Russian boxer Maxim Dadashev, 28, dies after suffering a brain injury in a fight in Maryland
Lamaar Thomas has been a football star since he first put on pads as a little boy. Even then, the 65-pound running back dreamed of making it to the NFL. By high school, his star was blazing.
He was the Maryland state champion in the 55- and 100-meter dashes, was an All-American wide receiver and got 31 Division I scholarship offers.
After two years at Ohio State, he transferred to the University of New Mexico, where a coach promised more playing time. While there, he set a school record in the 60 meters and won a conference championship in the 100.
But in his next football season, he broke a bone in his back and then his foot and played in only four games. In his final season, the coach who’d recruited him was fired, the offense changed and his college career, which once held so much promise, came to an anticlimactic close. After a tryout with the Denver Broncos, he wound up on the practice squad (and activated for two games) with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He worked out with other teams and considered Arena football before returning to the Washington area and becoming a personal trainer.
At 23, one football door had closed for him. But there was another one, and it had been open his whole life. He grabbed a flag and met his family on the field. “Getting into flag football was just like I was kind of born into it,” Thomas, now 29, said.
He and his brother, Desmond, 27, grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland, watching his parents play the game. His dad, Sean Thomas, who’d played baseball and football in high school and basketball for Shaw University, started an all-women’s team with his mom, Elwanda, two decades ago. Football, especially flag football, was a family affair.
After college, Thomas helped his dad coach his mom’s team. Other men’s and coed flag football teams knew who he was, knew he’d played pro, and begged Thomas to play for them. But he wanted to play the game he loved with the people he loved most.
“They want me but they don’t want to play with my brother, or maybe they don’t want my mom, or they don’t want my girlfriend, or they don’t want my friend,” Thomas said. And where’s the joy in that? “I’m mostly out here playing because I’m just having fun with them. I’m not playing because I want to score a bunch of touchdowns. I’ve already done that stuff.”
In 2015, he started his own coed flag football team, Ballers Gon’ Ball. The BGB Family team featured his mother; his girlfriend, Asherah; his brother; and a cousin, Darren Cutchin, who everybody calls Cuz. It includes his best friends and their close friends. There are nearly two dozen people on the roster, about half of whom show up for any given game, and the team plays on Saturdays and Tuesdays, January through October. In the past four years, they’ve won some prize money and, in January, the Flag Football World Championship Tour’s national championship in Orlando, Florida. But everybody in BGB Family will say, for real, they’re just looking for a way to stay in the game. Together.
“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running,” Elwanda Thomas said. “There have been times where all of us have been on the field together: mom, dad and the two boys. I’m like, it’s a family thing out here. Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.”
Elwanda, a technician for Verizon, said her husband, a carrier for FedEx, talked her into playing 30 years ago. She’s a small woman, barely 5 feet, 4 inches, and a size 2 back then. The first time she played, she got elbowed by defenders and bruised. “I can’t get hit anymore, I’m going to have to figure this blocking thing out,” she told herself. Her husband began teaching her the nuances of the game: how to rush, how to pull the flags and not be fooled by fakes. “I’m a very competitive person. Very, very competitive. So it was like, ‘No, I can’t let you beat me at this. I have to figure out my game plan.’ ”
She had Lamaar young, and when other parents were in the stands watching their kids at football practice, she and Sean Thomas would run steps, or the track, or play catch. “I actually could beat Lamaar in track until he was probably about 12,” Elwanda brags. She stopped racing him after that because she didn’t want him to have an edge in their trash-talk game.
In 8-on-8 coed flag football, the rules require teams to have at least three women on the field. If a woman scores, it counts for 9 points as opposed to only 6 with men. On a field in Burtonsville, Maryland, in mid-May, BGB was leading a team called Wakanda Forever and looking for a chance to run their signature play — Hide the Mom.
After Thomas completed a long pass, he immediately ran his team downfield.
