experienced enough ignorance, microaggressions and social cruelty to never be surprised by a negative racial encounter again. When reflecting, I feel grateful that I was afforded the time to gradually cope with these issues, rather than being forced to acknowledge the harsh degree of racism in my new community all at once. I apologized earlier because I know that you will not have the same transitional grace period — not even a minute of it.

Quite often, we emphasize to incoming students the virtues of our community, neglecting to share the bitter realities that oppose what may initially appear a picturesque collegiate experience. We do so in an effort to protect you, allowing you to ease into the many pains that accompany our community’s virtuous attributes. We failed you this time around.

Instead of a smooth transition, you were engulfed all at once by the radical hatred that exists and thrives within our community. You have not yet stepped foot on the University of Virginia’s Grounds, but you have already been exposed to the ability of our “Community of Trust” to breach our most cherished values and replace them with unabashed depravity.

It is less than a week before move-in, and I realize that many of you will walk onto Grounds feeling anxiety and apprehension. That will not change no matter how many words you read from impassioned UVa alumni who vow to stand behind you. I will not ask you to feel comfort despite a highly uncomfortable university environment, as I prefer to address realities with real solutions — and we both know that smiling in the face of an over-present injustice will not quell the fire. Smiling and pretending things are OK will only allow such a fire to grow, burning down the positive institutions that students like you have worked tirelessly to build.

Instead, I ask each of you to find comfort in the challenge — in the possibility of there being a different narrative for students who arrive at the university after you. Understand that when people feel threatened, facades will fade away and the world will consistently show its true colors. This is not a UVa phenomenon, it is a world phenomenon, and running away from this reality will be proven futile with each attempt. Instead, learn to address it.

Stand by your commitment to attend the university, and embrace the opportunity to make an impact now. Our community has faced a myriad of challenges in recent years, equipping us with the knowledge and skill set to approach these issues with productive coalition and solutions. We must remember that the Ku Klux Klan, alt-right and all other radical revolutionaries are mere spawns and remnants of larger institutions that have made it their business to discriminate against difference. Join us in this righteous opposition, learn from our mistakes and continue to grow the countercoalition that we’ve built ground-up. With strength in cohesiveness, we will dismantle obsolete institutions that work to oppress people for their innate traits and personal beliefs.

You have been accepted into a cohort of some of the world’s most powerful minds, tasked with challenging a stubborn world to change for the better. I cannot promise you a picture-perfect college experience — nobody can, because that simply does not exist. What I can promise you is an opportunity to genuinely contribute to the world being a better place. It is the responsibility of all of you — no matter race, nationality, or creed — to come together in addressing these issues during your time as a UVa student and beyond. Behind you will stand many who have, and continue to fight the very same enemy, including myself.

Do not be afraid. You were chosen because you are passionate, driven and quite capable. We are in this together, and we will win.

Warm regards,

Martese R. Johnson, University of Virginia, 2016

P.S. Sometimes the university really does live up to those flashy advertising campaigns. Our proud alumni network is proud for good reason. Reach out and let’s work (johnsonmartese@gmail.com).

Student-athlete and Olympian Micha Powell’s guide to thriving in college A weekly series from the sprinter on how she balances sports, school and life

Hey, all, Micha Powell here. Welcome to my video diary! I’m a recent University of Maryland graduate with a B.A. in broadcast journalism, three-time NCAA All-American and 2016 Canadian Olympian.

I have both my parents to thank for my athletic genes. My father is Mike Powell, UCLA alum and the long jump world-record holder, and my mother is the 400m hurdles Canadian record holder. I guess it’s kind of fitting that I’d end up a student-athlete in the States with roots in Canada.

If you’ve wondered what it takes to be a track and field student-athlete and compete at the international level, look no further. With this weekly video diary, you can follow my journey from training as a student-athlete at UMD to representing Canada at the World University Games in Taipei at the end of August. With my degree in broadcast journalism, I will use my reporting and editing skills to produce an in-depth look at the high-performance world of a 400m sprinter.


Week 1

I have never been afraid of a challenge. I switched sports my senior year in high school, going from hitting serves on green tennis courts to racing around a red rubberized track. I decided to embrace my parents’ Olympic genes and put them to good use in the 400 meters. After receiving a track and field scholarship to the University of Maryland, I then moved away from my family in Canada in pursuit of a higher education and with the hopes of leaving behind a legacy.

Looking back on my four years in college, I had to adapt to many changes, including attending two-hour classes right after running up hills at 5 in the morning, all the while maintaining a balanced social life and remembering to take a deep breath once in a while. The adjustment from living with my mom in a quiet apartment to moving in with five other college roommates was drastic, but I was able to embrace my new surroundings by developing these three key habits:

Time management

I enrolled in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland knowing that I was going to have to learn to work on deadline and take most of my assignments on the road with me when I traveled to track meets. The fast-paced nature of the program forced me to plan ahead and communicate with my professors. If I had a track meet that coming weekend, I knew I had to finish an assignment by Thursday to avoid any additional stress. I also made sure to add some downtime with my friends and go to D.C. for some sightseeing or just stay in and watch some of our favorite Netflix shows.

Sleep takes priority

I aim to get anywhere between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. If I can be in bed before midnight, I know that I’ll wake up the next morning motivated, rejuvenated and less stressed. However, I’m not perfect. During finals week, I had my fair share of “almost” all-nighters that left my mind drained. The best way for me to get a consistent amount of sleep is to keep a routine. As long as I continue to practice self-discipline, I’ll keep a healthy sleep habit that accelerates my muscle recovery and improves my mental health.

Nutrition & home cooking

ESPN Video Player

Nutrition is an essential part of my preparation not only for executing a great race but also for my overall well-being. Whenever someone asks me if I follow a strict diet, I explain that I don’t have to but I naturally gravitate toward leafy greens and lean proteins because it is simply what my body craves. I see eating healthy as the most beneficial way to reward my body for all of the hard work it does in one day. By eating fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates and protein, I train my body to expect nutrient-rich foods after a hard workout, which encourages it to recover at a faster rate and readies it to go through the entire cycle again.

