A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.

A visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary, and a lesson in forgiveness NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith shares his ministry experience at the prison

Editor’s note: Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Also known as “Angola” because it was built on a former plantation that held many slaves from the African country, the prison has a long and notorious history, including convict leasing in the 1800s. It was also once dubbed “the bloodiest prison in America.”


A few months ago, I received a text from my former teammate Steve Smith Sr., a man who is like a brother to me:

“For the last few years I’ve been asked to do a prison visit by a friend named Lenny. He is the team chaplain for the Buffalo Bills. Last year, I finally went and it was a remarkable and unforgettable experience for me. I know everyone has their own things going on, but I told myself I wouldn’t be silent and keep it to myself. So I’m just doing what was placed on my heart. Pray about it. If what you read interests you hit me back. If it doesn’t I completely understand.”

After I read Steve’s text message, I thought about the many times I’ve visited prisons during my career, including San Quentin in California, so I knew what to expect. I responded and let Steve know that I was interested in joining the trip. I would later find out I was wrong. The visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola State Prison, turned out to be a transformative experience for me — an emotional journey that challenged my assumptions about rehabilitation and forgiveness.

Buffalo Bills Chaplain Len Vanden Bos leads a prayer on the field after a game against the Miami Dolphins at New Era Field. Buffalo beats Miami 24 to 16.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Steve’s friend Lenny turned out to be Len Vanden Bos, my chaplain at Pro Athletes Outreach, an organization that builds community among pro athletes and couples to grow spiritually and have a positive impact around them. Through his Higher Ground Ministry, he takes current and former NFL players, along with Christian leaders, to prisons to spread the gospel and encourage people who are incarcerated.

I knew that Angola was a maximum security prison filled with people who were facing lengthy sentences, some convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape but others convicted under the state’s harsh habitual offender laws for which Louisiana is famous. I also assumed from everything I had heard that people would be locked in small cages with little interaction with each other outside of the prison yard. As we toured the former plantation, built on more than 18,000 acres, however, I was shocked to see men walking around, cleaning up and washing cars as if they weren’t incarcerated at all. Some were dressed in plainclothes; no one wore chains. The men slept in a big room with bunk beds, which reminded me of the 1999 movie Life, where Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence play two Harlem bootleggers sentenced to life in prison for a phony murder charge. The reality of what I saw was a lot to take in, and as we walked around, I wondered how could the most violent men in Louisiana live together in what appears to be a very peaceful environment.

I don’t mean to glorify this prison. It is a prison, after all, and people are held in cells and often forced to work in sweltering heat with little money. And as we continued to walk through the prison grounds, I saw men working, some for as little as 2 cents an hour, making T-shirts for the government and license plates for every driver in Louisiana, or raising cattle to be sold on the market.

A prisoner walks thru a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison in 2013.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Three things struck me as we toured the grounds.

First, I feel strongly that this was modern-day slavery, and it was wrong. Then I remembered slavery is still legal as defined by the 13th Amendment, which says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Angola, like other prisons, benefits from this exemption. And I realized, yes, this is America.

Second, I witnessed how people accused of even the most serious crimes and living in extremely difficult conditions could work, live together peacefully and change. I wondered if those people working so well together were really still even a danger to anyone. This experience drove home the importance of second chances, because people change, even those who have caused terrible harm.

As we passed a church on the property that was built by the men, for example, I was struck by what they had accomplished — and what it demonstrated. I saw two incarcerated men working on a building with all of the tools they needed: hammers, nails, screwdrivers, screws, it was all there. It was a striking visual that remains stamped in my memory. Although I strongly believed that it was wrong that they were working for pennies on the dollar, their ability to do so conveyed a sense of collaboration and responsibility that led me to also believe they had hope.

The system is complicated.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm” is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Throughout my visit at Angola, I saw men working and trying to better themselves through a variety of impactful programs offered there. Yes, some will, in fact, die in prison, while others will earn the second chance they deserve.

Unfortunately for the men awaiting their second chance in America, their fate rests with the political, and not with what is right. In several states, freedom is not just determined by one’s actions while incarcerated or even by the parole or pardon board. In some cases, situations like pardons require the signature of the governor of that particular state, whose contact with the person who is incarcerated is limited to a manila file folder even if the state-approved board has deemed the person worthy of a second chance.

Legislators have the power to change that, and in some cases, states have created a “no action” law that allows for pardons to go through with the recommendation of the board if it is not signed before the governor has left his term. This takes the burden of a final decision off the back of the governor, who may or may not have political concerns, while offering the offender a second chance based on the approval of the experienced members of the pardon board.

Many men and women who deserve second chances remain in prison because of politics or because they are considered a high-profile case in their state. It’s not fair to the incarcerated men and women or the bodies that govern them.

And then a third thing occurred to me.

Overall, spending time with the people at Angola led me to question my own views of forgiveness. As a follower of Christ, I believe that we are forgiven. But I had to ask myself, “Am I really forgiving others? If my forgiveness is conditional, is it real?” I’ve spent many years holding grudges against people who’ve wronged me in some way, and I imagined the grace summoned by victims of crime when they forgive those who have harmed them. I seek the peace and freedom that the forgiven men feel.

Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens prays with teammates and player from the Philadelphia Eagles after the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-26 at M&T Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Many of the men at Angola had already found peace through Christ, which allowed them to feel forgiven. As I prayed with them at the end of our visit, worshipping alongside men who had committed violent crimes and were now paying their debt to society, I witnessed the power of real forgiveness. It was a lesson that I carried with me when I left, and it is a lesson that I will share with the hope that others can accept and give forgiveness too.

Wizards G League affiliate general manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu keeps basketball dreams alive NBA veteran oversees daily operations for Capital City Go-Go

When the NBA’s newest G League expansion team needed a guy to run things, they turned to the perfect person for the job — an experienced journeyman with the right kind of basketball savvy.

“I had no business background,” said Pops Mensah-Bonsu, the new general manager of the Capital City Go-Go. “I had planned to go to business school before working in a front office, but the opportunity came before I had the chance.”

The George Washington University standout earned a degree in psychology and played with 18 NBA, G League and international teams combined during his professional career. By most standards, he is perhaps, one of the most successful players to retire from the G League, averaging 26.6 points when he was on what he refers to as his “high horse.”