“HTM! HTM!” he called out, and players raced into position. With one exception, the women lined up in the middle, near the ball. The men spread out, and Elwanda Thomas lingered near the sideline chatting with a ref. A defender demanded to know whether she was in bounds.
“It’s not my job to count for you, boo,” Elwanda Thomas told her.
Thomas ended up going to another receiver, and his momma got vocal. “I still got the HTM in me!” she yelled. “You gotta believe in your teammate!”
When Elwanda Thomas dropped a low pass several plays later, Thomas yelled, “I can’t catch it for you!”
“Glad I wasn’t in the middle of that,” said Sean Thomas, watching from the sidelines. “They are the most competitive against each other.”
Lamaar and Elwanda Thomas trash-talk a few more minutes, just a mother and son trying to work out the kinks in their marquee move.
With Hide The Mom, the idea is to draw attention to the middle of the field, where almost all the women line up. “And meanwhile, my mom will be standing on the sideline because she’s the least likely person for guys my age to be trying to check,” Thomas said. These guys are watching the younger women who used to play basketball or run track. “My mom, nobody pays attention to her because she’s my mom, and she’s 51,” he said. He tosses the ball to her, “she’ll catch it, and normally it’s an easy run for her into the end zone for a touchdown.”
The team introduced the play last year as a novelty when shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries kept Elwanda Thomas near the sidelines. But it yields points — 56 in 14 games since April. After they get over the sting of being beaten by a middle-aged, trash-talking suburban mom, opposing defenses usually appreciate the play and Elwanda Thomas has gotten into her role, say teammates. She’ll make conversation with the ref or spectators on the sideline before suddenly turning to catch the ball.
Thomas’ girlfriend, Asherah El, 33, was a high school hurdler who now works in human resources for a government contractor. She cited their team chemistry as the best part of playing. “We hang out after the game, we hang out before the game,” El said.
She loves playing with instead of just cheering on her boyfriend. And she loves that Elwanda is still out there doing her thing. When Elwanda Thomas scores, the other team is like, “What the heck just happened? Everybody is in always in confusion. How did we let that person go, or how did she catch the ball? People always underestimate her.”
Darren Cutchin (“Cuz”) is a real estate agent and youth basketball coach. For Lamaar Thomas to play with his mom is special, Cuz says. “You won a national championship with your mom. And your girlfriend. You got your dad on the sidelines coaching you up.”
During the second half of the Wakanda Forever game, a player BGB is calling Spider-Man — he’s really rocking a great deal of red and blue — is bugging them.
“I got the lady,” Spider-Man called out, signaling he was covering Elwanda Thomas.
“He keeps calling me the lady, ‘I got the lady,’ and I’m about to get mad,” she says.
With less than a minute left in the game, Spider-Man and a BGB player exchange words, and Elwanda Thomas interjects.
“I’m a mom!” she taunts him. “I know why you talking that way. Just let your game talk for you, baby,” she tells him. BGB scores, and she brags that her head game is prime.
With the game over, Lamaar Thomas reminds everyone to get their jerseys and talks logistics for their next game. He and his mother resume their sparring about that incomplete pass.
“That would have been perfect if you would have caught it,” Thomas tells his mother.
“If it would have been thrown correctly, I would have caught it!” she insists.
The two put their wrists together to show off matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart. Arguing about sports always brought them closer. Playing together keeps them closer still. Thomas, Elwanda, Sean and the rest of the team part ways but make plans to meet up again Tuesday, as friends and family, football players, balling out together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
I mourn the man I never met.
Charles Brown, my maternal great-great-grandfather, who died 78 years before I was born, was taken from the cellar of his employer’s house and hanged by a white mob in southwestern Mississippi in September 1879.
What I imagine about his slaying is vivid, painful and sometimes difficult to talk about because I struggle not to cry. I think of his terror at being forced into the woods, knowing he was about to die. I am certain he felt betrayed and angry as he looked at his killers, whom he almost certainly knew or may have worked for as a carpenter.