Before practice and post-workouts, you can be sure to find me in my kitchen cooking up everything from spinach and turkey bacon-filled omelets to curried tilapia with steamed zucchini spirals. I always make sure my fridge is filled with whole foods and my spice cabinet stocked with seasoning. I’m known on my track team to always have a different meal on my Snapchat and often get messages that read “Pleassee send me the recipe!” or “You should write a cookbook!” Maybe I’ll consider it now that I’ve graduated and have a little bit more free time on my hands. Cooking is not a chore for me but rather a habit that guarantees my body will get enough nutrients for the week, and it also brings familiarity and the comfort of home back into my life.

My grandmother is originally from Nigeria, and I remember growing up in her house, back in Montreal, smelling the peppery air and immediately recognizing the thyme and cayenne fragrance that was brewing in one of her traditional and tasty Nigerian dishes. Although I can’t make as good an okra soup as my grandmother does, I consider myself fortunate enough to have inherited her cooking skills, which have helped me prepare the majority of my meals that fuel me for the day.

Troy Mullins is long drive golf champion but she’s striving for the LPGA The golfer says she plays at a different level: ‘I hit the ball like a guy’

She’s a champion in a sport where strength and agility is praised, not questioned. Not that it’s a cakewalk as a woman of color at the top of her game, but she plays through it and comes out successful.

It is the women’s World Long Drive Competition, a showcase for women who can hit a golf ball out of sight. Founded in 2000, it’s a fun, trash-talking sport where women gifted with a hard-core golf swing are recognized apart from the more subdued game of the LPGA.

And she is Troy Mullins, who at 25 has mastered it. In late July, she won the 2017 World Long Drive Mile High Showdown, although she’s only been playing golf since she was 21. Her winning drive was 374 yards, and her ultimate goal is to play on the LPGA Tour. A 4 handicap, Mullins had qualified for the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur even before the long drive competition.

The 5-foot-8 golfer, known by some as the “Trojan Goddess,” placed second in her first competition, the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship in 2012 with a drive of 321 yards using a regular-length driver. In 2016, she took sixth place at the Golf Channel World Long Drive Championship. Mullins’ win included a $7,000 purse, her trophy and bragging rights.

“I’m still shocked. I can’t believe it,” Mullins said in an interview. “I kept my head down [on that last ball], and I didn’t even know if it made it in the grid. I’m really proud of myself. … I’m doing this on my own, not sponsored. I come here with my two clubs and I’m doing it. And I think this is a great way to get people into the sport. This is how I got into golf, just coming out and having fun. I hope to stay in it for a long time.”

Mullins is a Cornell University grad who majored in China-Asia Pacific studies and international relations. She visited the driving range just for fun with a family friend who got her involved in the sport.

“He would just take me to this driving range, and I would love hitting balls,” Mullins said.

After college, she stopped running track and returned home to Los Angeles with a plan to become a U.S. ambassador to China, but she wasn’t quite sure whether law school was really what she wanted her next step to be.

“I kind of was just here deciding and fell into golf,” Mullins said. “Enough people said, ‘You know what? Your swing is that good, you could make it on tour.’ ”

She started her own business homeschooling and tutoring to support her golf dreams. According to her website, Mullins was a member of the Cornell women’s track and field team as a heptathlete. She followed in the footsteps of her father, Billy Mullins, who was a world-class sprinter.

Being a woman of color in the game of golf has presented some challenges that have driven her to conquer the sport she loves.

“Especially in this sport, where it’s not very integrated yet, we’re trying,” Mullins explained. “But I’ve heard of a lot of stories of other-race women getting sponsorships, and they’re not better than me. We can get the same scores, but there’s something there. And I haven’t quite figured out what that is. It seems like as a woman of color I’m only getting recognition now because I’ve won. And it’s tough. It’s hard. And then on top of that, going to country clubs, I’m usually the only African-American woman or African-American in general. I just met another African-American golfer, and she lives in New York and I’m not sure how her experience is there. You don’t meet many of us. It makes it tough. It’s different.”

Mullins rises at 5 a.m. and starts her day with exercise, either yoga or Pilates. She also does spinning. By midmorning, she’s playing golf or at a driving range. In the afternoon, she’s tutoring and homeschooling. Right now she has about 15 students, but during the school year, her client load may double. Balance is sometimes hard, but she’s gotten into a routine that works.

“It’s hard,” Mullins said. “Basically, I don’t have a social life. I work on the weekends. I wake up early and I go to bed early, and especially now if I’m going to be playing more tournaments. It’s really tough because golfing takes about five to six hours a day, not including any practice. That’s just play. It’s tough creating a schedule, especially balancing a schedule with students. It’s not as rigid as I wish it was.”

Mullins spoke with The Undefeated about her journey in life, golf and her future.

What’s been your inspiration for everything that you do?

I’ve been supporting my own sport and doing my own thing for a while and starting my own business and tutoring people. Now, it’s kind of about inspiring others. I have young siblings. It’s great to see how my students respond to my different achievements. They’re also motivated themselves. I tutor a girl that’s also a golfer. Now she calls me and she’s excited about golf. And it’s great to see that I can inspire others to do this as well. It’s not just for me anymore.

And then also for myself. I’m inspired by so many athletes. I’m inspired by Tiger Woods. As a kid I was inspired by Marion Jones and even Serena and Venus [Williams]. Black athletes and having to be the best in their sport just to be recognized, just to be out there. There’s something about us having to be No. 1 to be put in the spotlight, that we can’t be too mediocre. I’m working really hard to do my best in this sport. It’s tough.

How was your experience as a college athlete at Cornell?

Mostly, different. I wanted to try something new. I didn’t realize when I went to visit how small the town was. But it was very small. Much smaller than I thought when I went to tour it. But it was a good experience. I got to experience a lot of snow. My major was great because we spent a semester in Washington, D.C., and then we also spent a little more than a semester in Beijing at the Peking University. I spent a lot of time away from Cornell, which was so cool. Even with the track team, we traveled every weekend to different cities and different colleges. I had a great time there.

How was your life growing up?

My mother’s side was always more academic. I went to Marlborough’s all-girls high school. It was really important that I got a great education. Growing up, I was a child actress. I actually stopped as a kid because they wanted me to quit my high school. My family was like, ‘Yeah, no, that’s not happening.’ I got out of acting. It was really important that I go to college. I was an all-around athlete. I enjoyed doing a lot of sports. I loved volleyball. I was even an OK swimmer and tennis player. But track and volleyball were my two main sports going into high school, which was really tough too. They made me choose which sport to focus on. I was always a great runner. My heart wasn’t in it as much as volleyball, but when I found out I was going to be like 5-10, it made it an easy decision. I focused on track, getting good grades and getting into a good school.