“I’ve sat in the same seats as two-way players, assigned players and G League contracted players, so I use my experiences to help guys along with their journeys,” said the 35-year-old Mensah-Bonsu.

The team is the Washington Wizards’ G League affiliate, named for go-go music, a hard fusion of blues, rhythm and blues, and funk that’s part of Washington, D.C.’s, bustling musical culture. Everything about the team fits the appeal of the local fan. And for Mensah-Bonsu, he’d already made Washington his home and quickly immersed himself in the city’s diverse climate.

When he got the call from the Wizards to gauge his interest for the general manager position, he was an NBA scout with the San Antonio Spurs, a job he’d been in for about a year. The very next day he flew home to interview with Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld.

It was a success.

As general manager, he oversees the daily operations of the Go-Go while engaging in long- and short-term strategic planning.

“I always make sure to check in with players and make sure everything is going smoothly and morale is high,” he said. “As a leader, they feed off of my energy, so regardless of if I’m having a good or bad day, I come into that office with a smile on my face. I always make sure they receive my positive energy. After practice, I catch up with the head coach and see how he feels. I’m always thinking ahead of how I can help make this team better.”

If there’s anyone who can relate to G League players and their grind, it’s Mensah-Bonsu. He’s suited up for the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. At times, he suits up for practices if Go-Go head coach Jarell Christian needs him.

“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” said Christian. “He brings that physicality that you need. Intensity rate goes up instantly when he’s on the court. He’s able to touch so many different people because he’s had so many walks of life and experiences. He’s able to connect with people in a way that I’ve never really seen.”

General manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu (center) and head coach Jarell Christian (left) of the Capital City Go-Go participate in an NBA G-League clinic at Charles Hart Middle School on Aug. 8, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Although he’s not far removed from his playing days, Mensah-Bonsu misses the hardwood.

“I miss it every morning I get up, every time I watch a game and every time I watch practice,” he said. “There’s a void that I always feel I need to fill. I’m a realist. I understand that my impact is now going to be on this side of the game. But when I’m on the court, I forget it and go back to player mode.”

The difference between the NBA and the G League is the salaries, Mensah-Bonsu said.

“They make a lot more money in the NBA and their CBA [collective bargaining agreement] is much more comprehensive,” he said. “But to the core, it is very similar, just at a larger scale. It’s still managing people and putting a team together.”

In the team’s first season, Mensah-Bonsu soon realized success in the league is measured through development across the board, but mainly with the development of players.

“We are here to help the players become the best they can be on and off the court,” said the first-time general manager.

The Go-Go finished their first season 25-25. It’s only the second time an expansion team finished .500 or better in the G League’s last 10 seasons.

It was his longtime dream to be part of a team’s front office. And when he needs guidance in his position, he has countless mentors, including Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and Amadou Gallo Fall, vice president and managing director of NBA Africa, to lean on.

“I’m indebted to them for always being willing to help me on this side of the game,” said Mensah-Bonsu.

He even plans to collaborate with Gallo Fall and the Basketball Africa League. “It’s a great opportunity to give African players to live out their dreams and play basketball. Every summer I try to be involved in the [Basketball Without Borders] camp in Africa; I started doing camps with NBA Ghana every year. My goal is one day to have a team in Ghana.”

Twenty years ago, if anyone had asked Mensah-Bonsu what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have answered an Olympian in track and field. Why? He had a natural “you can’t teach that” sort of talent when it came to the sport.

Mensah-Bonsu was raised by low-income Ghanaian parents whose main goal was for their children to have greater opportunities than themselves. He moved from his London home to the United States at 16 years old without his parents and attended The Hun School of Princeton. He became a two-time New Jersey state champion in the high jump and excelled on the basketball court in high school.

It was evident that he had game while playing junior basketball for the Hackney White Heat of the English Basketball League. But to take it to another level, Mensah-Bonsu knew that going to a prep school in the U.S. would help elevate his game and increase his visibility.

He had that same joy and mindset when he transferred in his senior year to St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, New Jersey, where he averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds a game.

Mensah-Bonsu made a name for himself when he got to George Washington University. He helped lead the Colonials to two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (2005 and 2006). It was the first time in 50 years the program was ranked No. 10 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today/ESPN Top 25 polls.

After helping his team beat Michigan State and Maryland on consecutive nights in his junior year, Mensah-Bonsu noticed NBA scouts attending his practices. It was then that he knew he had NBA potential.

He went undrafted in 2006 but worked his way into a spot on the Mavericks after summer league. That season he appeared in 12 games, averaging 2.4 points per game. He spent multiple stints with the Fort Worth Flyers of the NBA Development League. In July 2007, Mensah-Bonsu rejoined the Mavericks for summer league but was later waived. He signed a one-year deal with Benetton Treviso of the Lega Basket Serie A in September 2007, then with CB Granada of Spain in May 2008 to appear in the team’s final game. In August 2008, he signed with Joventut Badalona for one year.

“For me, my mindset was I do not intend to be here long,” he said.

Mensah-Bonsu represented Great Britain in the 2012 Games.

“I don’t think there is a bigger moment for an athlete than walking out in the opening ceremony and it was 10 minutes away from where I walked the streets of London. I remember my brother took a picture of my parents wearing my Olympic jersey.”

Pops Mensah-Bonsu (left) celebrates making a 3-pointer in the men’s basketball preliminary round match between Great Britain and Brazil on Day 4 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Basketball Arena on July 31, 2012, in London.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

During his career, he endured many injuries.

“I had 10 surgeries,” he said. “Six on the knee, elbow, shoulder, eye and nose. I say my right side is my bionic side. I wouldn’t say I have recovered. I still feel pain. When I walked up the stairs and I feel some pain, it’s a reminder that it was all worth it because I’m walking up the stairs to my office as a general manager.”

In 2015, his professional playing days ended abruptly after he received a two-year ban due to a doping violation while playing in Greece. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1,000 euros. Mensah-Bonsu was taking Adderall prescribed for a medical condition.

