By Sean Yoes, Baltimore AFRO Editor, [email protected]
After torrential rains — the remnant of what was deadly Hurricane Florence — deluged Baltimore the morning of Sept. 18, the sun broke out just in time for members of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association to have their monthly meeting on the second Tuesday in September.
I was honored when Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, the long-time civil rights leader and the group’s hard charging president invited me to speak to his members and share my book, Baltimore After Freddie Gray, at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School in the heart of Sandtown-Winchester, the community where Gray lived and died.
Although the sun shone brightly on that afternoon, the misery was manifest within that proud, yet besieged, neighborhood in West Baltimore. As Cheatham walked from his car to greet me outside of the school he announced, “We had a homicide this morning.”
He revealed the grisly details that have become far too familiar to our communities; another young Black man was dead. This time it was a 25-year old, shot in the face at approximately 10:57 a.m., the ninth murder in Sandtown-Winchester this year according to Cheatham, one homicide a month.
As we entered the immaculately kept elementary school, the jugs of water neatly stacked along the walls reminded me our babies can’t drink from the poisonous water fountains, because they are laced with lead.
As the members of the Henson Neighborhood Association began to trickle in, the essential paradox of Black Baltimore, and specifically neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester emerged. Cheatham explained to the group assembled — a mix of retired elders, middle-aged working class residents, Asian businessmen, elementary and high school students — not only was a young man gunned down that morning, but just a few hours after his murder the corner where he died was occupied by drug dealers operating with impunity.
Despite the madness, the long-time pillars of Sandtown-Winchester press forward in the face of pervasive violence, poverty and blight, which seems to encroach more and more on their neighborhoods and way of life every day.
As Cheatham conducted the meeting with his signature mix of outrage over the plight of their community, and jovial pragmatism, politicians aspiring to local office in the upcoming midterms mingled with residents while quietly lobbying for votes. Their presence was an acknowledgement of the group’s influence and the individual members represented a pool of some of the most reliable voters in the city.
To be clear, the Henson Neighborhood Association is one of the best organized, led by one of the most resilient presidents in the city, but it is not an anomaly. Dozens of these groups dot the city, the glue bonding infirm, yet undaunted, communities West to East. They have been in the trenches for decades, grassroots soldiers fighting block by block, sometimes house by house for the ability to live decently in the city they love.
These neighborhood associations and the people who power them are rich resources of wisdom, who are most invested in this city; they aren’t going anywhere. The city’s leaders ignore them at the peril of the rest of us. Indeed, instead of ignore them City Hall should empower them and seek their guidance at every level.
During our conversation that evening we delved into the Black community’s rich history, one of a vanguard civil rights community. Many of those assembled personally experienced that history and they cling to it as a road map that may lead their community to better days. Those better days often seem like they exist upon a distant star given the current plight of many of Baltimore’s mostly Black, mostly poor neighborhoods. Yet, the members of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association persist.
As I left the elementary school, an elderly gentleman who told me earlier in the evening that he missed the AFRO First Edition radio show I once hosted on WEAA, said with resignation in his voice, “We’ll keep on fighting.”
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore editor and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.