How do you handle the competition mentally and emotionally?

I think that’s the biggest struggle for me, to be honest. I think I’ve been given the talent and skill pretty easily. I didn’t really struggle in golf. Coming into the sport late has always been a little bit of trying to build my confidence because I’m competing against girls that have been, one, playing their whole life. Played in college. Played on their high school teams. Not knowing, even learning a lot of the rules and the etiquette in the beginning, I was a little bit self-conscious, so it made it hard to compete with them.

And then on top of that, because I play at a different level, meaning I hit the ball like a guy, that’s also a little interesting. You don’t make a lot of women friends when you hit it past them like 100 yards. I’ve even struggled with playing being myself, being able to be OK with being the longest girl out there. Yeah, I was even reminded of that this weekend. I feel like in golf, I’m always a little bit out of my element. Not only being African-American, but when you play tournament golf, the girls are a little bit smaller or skinnier or blonder. And it’s a different type of tournament than the long drive. The long drive, the women are bigger than me.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

Probably from one of my golf buddies. I think he said that I have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve grown up pretty privileged, and I’ve never really had to struggle. And the paths that I’ve chosen as an athlete, now I have to make decisions where I’m going to feel uncomfortable. Having to take on less students to be able to do more tournaments. Whereas before, I’m living pretty comfortably in L.A., which is expensive, so I’ve got to work hard. But there’s that balance. Now, I have to make the choice, do I go after the dream and be a little bit uncomfortable or stay in my lane and work, which is what I’m used to. Even in other terms, putting myself into tournaments and even playing in the long drive. There were times when I was going to pull out of the long drives because I was so nervous about not being ready, not being strong enough. But I think that was really wise to say to me, because I’m not someone that likes risk. Still learning how to put myself out there and be uncomfortable, but getting it done kind of thing.

What do you look forward to most in the future?

I like accomplishing goals. I’ve always been a list person. Checking off things on my list is great. But future goals, honestly, I just want to have a really big family. That’s kind of really what I want. I’d love to be on tour, obviously. And I’d love to set records as an African-American woman. I’d like to inspire others, other black girls, black boys, to get out there and do this sport and to get involved. And I’d like it to be more integrated and less exclusive. Less expensive too.

What do you suggest young black and brown girls and boys do from the financial aspect of it?

I’m still working on that aspect too. When I first graduated, while I was tutoring I also worked at different golf courses. That allows you at least free play, free balls, free practice. Getting involved in the golf business is definitely a way to make it less expensive. I just feel like that the issue is the more we get involved, the more color that we see on tour, maybe golf will get less expensive because more people will be playing. But I think right now, the golf industry’s dying because Tiger’s not in it. We have a lot of great tour players. Jordan Spieth is great and, of course, like Dustin Johnson. But it’s not bringing people like it did with Tiger. Until more people join, it’ll still be the expensive sport that it is.

What’s up next for you?

The tournament’s on the 5th and the 6th of September, the Volvik World Long Drive Championship — WinStar World Casino, Thackerville, Oklahoma. Hopefully I’ll win. Goalwise is doing my best, doing better. … It’s hard to do better than last time because we were at elevation, and elevation has a little bit to do with how far the balls go. I proved a lot to myself the last time I played. My No. 1 goal was to make top eight, and then I did it. So then my next goal was to make top four. This time I’m going to set out to do the same thing. I don’t put my expectations too high. That’s always been me. I like to just be reasonable. So reasonable to me is to make top eight. And if I do that, top four. If I do that, top two. And if I win, then awesome.

Are films like ‘Step’ inspiring or are they inner-city uplift porn? Maybe they’re both

After seeing Step, the new documentary about a step team at a girls charter school in Baltimore, two things happened:

  1. When I walked out of the darkened theater and into the light of day with the other people at the screening, everyone’s eyes were wet, including my own.
  2. I immediately wondered if what I’d seen was well-crafted inner-city uplift porn.

Step, the first feature-length documentary from director Amanda Lipitz, a Broadway producer whose credits include Legally Blonde the Musical, follows the journey of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW, pronounced “bliss”). Most of the girls in the film are seniors, and this is their last chance to win a competition in the midst of typical senior-year concerns, in particular, getting into college.

Their lives are set against a backdrop of hardship: poverty, hunger, the threat of police violence, and parents who aren’t or can’t be as involved as would be ideal. But thanks to their determination and hard work, and constant prodding from coach Gari McIntyre (known in the film as Coach G) and college counselor Paula Dofat, the girls not only persist, they all are accepted into college.

It reminded me of a scene from Primary Colors, the 1998 film based on Joe Klein’s roman à clef about the first Clinton presidential campaign.

In the scene, Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta) tells his wife, Susan (Emma Thompson), about an adult literacy program that he encountered on the campaign trail. The program’s home is in the library of a rundown, graffiti-covered, underfunded school in New York.

“Honey, this was so great today, this reading program,” the governor says. “You shoulda seen the people. And the teacher — well. She was just inspirational.”

“Give me a break,” Susan responds. “Tell me how good the curriculum was, not the teacher. We can replicate a good curriculum.”

The scene gets at the crux of the issue with films, both narrative and documentary, such as Step, Dope, Dangerous Minds, All the Difference, and Check It. Such stories rely on individuals, in this case, McIntyre, Dofat and the step team members, to get an audience to pay attention to issues that are far bigger in scope. In the scene from Primary Colors, failing public schools and social promotion created the need for such a literacy program in the first place. In Step, there are larger issues that created the problems the BLSYW girls face, among them housing discrimination, the racial wealth gap, the resegregation of public schools, and unjust allocation of public resources.

So what purpose does a film like Step serve? Lipitz, a graduate of the Park School of Baltimore, where yearly tuition can run as high as $29,620, was inspired by the success of a similar girls leadership school in Queens, New York, with a 100 percent graduation rate. Her mother founded BLSYW on Lipitz’s suggestion and chairs its board.

I asked Lipitz if she worried that the success McIntyre and Dofat were able to achieve would lull audiences into a false sense of security. It’s easy to believe that these women have found a way to solve these larger problems so that the rest of us don’t need to focus on them quite so much.