“I’ve played in the NBA, I’ve played in the NCAA, I’ve played in the Olympics, I’ve played in high-level Europe, and I had never failed a drug test in my life,” he said. “When that happened, it ended my career. I was still fighting to clear my name because I didn’t want that be a dark cloud over my career or the way it ended.”

After retiring that same year, he became regional representative and international liaison for the National Basketball Players Association. He said that while there he received a phone call that would finally help clear the violation. According to Mensah-Bonsu, his agent told him that an appellate committee of the Greek courts researched and found out that Adderall wasn’t a performance-enhancing drug.

Off the court, he indulges in his family and four children and his love for fashion. He even graced the runway during New York Fashion Week in September 2016.

“Fashion has always been a big part of who I am,” he said. “I remember getting a text asking if I wanted to walk for Studio One Eighty Nine, an Accra-based line by Abrima Erwiah and actress Rosario Dawson, in New York Fashion Week’s show. I was like, ‘You literally made my life.’ I was the only nonmodel at the show, and people wanted to know who I was.”

Mensah-Bonsu says he could’ve been more proactive in preparing for life after basketball, but it’s the relationships he built that have allowed him to gain success as a general manager.

“I always tell people your character is determined by how you treat people who can’t do anything for you,” he said. “I always was open to engaging with people that I came across. People remember your character and their interactions.”

His advice to current players is to start planning now.

“It’s always a good idea to think about life after basketball and lay a foundation,” he said. “Sometimes basketball isn’t fair to us. I love the game, it did a lot for me, but my career ended before I wanted it to, and such is life.”

In Mensah-Bonsu’s mind, his journey to the NBA didn’t start or finish under the most ideal of circumstances. However, his path to front-office status has earned him the opportunity to oversee a franchise and a group of hungry players.

Charlotte welcomes NBA’s Building Bridges program during All-Star Weekend Program aims to connect community and law enforcement through basketball

NBA legend Dell Curry didn’t see professional basketball as a career choice growing up. Instead, it was another field that captured his attention.

“I wanted to go into law enforcement,” Curry said. “I had no idea I’d be an NBA player. Basketball helped me bridge that gap. I wasn’t the best student in high school, but once I realized what I wanted to do, I had to have good grades to help get me focused, disciplined and dedicated to my craft.”

Curry was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1986, where he retired in 2002 as the team’s all-time leader in points. But the father of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and Portland Trail Blazers guard Seth Curry still had thoughts of becoming involved in law enforcement.

More than three decades later, Dell Curry and the Curry Family Foundation are part of the seventh installment of Building Bridges Through Basketball, an NBA program designed to forge a relationship between police and youths in communities.

On Saturday, the program was launched at the Naomi Drenan Recreation Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, the same location where brothers Stephen and Seth Curry spent countless hours practicing. It’s one of the centers in the local area where the siblings started playing basketball. Children participated in skills drills and interacted with members of law enforcement.

Weekly sessions will begin at the center March 9, with 2.5-hour classes featuring basketball training and hands-on leadership activities developed by the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), to focus on identity, diversity and conflict resolution.

Two newly renovated outdoor basketball courts were also revealed on Saturday, courtesy of the Curry Family Foundation and Under Armour in partnership with Nancy Lieberman Charities.

Hornets legend Dell Curry and others unveiled a new outdoor court at Naomi Drenan Recreation Center as part of the NBA’s Building Bridges Through Basketball initiative on February 16, 2019.

Photo courtesy of Under Armour

Seth Curry, NBA Cares ambassadors Bob Lanier and Felipe Lopez, Lieberman, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford all attended.

“We have to build relationships and it’s not just the relationships with our children,” Billings-Burford said. “Law enforcement officers have to see and understand our children just like our children have to see and understand law enforcement officers. We’re bridging that divide to make a difference every day like in the streets. Even as we protest and we fight injustice, we also just have to improve conditions everywhere we can.”

Cooper hosted a similar program in 2009 when he was North Carolina’s attorney general. Badges for Baseball in North Carolina served more than 1,500 youths in 17 communities across the state. Cooper used sports as a catalyst to enhance communication between police and the community.

“I think that many communities yearn for a voice and yearn for respect and I think there are a lot of law enforcement officers that really want to bridge that gap … ,” Cooper said. “Sports is an amazing way to do this.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, NBA legend Dell Curry, RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford and Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman attended the court unveiling and launch of Building Bridges Through Basketball program in Charlotte, NC.

Photo courtesy of Under Armour.

Building Bridges took off nearly a year after LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony used their platform to spread awareness on social injustice at The ESPYS in 2016. Their speech was delivered in the wake of fatal shootings by police and it soon began to take on a broader awareness.

The NBA launched the 10-week Building Bridges program to help build trust and bridge divides in the community. They partnered with Under Armour, then with RISE to facilitate the curriculum. According to the NBA, more than 11,500 youths and members of law enforcement since 2016 have come together in the initial six Building Bridges Through Basketball programs. With New Orleans as the inaugural site in 2016, other cities involved are Chicago (2), Detroit (2), Los Angeles and Charlotte.

Rashawn Ray, associate professor of sociology and director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland, said the program is a start in the right direction.

“I tend to think that the NBA is definitely doing something that’s proactive,” Ray said. “Obviously these cities have troubled histories, as well as troubled things that have happened in the present. … Particularly to have police departments at the table, when they’re not telling someone what to do on the street, but instead are simply having a conversation to see, particularly black and brown youth in cities, as simply another human being. I think part of what 10 weeks can do is it can start to form a new baseline. It is not the ending, instead it’s a big beginning.”

Dell Curry said he can see the benefit of 10 weeks of interaction.

“You can get a lot done in 10 weeks,” he said. “If everybody involved has the same focus, the same dedication, the same goal, definitely so.”

Jacoby Jackson, 14, is a member of the program in Charlotte. He says 10 weeks is enough but it could be more if you don’t have a fully formed relationship.

Jacoby Jackson (left) and his mother Tabitha Jackson (right) met some of the police officers that will participate in the seventh Building Bridges Through Basketball program in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend.

Kelley Evans/The Undefeated.

“It’s good to build relationships and communicate with them,” he said.

His mother, Tabitha, has been a social worker in Charlotte since before Jacoby was born and raised her children in the area. Like Ray, she believes 10 weeks is a start.