I can’t forget the final words of the East Feliciana (Louisiana) Watchman article written about the lynching: “Brown … when called for Friday morning was found near Mount Pleasant, unable to respond — his head in a halter — his feet reaching vainly for terra firma — dead.”
For years, ugly newspaper reports and half-remembered family stories were the only evidence of my ancestor’s murder. That changed recently, when the nation’s first memorial to the more than 4,400 people who were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950 opened late last month in Montgomery, Alabama. For my family and thousands of others, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a chance at long last to see our loss publicly recognized, to tell the stories of the victims and prove that, despite everything, we have endured.
‘Outrage and Retribution’
I first learned about the lynching of Charles Brown in 1988. His grandson Theodore, my grandfather, told me about the killing when I asked him about our family’s history. He told me his grandfather, a carpenter, had built a house for a white man who then refused to pay him. Brown told his wife, “I’m going to get my money” and left home. His family never saw him alive again.
I spent decades struggling to confirm this story. So many seemingly simple facts weren’t known and may be unknowable: What really happened before the mob seized him? Where, exactly, did the lynching happen? Where was he buried? I switched to other questions about my family history and tried to solve them. Then I’d remember the story of Charles Brown’s lynching, and puzzle over it again.
My experience researching my family matches that of many African-Americans: equally fascinating and frustrating. I’ve traveled to five states and visited libraries, state archives, cemeteries and museums. I found freedmen who migrated to Ohio in 1843, a private in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and a great-great uncle who married an Irish immigrant around 1870. But most of what I need doesn’t exist. Descendants of enslaved Africans face the challenges of tracing a slave owner, slaves who are identified with only a first name and scarce records. Sometimes we are forced to ignore conventional genealogical research, work from family myths and stories, and rely on historical context.
When I first went down South on a research trip, the few facts my grandfather gave me had already fallen into place. An 1870 U.S. Census record in Louisiana showed that Charles Brown, a carpenter, lived in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, with his wife, Amanda, and four children. I found a parish death record from the U.S. Mortality Census dated June 1880. The column for the cause of death for Charles Brown, age 39, stated, “hung” in “Sept. 1879.” The 1880 U.S. Census said that his wife, my great-great grandmother Amanda, was a widow.
In 2006, I found what I believe is the first newspaper account of my great-great-grandfather’s lynching. Headlined Outrage and Retribution, it had been published in the Woodville Republican in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, the area where he was slain. The article stated that Brown had argued with Mary Phares, wife of the white homeowner, Wilbur Phares, and threatened her with a hatchet. Mary Phares ran screaming from the house, it said, as her husband and a black employee, Louis Swift, were returning from working in the fields. They took Brown under control for the sheriff. Neighbors heard about the confrontation, came to the house and took Brown away. He was found hanged the next morning.
It’s hard to know how much of this story to believe. There are reasons to doubt significant portions of it. But what is undoubtedly true is that Charles Brown’s murder matches the context of the times. The slaves of the Deep South had been freed only 14 years earlier, and the white backlash against Reconstruction and the empowerment of Southern blacks was in full force. Lynching, along with Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, were tools for maintaining control over all African-Americans, not simply devices for punishing individuals.
According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization behind the lynching memorial, Mississippi had the highest number of African-American lynching victims, followed by Georgia and Louisiana. Brown lived in Louisiana and his slaying occurred in Mississippi. And pieces of the story mirror common features of “terror lynchings”: a fear of interracial sex, especially between black men and white women, and allegations of violence. According to the Woodville Republican, Brown reportedly picked up a hatchet and was going to commit “a nameless outrage” (a euphemism for rape) on a white woman. Those whiffs of sex and violence are likely why the story of a carpenter’s killing in rural Mississippi was picked up by at least 10 newspapers from New Orleans to Bloomington, Indiana.
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.”