“I didn’t worry about that,” Lipitz said. “ ‘Cause I think they’re so inspiring that you’re like, ‘I want to go do what Coach G does.’ I feel like they inspire you to get up and move and do something about it. Mentor someone, take interest in someone. I think they inspire people to do that.”

She’s not wrong. There’s tremendous value in films that aim to uplift. That’s what made the Stantons such an effective team: Theirs was a marriage of both pragmatism and inspiration. But it’s a challenge to find films that accomplish both, and frankly, films that skew more toward policy usually end up on public television, not the big screen. Because it’s so hard to make compelling films about policy — Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a notable exception — we end up with a glut of films that are high on uplift and short on the nitty-gritty.

Step doesn’t ignore these larger social issues — McIntyre mentions that she lives on the same street where Freddie Gray was killed. But there’s an underlying message that personal responsibility, hard work, and school personnel so dedicated they qualify for beatification are enough to circumvent the consequences of being born poor, black, and female in a country that’s systematically hostile to people who are poor, black, and female.

In Jack Stanton’s story, it’s the inspiring teacher who’s the savior. Susan Stanton gets at something more practical and less sexy: You can’t scale an inspirational teacher. You need a curriculum. Step illustrates just how important women such as Dofat and McIntyre are, but they’re not enough. We have to fix the problems that make them so invaluable.

Working as an educator in public schools is not easy. Dofat, 50, has been working as a college counselor for 17 years. There’s an emotional scene in Step where she tearfully pleads with two college administrators to take one of her students. She’s afraid that if they don’t, the girl’s life will essentially be ruined. I asked Dofat what kept her from burning out.

“Faith,” she answered. But she also told me about the need to separate guidance counseling from college counseling to achieve more effective results. Public schools that serve poor, majority-minority populations need enough resources to hire some counselors who focus solely on social and emotional issues, and others who focus on getting kids into college, Dofat said. Most schools employ counselors who are responsible for all of it, and therefore are often overwhelmed.

Changes like those Dofat recommends could have huge implications in steering students away from the for-profit certificate and diploma mills that disproportionately target students who are poor, female, and ethnic minorities, saddling them with worthless degrees and debt they often cannot repay.

But wonkier points like that get obscured by Step’s feel-good inspiration. The film recently won the audience award at AFI Docs Film Festival and got a loving reception at Sundance earlier this year. Ultimately, public education should be the responsibility of everyone in a community. It is a public good that only works well when affluent white parents are not scared to send their children to school with poor black children and when they recognize that everyone deserves the same chances and the same resources.

McIntyre began working as a step coach and logistics coordinator at BLSYW in 2015. She went to Milford Mill Academy, part of Baltimore County Public Schools, and eventually graduated from Coppin State after initially dropping out. She’s no stranger to the hardships many of the BLSYW girls face.

“I did have a very rough time with completing high school, because I was more focused on social and creative outlets,” McIntyre said. “I graduated with a 1.8 GPA. I barely went to school, because I felt like the teachers were not challenging me, and I didn’t need to go to school. I would go to school and get A’s on tests and quizzes, but I would never prepare for anything. So, I had the ability, I had to think and had to focus, and I really felt that the teachers were not challenging me or catering to me in the way that I felt that I needed to learn.”

But even more teachers who cared wouldn’t have been enough, she said.

“There are problems that are on a way bigger scale, based off of the way our country votes,” McIntyre said. “Decisions that are based in racial and gender bias, housing discrimination, and there being actual laws that are legally segregating communities, and determining who gets resources and who doesn’t, and that’s not by mistake.

“I think that it’s clear what type of people they want to be successful. It shows grit when a little black girl like Cori [Grainger, a BLSYW senior], who never even thought that she would be Johns Hopkins material, not only makes it in Johns Hopkins, but then graduates and does well. … I think that specifically [when others look at] African-American communities, people truly believe that we want to be impoverished and in violence. Poverty is not what you see in Third World countries in the United States. The poverty is sometimes not knowing where your next meal is going to come from, or being on government assistance, or being a victim to the failed mental health system, or health care system in the United States. … So, I do think that these are way bigger issues, that people are seeing on a smaller level.”

Step is the story of young girls who are beating the odds. After seeing it, I hope audiences remember these girls never should have had to face such odds in the first place.

Daily Dose: 8/1/17 Jason Derulo’s gone country

Mike & Mike was a fun one Tuesday, again with Booger McFarland. Apparently, my propensity for drinking milk is abnormal, and my co-host brought it up at pretty much every turn. Also, reminder: I score baseball games.

Now that The Mooch is out of the way, things can get back to normal at the White House. Those 11 days we’ll never forget, and Anthony Scaramucci probably won’t either. He might not have technically gotten fired on his day off, but he wasn’t supposed to officially start until later in the month, so the sentiment is the same. As for the West Wing, well, President Donald Trump is back in control. Maybe a little too in control. Sources say the statement issued by his son Donald Jr. about his meeting with a Russian lawyer was actually dictated by Trump. Not a good look.

When it comes to transgender people, there are so many misconceptions. No. 1 is the notion that being tricked for sex is something that people are regularly doing. That’s wrong. Secondly, when it comes to use of gender pronouns, people do not understand their value and power and think it’s reasonable to just interchange them as they feel. It’s not. If you need an education on this matter along with an excellent personal story, read this about a mobile barbershop in Los Angeles.

Jason Derulo is an extremely creative guy. You’re probably familiar with quite a few of his bangers. Yet, when it comes to a hot new music genre, hip-hop is old hat. Country is in — be that in radio formats, TV shows or styles in general — and Derulo wants in. He says he’s got a country album on the way, which I don’t know who’s here for. We’ve seen a fair amount of country collabos over the years, most of which were awful, frankly. Yet, this is a world in which I could really get into this genre. Just not sure we’re there.

As the song goes, “it ain’t trickin’ if you got it.” However, when you don’t have it, you probably shouldn’t be in the club acting like you do. Look, we’ve all been there. Sometimes you get that decline message or you’re just too short to pay for a beer or two, so you ask a friend to cover you in this instance and you’ll get the next one, or something. But when that tab is $9K, and you play in the NFL and you don’t actually make good on your IOU, well, that’ll get you sued. I hope that night was worth it for these two dudes, now dealing with Venmo issues in camp.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Because of this nation’s obsession with locking people up, there is an equal and healthy obsession with people who manage to break out of said circumstances. In the case of 12 guys in Alabama, they pulled off the task with the help of a rather common food item.