“You have to start somewhere,” she said. “It is an awesome experience. This is a great opportunity.”

For the mother of two honor students, law enforcement lacked cultural competency. Her eldest son, Cameron, is a sophomore at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“I think that both students and adults can improve in that area and this program gives them opportunity to do that.”

A national lynching memorial recognizes the domestic terrorism that killed my great-great-grandfather. My family came to mourn his death and proclaim our history.

The Killers’ Perspective

One-sided reports justifying the lynching of a carpenter for allegedly attacking a white woman in rural Mississippi quickly spread all the way to Maryland and Illinois. Wilkinson County, Mississippi, (white dot) is where Charles Brown was lynched.

Sept. 13, 1879 Wilkinson County, Mississippi Woodville Republican

“Brown’s body we learn was discovered next morning about three miles off suspended from the limb of a tree – of his crime there is no manner of doubt, of his fate, we have only to say ‘served him right.’ ”

Sept. 22, 1879 New Orleans, Louisiana The New Orleans Daily Democrat

“The fiend was secured, while Mr. Phares gave the moment to allay the terror of his wife…Brown hailed from Shady Grove and heretofore had been regarded as a rather good darky.”

Oct. 7, 1879 Bloomington, Illinois Daily Leader

“Charles Brown, a colored man, was hanged by a mob near Mt. Pleasant this morning, for an attempted outrage upon the person of Mrs. Phares.”

Oct. 7, 1879 Cincinnati, Ohio The Cincinnati Daily Star

“After dark, however, a crowd assembled, and, taking the scoundrel from his custodian, they hanged him to the limb of a tree until he was dead.”

Oct. 8, 1879 Logansport, Indiana Daily Journal

“… with the aid of some colored people, Phares arrested Brown and put him in charge of an officer.”

Oct. 9, 1879 Cumberland, Maryland The Daily Times

“After dark a crowd assembled, took the scoundrel and hung him to a tree till dead.”

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0 miles from Wilkinson County

“Bless you, Karin, you found it all,” she said, sobbing. “Oh. It was all true, wasn’t made up. … Can you believe it really happened?”

Twenty-one Brown descendants went to Alabama for the opening of the memorial. They came from Atlanta, St. Louis, Baton Rouge and a couple of cities in Texas. My first cousins, Gail Delaney and Felicia Powell, came with Felicia’s son, William, his wife, Dominique, and their 16-month-old daughter, Ari. Felicia said they stood in a circle around the column holding hands while William said a prayer. And they cried a little, she said.

“My granddaughter will be able to tell her granddaughter, and the memory will go on forever,” my cousin told me.

Mom’s first cousin Thomas Hudson visited the memorial with his wife, Julia, daughter Carol Hudson and grandson Julian Hudson-Love. They drove in from Fort Worth. “To me, it’s the equivalent of attending his funeral,” he said. “They don’t know where he’s buried, any of that … so you know your final resting place, my great-grandfather’s final resting place.”

Our visit to the memorial wasn’t the end of my journey or my great-great-grandfather’s story. I am still searching for the descendants of Charles and Amanda’s five other children. One of my cousins has proposed a family reunion.

But Charles Brown’s family was there: Mattie Berry, Stephanie Berry, Gail Delaney, Felicia Powell, William Powell, Dominique Powell, Ari Powell, Norma Reed, Mariea Dunn, Patricia Dunn, Jimmie Brown, Tommie L. Gauthia, John Henry Brown Jr., Thomas Hudson, Julia Hudson, Carol Hudson, Julian Hudson-Love, Tina George and Ina Hatch. They are witnesses to his legacy.

And I was there. I, too, am a witness.

Samira Wiley misses ‘Orange Is the New Black‘ and loves ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ — but also wants to have fun The Maryland native has a penchant for characters who are right on time

Growing up in Samira Wiley’s home, you could tell which day of the week it was by which type of shows were on television.

If it was Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday — her days — the vibe was MTV, VH1 or BET. On Mondays and Fridays, when her younger brother Joshua ruled the remote control, it was all about ESPN. Home was Prince George’s County, Maryland (she grew up in Fort Washington), and it was there that her love of performance and all things entertainment, with a pinch of athleticism, was fostered. When she and Joshua weren’t duking it out over the television, they were changing in and out of sports uniforms, hitting their respective playing fields and tearing it up in the name of competitive sports.

Wiley ran track — cross country. And she played soccer. And basketball. And for just one day, she recalls, her index finger against the side of her face, she played lacrosse. “Me and my brother,” she said, laughing, “we used to play right forward and left forward for the soccer team we were on. … Those were the glory days of my athletic prowess.”

Samira Wiley, a Maryland native, has starred in two TV series that are part of the cultural zeitgeist: Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

André Chung for The Undefeated

She’s laughing because her days as a would-be superstar athlete are all behind her — unless someone comes a-calling with a sports role that needs to be brought to life. By now, everyone knows that she spent 50 episodes starring as the beloved Poussey on Netflix’s addictive and groundbreaking Orange Is the New Black. Her character’s demise struck a chord.

“For so long, I just wanted to be an actor,” said Wiley, sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. “When I first got my job on Orange, I was bartending. It was still like a dream. I entered the public consciousness in this show. It … defined me. We talk about getting typecast in my industry, and I didn’t want that to happen after Poussey.”

“It’s just sort of a happy accident that the two shows I’ve been on have permeated our culture in this way.”

The character was killed by a prison guard, which sparked a protest at the fictional female detention facility. The fallout around the killing of Poussey came at a time when national headlines felt eerily familiar and #BlackLivesMatter had perhaps reached peak battle cry. “She was someone I fell in love with,” said Wiley, “and lot of people offered me roles on other things [that] felt [like] Poussey.” Poussey was a young gay woman who made some mistakes and landed in a federal prison. Post-Poussey, the Juilliard-trained Wiley wanted to flex her acting muscles in a way than the world had yet to see.