0 miles from Wilkinson County
It’s still Mississippi
That terror of the Deep South has stayed with my family for generations. One of my trips, to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, alarmed two cousins from Ohio, who demanded that I call them as soon as I got to Mississippi and again as soon as I (safely) left.
Well … it was Mississippi, known for its white citizens’ murderous brutality toward black people. One doesn’t have to search hard for reasons to worry. In Woodville, the county seat, Clifton Earl Walker was attacked and killed by a white mob in 1964. The murder remains unsolved.
Mississippi got too close to my mother, Mattie Berry, when she and a cousin accompanied me on one of my trips. I wanted to find out whether Brown’s lynching resulted in a court case. I did not believe anyone had been arrested or charged in his death, but I had to rule it out. I found crumbling records of five or six criminal court cases dating to the 1800s at the courthouse in Woodville, but nothing about a prosecution for a lynching.
On the way back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, our rental car got a flat tire. I pulled over and parked at the end of a driveway that led to a majestic old house. I could not get cellphone service to summon help, and as I walked up and down the quiet rural road hoping to get a signal, a white man walked out of the house, followed by three dogs. He offered to change the tire. We started chatting, and he told me that his family had lived in Wilkinson County for generations. They were descendants of Confederate officers and he had returned to Mississippi to retire in his family home. I asked him if he had heard of Mount Pleasant. “Why, yes,” he said, and pointed in the direction we had come from. I blurted, “That’s where my great-great-grandfather was lynched.” Looking stunned, he took a step back and said something about that being terrible.
When he finished installing the tire, my mother offered to pay him. He said no to the money and responded with a request: Pray for my wife, who has lung cancer. When I settled back into the car, my mother hissed from the back seat, “Why did you say that? You don’t know him. Something could happen. You don’t know.” I laughed it off — someone who wishes you harm does not change your tire and ask for a prayer in return. But for mom, it still was Mississippi.
‘A rather good darky’
We don’t know much about Charles Brown’s daily life. Where was he born? Who were his parents? Did he have brothers and sisters? How did he learn his carpentry skills? My grandfather said his father told him that Brown was never a slave and that he was from Virginia. His slaying occurred at the height of the Exodusters movement in late 1879, when African-Americans fled the South to escape new Jim Crow segregation laws. As many as 40,000 people settled in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado — 20,000 of them bought land in Kansas. Did he and Amanda long to leave the repression in Louisiana and Mississippi?
I found a complaint filed with the Freedmen’s Bureau in Baton Rouge by a Charles Brown who said that he wasn’t paid for whitewashing a fence in 1868. I don’t know if this was my great-great-grandfather. But if it was, it shows that, like many newly freed people, he was used to fighting to make a living.
However, he seemed to have been in demand for his skills as a carpenter, and he may have been viewed as good-natured. The East Feliciana Watchman reported that before Brown was killed he “heretofore had been regarded as a rather good darky.” Of course, that sentiment was no protection from a violent, undeserved death at the hands of some of the same people who found him such a valuable worker. His value stopped at the labor he provided to them.
Until now, the only versions of the circumstances of his hanging survived in newspaper accounts that spoke from his killers’ perspective. The East Feliciana Watchman reported: “The news spread, and by nightfall an incensed crowd of citizen neighbors neared the place and quietly took possession of Brown …” The Memphis Daily Appeal declared, “A Black Rapist Lynched.” The Cincinnati Daily Star said, “Brown’s Body/Forms a Dangling Decoration/on a Mississippi Tree.” The headline in the East Feliciana Watchman called the hanging “Lynching of a Ravisher.” The Woodville Republican went further, saying, “Of his crime there is no doubt, of his fate, we have only to say, served him right. … we feel that in such cases there is but one course to be pursued, no matter whether the guilty wretch be black or white.”
In March, I went back down South with my sister, Stephanie Berry, to trace Brown’s steps from his home in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, to the area where we believe he was hanged.