Snack Time: When it comes to food, most people just post pictures of really fancy dishes before they eat them to show how cool they are. But this guy posts pictures of dirty dishes and consumed food, which is WAY cooler.

Dessert: You had me at “graffiti robot.” 😍

The Powerball-winning Smith family dedicates a portion of their jackpot to help Trenton, New Jersey They’ve set up a foundation focused on education, Christian values and neighborhood development

It’s been a year since the eight members of the Smith family learned they were winners of a $429.6 million New Jersey Powerball jackpot — the largest single jackpot ticket ever sold in New Jersey. And while the shock has worn off, they are now turning to the work of helping others with a portion of their prize money.

The family actually received a lump sum of around $284 million. The $429.6 million prize would have been granted in full only if the family agreed to take it as an annuity paid over 29 years, according to NBC News. After paying bills, student loans, setting some aside as savings and taking care of personal family needs, the family used a portion of their winnings to create the Smith Family Foundation.

The foundation, established shortly after the win, aims to help transform lives by providing resources to residents of Trenton, New Jersey, and surrounding areas.

“We want to fund programs that directly affect systems of poverty so we can help change the systems or change the dynamics that are causing people to be in poverty,” said Arthur Smith, the grandson of Pearlie Smith, the matriarch of the family, in an interview with NJ.com. “Rather than just helping them find food or give away food, we can make it so they now have the ability to obtain employment, get their proper education in order to be able to go out and get their own food.”

According to the foundation website, their family’s upbringing in Trenton inspired them to be of service to others. Pearlie Smith raised her seven children in an environment filled with poverty and drugs, but taught them the value of hard work and the importance of education and treating others with respect. Together, they attended church and kept God at the center of their lives.

It’s part of the reason that Pearlie Smith, 70, also believes it was divine intervention the day she played the winning numbers at a Trenton 7-Eleven. The numbers— 5, 25, 26, 44, 66 and Powerball, 9 — were played after they came to the family in a dream, according to Pearlie Smith’s eldest daughter, Valerie Arthur.

The foundation will fund grassroots organizations focusing on education, Christian values, neighborhood development, youth and families, and other projects. There will be multiyear grants for organizations willing to participate in a training program during the entire life of the grant cycle, one-year grants for organizations that attend two technical workshops during the grant cycle, and summer programming for organizations that participate in one leadership development training session, according to the site.

“We’re making an investment in our community, and when you make an investment, you expect a return,” Arthur said. “So we want to see what the social return is going to be, what the educational return is going to be, what the transformations in people’s lives is going to be.”

Television anchor Jim Vance was a hero in black Washington A fixture on the local news for four decades, he died of cancer

Back in the day, Jim Vance used to double-park his cream Mercedes 450 SL outside Roland’s grocery store on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast D.C. He’d run in, grab a magazine, some Junior Mints, often a pack of Marlboro Reds, and dap up every soul in the store who recognized him before peeling away.

This was 1979, when local TV news was king and most every American news anchor was white. The nation’s potentates and poseurs ran the country just down the street. But to black Washington, Vance was a hero, anchoring the leading local news show in the nation’s capital for more than four decades.

Young’uns and old heads alike beamed with pride at his accomplishments and what he represented: an elite African-American professional, playing by his rules.

“They thought he was working for them — and he was,” recalled Scott Towle.

Towle was 20, stocking shelves and working as a cashier at Roland’s in 1979. Today, he is another Washingtonian who felt as if he lost a family member when NBC’s WRC-TV announced Vance had died of cancer Saturday morning — just two months after he told viewers about his diagnosis.

“He became the embodiment of black Washington,” said his widow, Kathy McCampbell Vance, whom Vance often credited with saving him from cocaine addiction in the mid-1980s. They were married in 1987. Through separations and an on-and-off-again courtship, she’d been his closest companion for 40 years.

“He lived in Southeast, in a black neighborhood in Capitol Hill, for years,” she added. “Vance was a bootstraps kind of guy. He was just smart. And he had so much personality and charisma.”

If Birth of the Cool belonged to Miles Davis, Vance was the Continuum of Cool. He read the news with a jazzy syncopation, enunciating every sentence just so. In television, a world of harried producers and directors, he moved at the speed of … Jim Vance. If time hadn’t stood still for him, at least the 6 and 11 o’clock newscasts did.

Jim Vance (left) and Doreen Gentzler prepare to return to the live broadcast after a commercial break.

Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

I met him in 2005 through sportscaster George Michael, who invited me to be a panelist on his NBC Washington sports shows. Vance was an unabashed local sports fan who formed a close relationship with Hall of Fame NFL coach Joe Gibbs and many of the team’s best players during Washington’s three Super Bowl victories between 1983 and 1992. He pined for the day when the Wizards would hoist the NBA trophy like Wes Unseld’s Bullets did in 1978. Vance was always curious what Gilbert Arenas was really like, why Stephen Strasburg always looked so angry for a man paid millions to play a child’s game and why Dan Snyder kept getting in his own way, “because Lord knows I know what that’s about,” he told me.

When Michael died in 2010, Vance took it hard and delivered a profound eulogy for his friend. “George Michael was the first man to tell me he loved me,” he said. “When I told him that the L-word made me feel uncomfortable, George replied, ‘Get over it.’ ”

Vance grew up in Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia. His father, James Howard Vance Jr., drank heavily, dying of cirrhosis when Jim was 9. His mother left him in the care of his grandparents. He blamed his father’s death on himself, once lamenting, “I was convinced I was such a piece of s— that he’d rather die than hang out with me.” He earned a degree in secondary education from Cheyney University, a historically black college where he roomed with Ed Bradley, the longtime 60 Minutes correspondent.

He taught high school English for three years and got a job as a television reporter in Philadelphia through a career placement agency in 1968. With America’s racial cauldron boiling, he was recruited to Washington within a year. By 1972, he would become NBC4’s lead news anchor for much of the next five decades.

Winner of 19 Emmy Awards, Vance went to Vietnam. To South Africa. And to Southeast D.C. He fished with President George H.W. Bush. Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry sought out Vance first after being arrested in 1990 for smoking crack cocaine.

Vance knew where the mayor had been, because he once put himself through the same hell. He entered the Betty Ford Center in 1984 after many years of free-basing cocaine. But he relapsed upon returning to town.