Wiley says landing her role as Poussey on Orange Is the New Black was like a dream. “When I first got my job on Orange, I was bartending. … I entered the public consciousness in this show. It … defined me.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

And now she’s entering season two of Hulu’s acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale, a series that many critics say mirrors the Trump era. The show is set in a not-so-far-off future, after the U.S. government has been overthrown by a totalitarian, Christian theonomy. Pure coincidence, considering that the series is based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel and the series was filming before the 2016 presidential election. The women in Atwood’s fictional world are subjected to misogyny in a patriarchal society, but over the first season viewers watched them fight for individualism and independence. This all seems very in line with the current political climate and the brave outpouring of women fighting against sexual harassment and assault in the #MeToo era.

“To be honest, I didn’t want to do it,” said Wiley. “Because specifically … of my own journey with my queerness, and that also being a part of the typecast, I didn’t want to keep playing gay characters. I wanted people to see me as other things.” Last year Wiley married Lauren Morelli, whom she met while working on Orange. Morelli is a writer on the show. “I was unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood,” said Wiley, “but my wife wasn’t. [Atwood] is one of her favorite authors. [Lauren] was like, ‘If you’re gonna be gay for somebody, you need to be gay for this. I know you’re out here trying to do your thing and be all the colors of the rainbow, but if you’re gonna do it, this is the one.’ ”

Atwood’s world was white. The series creator, Bruce Miller, wanted to diversify near-future New England. “The decision to have people of color in this world stems … from him saying, ‘I don’t want to make a f—ing TV show with a bunch of white people.’ That’s literally where it stems from … like, ‘I don’t want to be a creator in this [kind of] world right now, even if this is the book.’ ” She says that was nice to hear.

“It’s just sort of a happy accident that the two shows I’ve been on have permeated our culture in this way,” said Wiley. “They’re relevant. They’re saying something that society needs to hear. I think [my future] is about … keeping that voice that’s relevant but also having a fun career.

“I’m very blessed, and I’m happy to be here. … I got into acting because I have a wonderful sense of play. … Sometimes I want to make sure that I remember for myself that, yeah, you also want to play and go put on a wig and be a character that you haven’t been before.”

And maybe one day she’ll wear a sports uniform again.

As anti-gun violence protesters converge on Washington, football great Calvin Hill recalls the teenage activists of the civil rights movement Today’s teenage activists follow in the footsteps of African-Americans in the ‘60s

Legendary Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill remembers how he came to understand what he was fighting for during the civil rights movement. He grew up outside Baltimore and was bused to a segregated elementary school before attending an elite private high school in the Bronx, New York, where he was one of only five black students.

“The day we marched on Washington” in 1963, Hill was 16. “There was such a spirit of people just hugging and joining hands and singing together, I thought segregation was going to end, you know, that day,” he recalled.

On Saturday, more than half a million people are expected to gather in downtown Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence rally, and a great many of them will be young. The demonstration was conceived after last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of teenager-led protests that have gained high-profile friends, enemies and national attention. But this is not the first time the nation has witnessed the power of youth activism. This anti-gun violence movement mirrors a protest tradition that decades ago recognized the moral sway of children who put their bodies, and often their lives, on the frontlines of a changing nation.

“If you look at what the civil rights movement was, it wasn’t necessarily about blacks wanting to go to school with whites. It was about wanting to have equal resources and equal opportunities,” said Hill, 71, a consultant for player development for the Cowboys who lives with his wife, Janet, in Great Falls, Virginia. And that desire fueled a movement of African-Americans, including some who were very young, who filled the streets of the nation.

It’s an era that the four-time Pro Bowler and first Cowboy to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season (not to mention the father of former NBA All-Star Grant Hill) remembers well. He grew up with the signposts, totems, deprivations and dangers of Jim Crow segregation. Hill often visited relatives in South Carolina, and as a youngster he thought perhaps ginger ale flowed from “Whites Only” water fountains. One day, with his cousins as lookouts, he took a sip from one, then dashed around the corner.

When his cousins clamored to know what white water tasted like, Hill told them, “I think it tastes just like the water in the other fountain.” He remembers being struck, he says, “by the silliness of the whole thing.”

Later, as a seventh-grader who’d been bused to black schools, he attended a student council meeting at the local all-white high school and was stunned by the quality of the facilities. “They had a gym that looked like a movie theater with permanent seats. We had a gymnasium that became an auditorium when you put seats on the floor.” The white school’s library was three times as big, and it had air conditioners in the windows.

When his cousins clamored to know what water from the white fountain tasted like, Hill told them, “I think it tastes just like the water in the other fountain.”

Hill attended the progressive Riverdale Country School in New York on scholarship for high school. The school invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak, and husband-and-wife actors and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were friends of some of the parents. The month after the March on Washington, he joined fellow students in New York to protest the church bombing by white supremacists that killed four young African-American girls in Birmingham, Alabama. He also attended sit-ins and protests in Baltimore.

Civil rights leaders made a strategic decision to put young people front and center in the protests to put a visual emphasis, on television and in newspapers, on the evils of segregation, and to demonstrate the implications of civil rights for the future black youth and the soul of the country. The wave of students who answered the call added to the iconography of the movement:

In 1957, the National Guard and a snarling white mob blocked the entrance to Arkansas Central High School by the Little Rock Nine, the youngest of whom was 14.

In the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, dogs and hoses were turned on children, and the images of them standing up until they fell gained a global audience.

Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was arrested as a 12-year-old in Birmingham and recalled that when King visited protesters in prison he told them, “What you do this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.”

A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963. On the afternoon of May 4, 1963, during a meeting at the White House with members of a political group, President Kennedy discussed this photo, which had appeared on the front page of that day’s New York Times.

AP Photo/Bill Hudson

Hill was the same age then as the new wave of protesters now converging on Washington, and he calls that need to change what you feel must be changed a natural inclination for those old enough for idealism and too young to be jaded. “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men,” Hill said, quoting poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

He recalls visiting his grandfather when he was around 7 and, along with another cousin his age, going into a clothing and fabric store with another cousin who was 14. A white teenage girl struck up a conversation with Hill, and he told her she should talk to his teen cousin since “my cousin likes girls.” He then told the teen cousin he should talk to the white girl, since she liked boys. The 14-year-old “immediately got a look on his face and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And when we walked to my grandfather’s house, instead of going along the road, we walked through the woods,” Hill recalled. “And I couldn’t understand why he was doing that.” When they got to the house, he was berated by his aunt, who warned him never to do that again.