On this trip, the road into Mississippi seemed familiar. Woodville was very, very quiet. The town has only 986 residents. The county had 9,233 people in December 2017, 71 percent of them African-Americans. Many county residents are descended from slaves brought to cultivate cotton in the early 19th century and who later became sharecroppers. The longtime sheriff, Reginald “Pip” Jackson, is black.
Wilkinson County is well-known for its fine plantation mansions. The Woodville Civic Club has published several books about the plantations and Confederate history. The club has not published any books about slavery — the word doesn’t even appear on its website — but it does run the local African American Museum, which features exhibits on famous people born in Wilkinson County, including composer and conductor William Grant Still (1895-1978) and civil rights activist Anne Moody (1940-2015).
Main Street in downtown Woodville becomes Route 24 east of town and runs past the Rosemont Plantation, which is the boyhood home of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America. The civic club praises Davis on its website as someone “still recognized by almost all historians as one of the most remarkable and accomplished figures of 19th century American life.”
We drove along Route 24 to search for whatever we could find of the Phares family. Newspaper articles about the lynching reported that Wilbur Phares lived in one of two neighborhoods: Whitestown, also called Whitesville (neither name appears on modern maps of the county), or Mount Pleasant. Wilbur was the nephew of David Lewis Phares, a prominent Mississippi physician who founded two schools in the county, both of which had closed by the end of the Civil War. Wilbur Phares grew up in his uncle’s home, probably beginning after his father died in 1845. Wilbur Phares’ home, the one my great-great grandfather was building, was likely located somewhere between Woodville, the county seat, and Centreville, the county’s largest town. (I was able to find one Phares descendent, Stephanie Kirchner of Chicago, who is Wilbur Phares’ great-great-granddaughter. But her mother left Woodville for the North as a child, and Kirchner said she wasn’t aware of anyone in the family who knew the story of the lynching.)
As I drove, I kept thinking that somewhere along this 14-mile stretch, a mob hanged my great-great-grandfather. Exactly where, I would never know. I only have hints, including a newspaper article that said his body was found 3 miles from Phares’ house.
In my research, I’ve been able to find descendants of three of our great-great-grandparents’ eight children: my great-grandfather, Charles, his brother Thomas “Tom” Brown and their only sister, Estelle (Brown) Nickerson. The next day, Stephanie and I went looking for their graves. Charles is buried in Hope Cemetery, a small, gated graveyard located next to a strip mall in Baton Rouge. Many grave markers were faded or missing, as was the case with Charles’ grave. Several graves were sunken below ground, leaving only an outline in the grass.
We headed to Norwood Cemetery in East Feliciana Parish, where Estelle Nickerson is buried. The cemetery was located in a large clearing in the woods. Similar to Hope Cemetery, many graves had no identification and others had simply sunk far underground, leaving only a casket-shaped outline. We did not find Estelle.
We checked Ebenezer Baptist Church Cemetery in the small town of Slaughter, where relatives said Tom Brown and his wife, Emma, were buried. Again, I stared at the outlines of collapsed graves, wondering if they held Tom or Emma Brown.
Our family story
Like many of those 4,400 people whose names are etched — or, sadly, only identified as “unknown” — on the lynching memorial’s columns, no one knows Charles Brown’s burial place. No one knows where he was hanged. No one knows the names of his killers. The memorial is the only place where we can pay our respects to him.
My family has kept the memory of a father and husband alive for 139 years, beginning with his name. His son, my great-grandfather, was Charles Brown. In my grandparents’ generation, the oldest son, my great-uncle (we called him “Uncle Buddy”) was named Charles. My mother’s brother is named Charles Brown. My grandfather’s sister, Savannah Hudson, named one of her sons James Charles.
The lynching is etched in family memory, too, passed down by mothers, fathers and grandparents. But like a game of Telephone, the story has acquired layers over the years: One cousin says she was told Charles raped a white woman and was dragged behind a horse till he died. Another says she heard it was a setup by Mary Phares to get him killed. And one cousin declared that he was actually born in Brazil and never lived in Mississippi or Louisiana.