“This was the pre-crack cocaine era,” Kathy Vance said. “I just think free-basing was so seductive to Vance that it just pulled him in.” At his lowest, Vance stuck the shotgun he used for bird hunting in his mouth one evening out by Great Falls, but he didn’t pull the trigger.

Vance’s sobriety from cocaine, which began in 1985, lasted until he died. He became active in Washington 12-step groups, partnering with longtime advocate and D.C. politico Johnny Allem in 1991 to open the Cardozo Club at 14th and V streets, which catered to some of the city’s poorest in need of a recovery group, and the nonprofit Columbia Recovery Center.

By 1989, he had combined forces with Doreen Gentzler, weatherman Bob Ryan and Michael. Ratings soared. More people in Washington watched NBC4 for the next 20-plus years than all the national cable news networks combined.

Jim Vance takes a phone call in his office.

Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Gunner of Harley-Davidsons, slayer of hundreds of king and sockeye salmon each summer outside of Ketchikan, Alaska, connoisseur of tequila, jazz and the good life, Vance began wearing a golden hoop earring in his left ear in 2006 after the death of his friend Bradley, who had worn one.

“He was such a … man,” said Rock Newman, host of The Rock Newman Show and the former boxing manager for Riddick Bowe. “He was such a cool character. Sinatra-like. When he did my show, he walked in with some beautiful sweater, leather coat over it and jeans on. That’s some cool s—.

“No matter who you were, how much money you had, what color you were, you saw Jim and you smiled. He was a magnet for everybody.”

He also wasn’t afraid to be polarizing. Vance emotionally advocated for Washington’s NFL team to change its name in 2013 in his Vance’s Views forum — even though the team had a business partnership with the station that had dated back decades.

CBS’ James Brown, a D.C. native, credits Vance with pushing him toward broadcasting during a lunch they had in the early 1970s. “I was trying to seek safety in the multitude of counsel, deciding whether I should stick with the corporate route or pursue my passion, broadcasting. He said to go with what I really wanted to do, that nothing would take the place of that. I still remember that, that he was one of those sage voices that took the time to reach out to a literal nobody at the time. And he was like that with everybody.”

Donnie Simpson, the District’s DJ for life, moved from Detroit to Washington 40 years ago. His first radio gig in D.C. was housed in the same building as NBC4.

“When I saw that anchor desk, all those black faces — Jim, Sue Simmons, Martin Wyatt, the sports anchor at the time — and Jim Vance was the lead? All I could think was, damn, this was the Chocolate City. Black folks really do have some standing in this city. And Jim Vance represented that.”

Craig Melvin, a former NBC4 reporter and now an anchor with NBC and MSNBC, recalled that when he was hired at WRC in 2008, he was told, matter-of-factly, “You gotta get Jim Vance to bless you.”

When Melvin finally introduced himself, Vance said, “I know who you are. I know why you’re here. Meet me at this address.” He then slid a small piece of paper across the table with the address on it. “Best steaks in the District. I’ll meet you there between shows at 7:30.”

“I’m fairly nervous, to say the least,” Melvin said. “I get there early because it’s Jim Vance. But there’s no steakhouse. Just an interesting-looking building with an awning.” A brawny doorman brought Melvin to a private room.

“Then he walks in — in a top coat, top hat, lookin’ cool as s—,” Melvin said. “He sits me down in a corner. It’s then I realized where we were.”

Vance had had Melvin meet him at a strip bar called Camelot. “We sat there. We talked over what was, surprisingly, a pretty good steak.”

“I was testing you,” Vance finally said. “A punk would’ve walked in here and turned right around. But you’re my kind of guy.”

Kathy Vance knew the deal.

“He had his flaws, his demons, and they were his undoing,” she said. “But on the other side of that he lived the life he wanted, and he left a lot of good behind.

“The thing I remember is he looked you in the eye when you spoke to him and talked as if he was really, really listening to you — because he was. … He read people. And he responded. He didn’t wait for you to tell him who you were.”

The irony is Jim Vance didn’t know who he was until much later in life. And even when he found out, he still perplexed the ones he loved.

“I think I’ll be asking questions for decades to come about who he really was,” Kathy said.

Jim Vance was 75 years old. He is survived by Kathy, three children from two previous marriages, a daughter-in-law, three grandchildren and everyone who ever saw him grace the television of their family room.

‘Being Mary Jane’ star Richard Brooks is taking on more and starring in new show ‘The Rich and the Ruthless’ The ‘Law & Order’ vet is going beyond acting to writing, producing and directing

Actor and singer Richard Brooks can read over a legal document and break it right on down. He’s not a lawyer, but he played one on television as Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette in the first three seasons (1990-93) of NBC’s hit drama Law & Order. And the research that went into preparing for the part gives him some expertise on the matter.

“Sometimes, I think of myself as a jailhouse lawyer now because I help people with their legal issues,” Brooks said as he chuckled. “It makes no sense. I’d read the contract, and people are like, ‘You read my contract?’ ‘Yes, I read the full contract.’ ”

Now, Brooks is in the fourth season of the hit show Being Mary Jane on BET and is a co-star in Victoria Rowell’s new dramedy The Rich and the Ruthless, which premieres July 28 on the Urban Movie Channel.

Alongside Gabrielle Union, Richard Roundtree, Margaret Avery and now Michael Ealy, Brooks plays Patrick Patterson, the older brother of Mary Jane (Union). Patrick is a recovering addict trying to get his life back on the right track while raising a young daughter and advising his older children, who now have children of their own. He plays a grandfather on the show who faces adversity of his own, but he is still helping the Patterson family through their separate personal issues.

In the fictional show The Rich and the Ruthless, Brooks plays self-made businessman and showrunner Augustus Barringer. After finding out his show, the first black soap opera on a big Hollywood network, has been booted, he decides to fight for his rightful place in Hollywood. He does what he has to do to keep the show going and moves the company to Jamaica, but his unpredictable wife, Kitty Barringer (Rowell), is not too happy about these changes.

Brooks said he met Rowell on the set of Diagnosis: Murder in 1994.

“I came in for a special guest star on that, and in the show we were paired off together, we had to break the case together,” Brooks said of his character on the nighttime drama. “I was a former heavyweight boxer who, I believe, was being swindled or something by my promoter, and she’s helping me break the case. We really had a great time just being together. There’s a little romantic spark in the police character. We’ve just been friends ever since then, looking for an opportunity to work together again.”