Hill thought about that incident when he saw the casket of Emmett Till at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. One of the Four Freedoms that President Franklin D. Roosevelt talked about was the “freedom from fear anywhere … in the world,” Hill said, and that’s part of what young people then and now are fighting for.

The civil rights movement was also filled with young white people who marched and, in some cases, died. The murders of white activists Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, of New York City, along with black activist James Chaney, 21, caused a national furor. And in the current protest moment, the white activists have gotten younger and have sought to strengthen ties with young black protesters from communities victimized by gun violence. Hill sees their voices as a hopeful sign.

“You see the courage of so many people who are jumping out there instead of just sitting back not saying anything,” he said. “You see it with the young kids in Florida, in the civil rights movement and the anti-war demonstration. You’ve seen it in Black Lives Matter.”

The former football great and civil rights veteran calls all “these movements an effort to move towards the ideals of a more perfect union.” Older people become resigned to the status quo, but it’s the young people who say, “ ‘Hey, this is an issue, and we’re not going to stand for it anymore.’ ”

Many will marvel Saturday when the eyes of the nation turn to the teenage activists who insist against the odds that they can change the world. But among African-Americans, not only has the idea that a child shall lead the way always been the case, in some of our darkest moments, it’s been an article of faith.

Grammy-winning artist Mya takes it to the streets in ‘5th Ward’ The singer opens up about acting, a cherished moment with Gregory Hines — and even a one-way ticket to the stars

At just 18, Mya Marie Harrison’s 1998 hit “It’s All About Me” skyrocketed up the Billboard rhythm and blues charts, with several other top-selling tunes soon to follow: “The Best of Me,” “Take Me There” and “My Love is Like … Wo.” Sultry lyrics combined with an infectious sound and dynamic dance moves led to two platinum albums, as well as a Grammy award in 2001 for best pop collaboration with vocals for the No. 1 pop cover of Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” which also featured Lil’ Kim, Pink and Christina Aguilera. In a fickle industry that’s the home of either great acceptance or unkind rejection, 20 years later, Mya is always making strides. She’s appeared in CBS’s NCIS and will soon appear in Lazarus, along with Sean Riggs and Costas Mandylor.

The Washington, D.C., native’s latest project is Urban Movie Channel’s original 5th Ward, in which she stars as Mina. The show is set in the center of a historically black neighborhood in Houston, where Mina is a single mother of two children desperately trying to make something out of nothing. Staying true to the authenticity and raw imagery of H-Town, the show is an in-depth look at city life behind headlines.

Mya connects deeply with her on-screen character, especially when maneuvering through life’s many obstacles and detours — she left a major label in 2007 to become an independent artist and creator of her own label, Planet 9. She says it has been both challenging and rewarding.

The Undefeated chatted with the woman so loved (she has close to 2 million people in her social community, and that’s just Twitter and Instagram) that hip-hop blog impresario John Gotty instituted #MyaMondays.

How were you able to connect to your character, Mina, and the script?

My business partner, J. Prince, was born and raised in the 5th and has done wonderful things for his community. And being the oldest sister of two brothers in my family, I looked after them. I applied that dynamic to my character, Mina.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since becoming an independent artist?

Whatever makes you feel alive is going to carry you, make you go harder, and will give you the drive needed to succeed. When you love something, you will go after it, and no one will have to force you to do anything. Regardless of numbers, titles, sales, support or budget, I love music. This is why I’m still going, and my 13th and 14th projects are coming soon!

If your entire life could be summed up in the title of one of your songs, which would it be?

A song I wrote with Tricky Stewart called ‘Nothin’ At All.’ The song speaks to the journey of life, which is filled with winding roads, and ups and downs. But at the end of the day I wouldn’t change a thing, because in this current moment I am breathing, I am alive and I am happy. The things we consider mistakes or failures are the blessings that propel us to move forward into a better space.

“The things we consider mistakes or failures are the blessings that propel us to move forward into a better space.”

Who was your childhood hero?

My parents, first and foremost, and the women in my family, who I’ve watched sacrifice so much. However, I would also say the man that actually had a conversation with myself and my parents long ago. [He] pulled me aside to offer business advice: Gregory Hines. I performed at the Smithsonian, and he walked onstage during my segment and began going toe to toe with me. … He saw something special enough to dance with me.

What’s one thing about you that’s embarrassing?

I am goofy as heck! I can get really silly and go overboard sometimes. It’s very corny. I don’t allow too many people to see that side of me, but when I go there, I go there (Laughs.)

What’s one habit you wish you could shake?

I wish I could shake carbs. I’m in the process of retraining my brain and body to eliminate unhealthy carbs like pasta and rice and instead substituting them with quinoa and wild rice. It’s so hard to shake those things that instantly fill you up and make you feel satisfied.

The last stamp on your passport — and for business or pleasure?

Nassau, Bahamas. It was all business. I worked the entire time. I completed a photo shoot for both my single and album, as well as filmed a mini video for the single.

What’s a place you’ve never been that you want to visit, and why?

Outer space. I’ve been intrigued by outer space since I was 4 years old. My label is called Planet 9, and I study a lot regarding astronomy and astrological symbolism. Being able to look down at our planet and experience it from a different perspective would be an ultimate life experience, even if it’s just a one-way ticket. I’m fine with it because I think it would be very peaceful to me.

How did growing up in Washington, D.C., shape you into the woman you are today?

Washington, D.C., is known as Chocolate City! We are the land of go-go music, and it’s rich in culture. The diversity there has definitely shaped my outlook on the world and inspired me to want to travel and pursue a career that allows it. Although I attended a multicultural high school in Maryland, my roots are in Chocolate City, which is the black community. In a place where laws are made and bills are passed, you can walk a couple of blocks from the White House and end up in the projects.

“Regardless of numbers, titles, sales, support or budget, I love music at the end of the day. Nothing has destroyed that or come in the way of it.”

What’s one thing you would tell your 15-year-old self?