My mother’s two sisters don’t remember hearing about a lynching. Neither did her younger brother. Mom vaguely remembers talk about a hanging. However, my mother’s cousin, Thomas Hudson, said his mother told him about the lynching when he was 10 or 12. “We would sit on the porch,” he recalled. “We could get her to talk about other family members. … I remember he had worked all week and when it came time to get paid, he didn’t want to pay. They came to the house sometime during the night and lynched him.” His older sister Lois Sanders remembered her mother telling her that “my grandfather’s daddy was lynched, but I don’t remember no details.”
I added my research to our family story, helping make the story of my great-great grandfather more complete: He was a 39-year-old father and husband. He was determined, a hard worker who provided for his family. He would not let anyone cheat him out of payment for his work. He was brave — he had to be to challenge Phares, a white man from a prominent family, for his rightful payment. If he was actually a free man from Virginia, as my grandfather said, then he was a survivor. Many free African-Americans starved to death when they could not find work after the Civil War.
His widow, Amanda, was only 28 when he died. She had to manage the family farm alone and raise eight children. When the U.S. Census taker came to the Brown home in June 1880, the summer after the lynching, he listed two of them as stepsons James, 15, and George, 13; and William, 10; Freeman, 8; Thomas, 6; Estelle, 5; Charles, 3; and Abram, 10 months. Abram would have been a newborn or Amanda may still have been pregnant when Charles was killed on Sept. 11, 1879.
“We have to acknowledge that lynchings were also used as a means of control over black people.” Karin Berry
“A mother left with children and nobody to take care of her. And a family losing a father that they never saw again.” Mattie Berry
“Do I think I would live to see this? No.” Thomas Hudson
A sacred space
My journey continued when I joined my mother, sister and cousins in Montgomery at the end of April to see Charles Brown’s name on the first national memorial dedicated to victims of lynchings. I was excited, but the sorrow I always feel about my great-great-grandfather remained.
Opening day was rainy, windy and cool, somber weather for a somber day. Signs at the entrance and posted throughout requested lowered voices and reminded all that it is “a sacred space for the dead.” I went by myself, and the few visitors in the early morning numbered in the dozens, with whites slightly outnumbering African-Americans. Most of the crowd was middle-aged to elderly.
The ground gradually declined until the columns were no longer at eye level but overhead. Lining the walls in the lower area were dozens of plaques that briefly described the circumstances of dozens of lynchings: A man was lynched because he failed to call a white man “mister”; a man was lynched because he owned a prosperous farm; a woman was lynched because she fussed at white children for throwing rocks at her.
The rust-colored column with Charles Brown’s name is close to the entrance. Directly beneath the heading “WILKINSON COUNTY MISSISSIPPI,” my great-great grandfather’s name is at the top of a list of nine victims. To finally view his name felt like a confirmation of his death, part of the process of researching his lynching for all these years.
But there was an error: The memorial lists the correct year for his death, but has the wrong day and month.
EJI staff lawyer Jennifer Taylor responded to my letter about the mistake with an apology and said a corrected plate for the monument had been ordered.
“In many ways, the mainstream press’s obscuration of lynching events when they occurred, and the challenges inherent to uncovering and verifying America’s history of racial terror lynching today, are critical parts of the story the memorial seeks to tell,” Taylor wrote. “We know that amending and expanding the list of names, dates, and locations in response to incoming information will be a continuous and ongoing project. That is our hope and our duty.”
The next day, I returned with my mother and sister. I led them to the column that bore Charles Brown’s name. My sister and I watched as our mother strode to the column and smoothed her hand across her great-grandfather’s name. “Here it is,” I said.
My mother began to cry. “No, no,” she said. “It’s all good. It’s all good. … I made it. By the grace of God, I made it. He allowed me. Oh, my God.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.