Brooks founded his own production company, Flat Top Entertainment, through which he released his first solo rhythm and blues album, Smooth Love. In 2013, he appeared on the public TV series The Abolitionists as Frederick Douglass. He spoke to The Undefeated about The Rich and the Ruthless, Being Mary Jane and his journey.


How do you feel that you’re entertaining us on one of the hottest TV shows right now, Being Mary Jane?

I love it. I feel like we helped start the whole trend of there being a lot of black dramas and shows like this, like Empire and Power. It’s great to still be pumping out great episodes and great drama, bringing that to BET. The character I play I really love, because he’s a fully dimensional black man. I feel like I get to portray the struggles I think that a lot of black men are going through, and we’re trying to rebound and rebuild our lives, and have a second chance to be the kind of men that we want to be. It’s a great production, great quality writing and acting, so I just love it. It’s really a joy.

Is it weird playing a grandfather?

I guess not really. I feel like I’m a young grandfather. I guess it’s amazing. I think that throughout my career, I’ve managed to sometimes snag these roles, like it’s just laying there or whatever, where I have a full family dynamic. What’s really challenging and satisfying about the part especially is that I’m a grandfather, I’m a father, I’m a son, I’m a brother, you know? I have to play the dynamics of all of those relationships and those roles all at the same time. It’s just great to have a show where my parents are there, too, and I’m still dealing with my parents. My son also. And then try to be a good father, and I have grandkids who I’m trying to be a good grandfather to, and so it is kind of crazy. It’s crazy to get to that part of your life where that is your possibility because that’s who you are. Your kids can have kids, you know? I don’t think we get to see that that much in characters on television or on the movies who actually have that whole world, that whole experience, happening for them. It’s like I’m the emotional center of the show. I get so emotional, so fragile. It’s funny.

What inspires you to keep pouring into our lives through your craft?

It’s funny because I look back and then I realize I’ve been doing this since I was 10 or 11, when I first saw a school play, I think, in sixth grade, and I think they were doing Hansel and Gretel. I found myself going, ‘Why am I not Hansel?’ I was sitting in the audience, and then I started trying to plot my way into the drama department of my junior high school and found a way into a summer job program. They had a student program at the time. The kids were out there picking up garbage and helping do construction stuff and all that.

I was making money being paid actually to act, as a kid. It’s funny now to just look back and realize this was all I’ve done, all I’ve had to do pretty much my whole life, is to be an actor, and I’ve always wanted to be a great actor and really represent men, and black men. My mother always put it upon me to try to teach black men how to be men, or something like that. So that inspires me, and I am just so happy to have roles that may illuminate something about what we go through as men out here.

What’s been the most meaningful role you’ve ever played?

Well, I like to think of my current role, of course, as Patrick, and now Augustus Barringer on The Rich and the Ruthless, and all the roles that are to come. Of course, Law & Order in Paul Robinette had a more transformative role for me because I had to really grow as a man, as an intellect, as a scholar. I had to become more versed in current affairs, and law, and politics and things like that. Before then, I had been pretty much just an artist kind of mentality and just wanting to act, and that role forced me to learn contracts and laws, and my research for it actually influenced me as a person a lot, so that one was probably the biggest stretch at the time. To grow into that role, I think, has helped me with the rest of my career to take on more challenging parts and things like that.

But I have a theater background. I think that had a big effect on me, too, the work of August Wilson.

If you weren’t an actor and an artist, what do you think you’d be doing?

When I started going to a prep school I was acting, and I went right to another grad school, Circle in the Square. But my mom had wanted to get me a full scholarship to medical school actually in Cleveland. She spoke with someone, and he was like, ‘Wow, this is great. We really need black men as doctors. We could give him a full ride, eight years.’ He’d pay for it, you know? But I was committed to acting, and also, I never really liked dissecting. I didn’t like biology. I didn’t really like dissecting frogs and things like that.

I think that law would have probably been one that I were to find myself more practically thinking of. There’s a certain amount of performance to it, and there’s the intellect. I do like legalese and the complexities of law and stuff.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey?

Probably just surviving the process of the ups and downs of the industry, and dealing with the other people’s expectations, whether they are ahead of me or behind me. You start off and no one really believes you could do anything, they think it’s impossible, and so you have a lot of doubt. Then, as soon as you start to do something, then people are ahead of you, and then they might be like, ‘Well, how come you’re not a major superstar already? How come that movie didn’t … ‘ So it’s always good, just sort of gauging it and trying to keep a level head. You’ve got to keep a balance and continue to think positive.

What do you look forward to most in your future?

I’ve really been into directing a little bit. I was shadowing on Being Mary Jane this season. Right now I’m doing an intensive at New York Film Academy out here in L.A. for the summer. Trying to squeeze that in between acting parts and stuff, and so I really want to expand into writing, producing, directing and creating concepts. Sort of what Victoria [Rowell] is doing, which is why I really want to support her in anything she’s doing. Because I think it’s incredible, the way she’s managed to put this project together and carried it to this point where we’re premiering, and somebody thought of her. That’s what artists have to do sometimes. We can’t just sit around and wait for other people to create opportunities for us; we have to create the opportunities.

We’re the ones who have a lot of the experience. We know what works. We’ve read hundreds and hundreds of scripts, and been on hundreds and hundreds of sets, so it is our time to actually step up and create opportunities for the next generations. So, kind of where my mind is right now.

What would you tell an aspiring actor who came to you for advice?

I do believe in studying and emulating a trained actor. I believe in excellence, I believe in using the art form as a way for personal growth. So whether you succeed at it or not, I think it’s an opportunity to learn more about yourself while you’re exploring other characters. I would definitely tell them to persevere and also innovate, because everything is changing and there’s no right or wrong way to make it these days. Who knows what’s coming in the future? With social media and the new way that stars are coming up the internet now. But definitely, I would tell them to try to be the best, and study with the best, and supplement all their education with books and learning.

Are there any roles that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?

I’ve done so many roles. I definitely want to do some more movies. I wouldn’t mind getting into some new superhero comic book. I think that would be fun. And maybe something on the musical side, too, I wouldn’t mind. I haven’t really done a hit Broadway musical, or I haven’t gotten much singing out as much as I would like to. That would be fun. I think just to get my music out, or to be a part of something musical.

What are your hobbies?