I’d definitely tell 15-year-old Mya to always define everything for yourself. Look to no other person to do that for you. When I say define everything, I mean beauty, success and validation. What it all means to you and what your happiness consists of. Don’t look to everyone else’s model of how they define those things to shape your decisions or your life because everyone is not meant to have the same life. I constantly have to remind myself of this because we can get lost in the sauce and look to societal standards. Always be programmed to think for yourself, think independently and define everything for Y-O-U.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The Stop: Racial profiling of drivers leaves legacy of anger and fear From ministers to pro athletes, they all get pulled over for “Driving While Black”

An idyllic afternoon of Little League baseball followed by pizza and Italian ice turned harrowing when two police officers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, stopped Woodrow Vereen Jr. for driving through a yellow light.

A music minister at his church, Vereen struggled to maintain eye contact with his young sons as one of the officers instructed Vereen, who is black, to get out of the car and lean over the trunk, and then patted him down. Vereen could see tears welling in the eyes of his 7- and 3-year-old sons as they peered through the rear window. He cringed as folks at a nearby bus stop watched one of the officers look through his car.

He never consented to the 2015 search, which turned up nothing illegal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut sued on behalf of Vereen, alleging that police searched him without probable cause. Last year, two years after the incident, he received a settlement from the city. His tickets — for running a light and not carrying proof of insurance — were dismissed.

Yet the stop lives with him.

Traffic stops — the most common interaction between police and the public — have become a focal point in the debate about race, law enforcement, and equality in America. A disproportionate share of the estimated 20 million police traffic stops in the United States each year involve black drivers, even though they are no more likely to break traffic laws than whites. Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely than whites to be searched by police, although they are no more likely to be carrying contraband.

Across the country, law-abiding black and Hispanic drivers are left frightened and humiliated by the inordinate attention they receive from police, who too often see them as criminals. Such treatment leaves blacks and Hispanics feeling violated, angry, and wary of police and their motives.





“You’re pulled over simply for no other reason than you fit a description and the description is that you’re black.”

Activists have taken to the streets to protest police shootings of unarmed black people. Athletes, including NFL players, have knelt or raised clenched fists during the singing of the national anthem at sports events to try to shine a light on lingering inequality.

Vereen had always told his children that the police were real-life superheroes. Now that story had to change. “Everything I told them seems to be untrue,” said Vereen, 34. “Why is this superhero trying to hurt my dad? Why is this superhero doing this to us? He is supposed to be on our side.”

The first time my now-28-year-old son was stopped by police, he was a high school student in Baltimore. He was headed to a barbershop when he was startled by flashing lights and the sight of two police cars pulling up behind him. The stop lasted just a few minutes and resulted in no ticket. It seems the cops just wanted to check him out. My son’s fear morphed into indignation when an officer returned his license, saying, “A lot of vehicles like yours are stolen.” He was driving a Honda Civic, one of the most popular cars on the road.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped. And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Shaken by cases in which seemingly routine traffic stops turn deadly, many black parents rehearse with their children what to do if they are pulled over: Lower your car window so officers have a clear line of sight, turn on the interior lights, keep your hands visible, have your license and registration accessible, and for God’s sake, let the officer know you are reaching for them so he doesn’t shoot you.

Drivers of all races worry about running afoul of the rules of the road. But blacks and Hispanics, in particular, also worry about being stopped if they are driving a nice car in a modest or upscale community, a raggedy car in a mostly white one, or any kind of car in a high-crime area. It affects everyone, from ministers and professional athletes to lawyers and the super-rich.

“It’s been more times than I care to remember,” said Robert F. Smith, 55, a private equity titan and philanthropist, when asked how often he thinks he has been racially profiled. Smith, with a net worth of more than $3 billion, is listed by Forbes as the nation’s wealthiest African-American. Yet he still dreads being pulled over.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped,” he said. “And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Rosie Villegas-Smith, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Phoenix for 28 years, has been stopped a couple of times by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies, who are notorious for using allegations of minor traffic violations to check the immigration status of Hispanic drivers.

In 2011 federal investigators found that the department pulled over Hispanic drivers up to nine times more often than other motorists. The stops were part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants ordered by Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff from 1993 to 2016.

Courts ruled the stops illegal, but Arpaio pressed ahead and was found guilty of criminal contempt in July 2017. President Donald Trump — who has stoked racial tensions by bashing immigrants, protesting athletes, and others — pardoned Arpaio the following month. Arpaio recently announced plans to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The statistics on traffic stops elsewhere are spotty — neither uniformly available nor comprehensive — but they show the same pattern of blacks and Hispanics being stopped and searched more frequently than others. The disparity spans the nation, affecting drivers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Men are more at risk than women, and for black men, being disproportionately singled out is virtually a universal experience.

A 2017 study in Connecticut, one of the few states that collect and analyze comprehensive traffic-stop data, found that police disproportionately pull over black and Hispanic drivers during daylight hours, when officers can more easily see who is behind the wheel. Many police departments have policies and training to prevent racial profiling, but those rules can get lost in day-to-day police work.

“One reason minorities are stopped disproportionately is because police see violations where they are,” said Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who runs the Police Department in LaGrange, Georgia. “Crime is often significantly higher in minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. And that is where we allocate our resources. That is the paradox.”

Too often, officers treat minorities driving in mostly white areas as suspect, Dekmar said. “It’s wrong, and there is no excuse for that,” he said.




“I felt embarrassed. Emasculated. I felt absolutely like I had no rights.”

Robert L. Wilkins was a public defender in 1992 when he and several family members were stopped by a Maryland state trooper while returning to Washington, D.C., from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago. The trooper accused them of speeding, then asked to search their rented Cadillac. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s your problem?” the trooper said when they objected to the search on principle.

The trooper made them wait for a drug-sniffing dog. As Wilkins and his family stood on the side of the highway, a German shepherd sniffed “seemingly every square inch of the car’s exterior,” Wilkins recalled. Before long, there were five or six police cars around them. At one point, Wilkins, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, noticed a white couple and their two children staring as they rode by. He imagined that they thought the worst: “They’re putting two and two together and getting five,” he said. “They see black people and they’re thinking, ‘These are bad people.’ ”

Wilkins filed a class-action suit alleging an illegal search and racial profiling, and the state of Maryland settled, largely because of an unearthed police document that had warned troopers to be on the lookout for black men in rental cars, who were suspected of ferrying crack cocaine. The settlement required state police to keep statistics on the race and ethnicity of drivers who were stopped. A second suit forced police to revamp their complaint system. Those changes brought some improvement, and racial disparities in traffic stops in Maryland were cut in half.