My singing, music. Songwriting is one. Sports. I like basketball and swimming, reading, going out and partying. Still like to party.

This Southern University grad is turning Houston’s crack houses into homes For nearly 30 years, Leslie Smith has been a force for change in the Third Ward

Leslie Smith — 6-foot-3, bald, with a debonair look — may have GQ magazine appearance on the outside, but he certainly has a heart of gold on the inside.

In fact, some say the Southern University College of Business graduate has that Midas touch. With an abundance of dignity.

A minister without a traditional congregation, Smith buys and refurbishes dilapidated crack houses in Houston’s Third Ward and rents the refurbished homes at affordable rates. He has become a force for positive change in a depressed, 90 percent black area in dire need of transformation.

He bought his first crack house in 1989, the year Smith founded and became CEO of a community-help organization that he named Change Happens! (with a swoosh for the exclamation point). By 2017, Smith had purchased a total of 10 crack houses.

One of the dilapidated former crack houses to be renovated in Houston’s Third Ward by Change Happens!

Combine that with the 18 other neglected housing structures he’s purchased, and Smith has renovated 28 homes in Houston.

The 63-year-old Smith explained his mission to The Undefeated: “My work is my ministry. I love to give to those that are living and existing in very poor areas.”

During the Fourth of July holiday weekend, while many of us stuffed ourselves at barbecues, Smith was canvassing New Orleans’ Seventh, Eighth and Ninth wards, areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and still in search of hope.

Smith’s goal: to one day bring to the “Big Easy” his Houston model of transforming ramshackle structures into livable residences.

No holiday for a man on the move

As Smith says, “Time is money.” And access to capital and credit are necessary requirements to accomplish great deeds for the masses.

“Back when we were growing up, your word was your bond. Now, your word is your credit score.”

Theodore Taylor, a 42-year-old tow truck driver, knows about that. He is a tenant in one of Smith’s reconstructed houses. Taylor pays $650 a month for a two-bedroom, single-family home with central heat and air conditioning. These houses, cream-colored with burgundy trim, are surrounded by black iron fences and a feeling of safety, unlike before. Taylor had many kind words for Smith.

“We need more people like him,” Taylor said. “Nobody wants to invest in neighborhoods like this.”

Smith is currently leading a 12-person contingent from Houston to Haiti for a two-week humanitarian mission.

Leslie Smith

The group plans to deliver powdered milk, peanut butter, children’s backpacks and blankets to three orphanages.

“I’ve been doing this for 13 years,” Smith said. He visits Haiti three or four times a year.

Smith got an early start over most in the spirit of entrepreneurship and business acumen. How about at 9 years old?

“One day, my dad told me to come go with him,” Smith recalled. “He took me to a car dealership. He bought a Chevrolet Impala for $2,800. Back in those days, that was a lot of money. He pulled out that $2,800, all in $100 bills. The people at the dealership were shocked; a black man came in and did that. And my dad had only a high school education.”

The lesson: the power of paid in full. No lingering debt. “Cash on the barrel head,” as the folk of wisdom used to say back in the day.

“My dad had a Gulf Oil franchise (service/gas station) back in the late ’50s, early ’60s, in Shreveport, Louisiana,” Smith said. “His mom and dad helped put up the collateral for the franchise, so I consider myself a born entrepreneur.”

Now, with specks of gray in his goatee and an affinity for suits from Dillard’s, the bespectacled Smith lives in a loft in downtown Houston, participates in long-distance bicycle charity events (try pedaling from Houston to New Orleans), vacations in Mexico and retreats to saunas at the area YMCA to de-stress from a wildly busy schedule.

Asked whether he’s a millionaire, Smith responded, “No, I just control the millions. Remember, the bank owns the loans.”

Smith uses the business principles that he learned from Southern and his own entrepreneurial instincts to make a difference.

Donald R. Andrews, the 68-year-old dean of Southern’s College of Business, said we need more black folk like Smith who understand the tenets of small-business management.

“They must understand human resources, product management, sales, payroll management and economics,” said Andrews. “All of that is needed, even if it’s a nonprofit enterprise.”

Recognition for dedicated work

During Southern’s homecoming against Arkansas Pine-Bluff the weekend of Oct. 21, Smith was inducted into Beta Gamma Sigma, an international honor society serving business programs accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Membership in BGS is the highest global recognition a business student can receive in a business program accredited by AACSB International.

Said Smith: “Business administration, marketing, management and entrepreneurship are the educational backgrounds that would help one become a successful entrepreneur. Southern University’s business school taught me the theory and the methodology of the practice of managing and growing a business.”

And Smith has experienced the delight of business growth.

His office is in a three-story brick building that houses Smith’s Change Happens!, formerly known as Families Under Urban & Social Attack. It’s 2,700 square feet, $3 million built from the ground up. The doors opened in 2005, and it’s within walking distance of Smith’s redeveloped houses. The colors of the office building: cream base with burgundy trim, again. “That’s my branding colors,” Smith explained.

“When I first came to the neighborhood and started buying property, a lot of black people thought white folks owned this,” Smith recollected. “They were surprised when they found out it was black people like me who owned these properties. It blew them away. We have to change that mindset.”

The Change Happens! building is the epicenter for Smith’s 70 full-time employees and his 18 community-help programs, which include after-school facilities for adolescents, health care enrollment assistance, youth drug prevention, computer training centers, adult education projects, libraries and more. Smith has gotten federal contracts with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Centers for Disease Control. He’s also been aided by contributions from fundraising events, sponsors and affluent donors.

“Leslie Smith is doing more than just remodeling houses,” Taylor the tenant said. “He’s also making changes. Unlike other contractors in the Third Ward, he’s saying you can stay here but with stipulations: no drugs, break-ins, stealing, none of that stuff.”

When Smith first started buying rickety structures in “Crack House Alley” with a $25,000 bank loan, he had to run off the drug dealers with their pit bull guard dogs and clean up the stashes of dirty needles, drugs and other paraphernalia left behind.

That process didn’t come about without confrontations with dealers and users.

“I told them that’s playing dirty,” Smith remembered. “I told them if they didn’t stop breaking into my houses, I would call the police.”

Then, Smith posted signs scattered about his properties with a rather eye-catching inscription: “God’s Property, Drug Free Zone.”

The criminals got the message. And so have others, in a more positive manner, as Smith has come a long way since 1989.

A heart of gold in a time of need.