What lingers, though, is the indignity and anger that drivers feel over being singled out. “There’s a power that they want to exert, that you have to experience. And what do you do about it?” Smith said. “There’s an embedded terror in our community, and that’s just wrong.”

About this story: The Undefeated teamed up with National Geographic to ask people of color across the U.S. what it’s like to be racially profiled during a traffic stop, and the ripple effect such incidents can have on families and communities. This report also appears in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine and online at natgeo.com/theraceissue.

HBO to broadcast Anna Deavere Smith’s show on the school-to-prison pipeline Playwright reworked ‘Notes From the Field’ after the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is a master of verbatim theater, a marriage between documentary storytelling and the stage that involves the actor re-enacting the words of her subjects. Her latest work, which is debuting on HBO on Saturday at 8 p.m., is Notes From the Field, a one-woman show that delves into the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you’re not a theater nerd, you’re probably more familiar with Deavere Smith from her guest star turns as Rainbow’s mother on black-ish or as the lip-pursing-but-ultimately-loving hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus from Nurse Jackie.

For years, Deavere Smith, 67, who is also a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has used her one-woman shows to examine race relations and other complicated social problems. Her career has provided a blueprint on how to produce art with a conscience without making it dogmatic.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) looked at the Crown Heights riot of 1991 from the perspectives of both black and Jewish residents. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994) was about the Rodney King riots. Let Me Down Easy (2008) was about health care and the fragility of human life.

All were constructed from the same process: Deavere Smith traveled across the country to interview hundreds of people — for Notes From the Field, she interviewed 250 — and distilled them down to the 20 or so most effective and moving accounts. Then, Deavere Smith recreates these people on stage: their voices, their clothes, their mannerisms, their emotions, their words. She is a reporter in an actor’s body, and her expeditions in search of the truth earned her the George Polk Career Award in journalism from Long Island University last year.

“I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race.”

“One of the deans of political journalism, David Broder, said to me The New York Times should change that little thing ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news that’s fit to print — by deadline,’ ” Deavere Smith said during an interview at HBO’s offices in New York. “I have a much longer, fatter deadline. Yes, I’m told, ‘This is previews and this is opening night’ and I have to be ready. But … I’m lingering and lumbering around in a way that [reporters] can’t. I’m like a cow. I gather all this stuff, and then I just sit around and chew it.”

For Notes From the Field, Deavere Smith spoke with experts, teachers and lawmakers. But she also interviewed people whose voices often get lost in the debate over the brokenness of our criminal justice and public school systems: the students and inmates who pass through them.

One account from Denise Dodson, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institution, is particularly wrenching. Dodson speaks about how getting an education while incarcerated has been pivotal in changing the way she sees herself. Still, she told Deavere Smith that she thinks it’s fair that she’s imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder. Dodson’s boyfriend killed the man who was trying to rape her, mid-act. The overwhelming majority of women who are imprisoned are survivors of domestic or intimate partner abuse.

Deavere Smith originally staged a shorter version of Notes From the Field in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought it to New York in 2016. The New York Times called it “wonderfully energizing” and labeled Deavere Smith “the American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian.”

She had written and researched it before Michael Brown, before Tamir Rice, before Philando Castile, before Walter Scott. Since then, she’s updated it. The HBO adaptation includes Deavere’s depictions of Bree Newsome, the activist and artist who was arrested in June 2015 after she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the Confederate flag that hung there, and Niya Kenny, the former student at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina, who filmed her classmate being dragged from her desk and handcuffed by a school resource officer.

“I wasn’t planning to actually make a full-fledged play out of my project, but I did because I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race,” Deavere Smith said, citing the cellphone videos of police killing unarmed black people. “These windows are always brief, and in fact, I think it is not a picture that is as strong right now as it was, say, in 2015, because other things are happening and some of those things are distractions.”

“I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people.”

Deavere Smith was participating in a panel discussion with CNN commentator Van Jones and former Obama White House chief of staff Valerie Jarrett recently at New York’s 92nd Street Y recently when she reiterated that an actor’s greatest tool is empathy. That empathy, combined with curiosity, results in the most emotionally arresting performance of Notes From the Field, when Deavere Smith recreates the words of Allen Bullock, the protester who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray.

Her performance, filmed in front of a live audience at Second Stage Theater in New York, is kinetic and engaging. Her face is superimposed on a huge screen behind her as she walks the stage, video camera in hand, sporting a Copwatch hoodie. She recreates Bullock’s anguish at witnessing Gray being thrown into a Baltimore police wagon, his anger as he saw officers restraining Gray with leg shackles and dragging him away, simply for the mistake of making eye contact with them. Deavere Smith challenges the audience to see Gray as both subject and object.

Despite a dramatic deep dive that complements the work of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and Ava DuVernay (13th), Deavere Smith isn’t ready to call herself a prison abolitionist, like those who want to raze the prison-industrial complex entirely. But she thinks efforts to ban The New Jim Crow from prisons, or shut down prison libraries altogether, are misguided.

“It’s terrible. Terrible,” Deavere Smith said. “They can try to ban it all they want, but you and I both know that the walls of prisons are very porous.”

Although she’s arguably more knowledgeable about schools and prisons than a majority of Americans at this point, Deavere Smith avoids being prescriptive. When it comes to prisons, she’s not Angela Davis, and she’s similarly agnostic about charter schools despite the fact that her reporting led her to conclude that American public schools are “a disaster.” They often fail poor students, students of color, disabled students and students for whom English is a second language, and they’re more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s.

“Most of the people I know who have charter schools want to be able to boast and brag about success and how many kids they send to college,” Deavere Smith said. “And even those things make me nervous when that’s the way they talk about the experience. ‘Well, we’re sending every single person or every single person in our class graduated with such and such SAT score. They’re all going to college.’

“And you go, ‘OK, great.’ But something about it bothers me, and I think what bothers me is that there’s only one measuring stick for success. I know a lot of smart people. I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people. I’d like to meet more generous people. I’d like to meet more forgiving people. … I’d like to see them get commended. You know, smart’s just overrated, as far as I’m concerned.”