Lessons from Edgewood Avenue —by Jinny Batterson
(This entry was read as part of a service on diversity at the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, NC on Sunday, August 7, 2016.)
This is partly a story about two black families that I got to know well during twenty years of living down the block from them. It’s also a story about my evolving understanding of diversity. In the mid-1970’s, my husband and I moved to Richmond, Virginia. Both of us had grown up mostly further north, but our most recent adventure there—an attempt to go back to the land in Vermont—had ended badly. We were nearly broke. We wanted to start a family. We began looking around for a house our meager savings could purchase while we got back on our feet financially. We found one: an older, well-maintained, 4-bedroom two-story stucco house on Edgewood Avenue. At first, our next-door neighbor was elderly Mrs. Burnet. She called herself “the holdout,” an original owner who’d resisted the push to leave when the area got “flipped” by blockbusting real estate agents. After Mrs. Burnet died, we were the only remaining “white” family.
As our family grew, we got to know our other neighbors better. Most had moved in a decade before us, when their previous homes had been demolished to put through Interstate Highway 95. The parents mostly held blue-collar or civil service jobs, sometimes working more than one to make ends meet. By the time we arrived, their older children were in high school or just leaving home. We became close with two other ’B’-named families: I’ll call them the Brooks family and the Brandons. After our two boys were born, Sharon Brooks and Stacy Brandon became sometime evening babysitters. Jon, the youngest Brandon, was only a few years older than our guys. He became a substitute big brother. Mrs. Brandon had given up her prior career as an English teacher to raise her five children. She later became our regular after school sitter—our boys could walk to Brandons’ house from their elementary school. Mrs. Brandon would sometimes give them a snack, or help them with their homework. She’d make sure they stayed safe until Jim or I finished work and could come get them.
Starting in the late 1980’s, the crack epidemic exploded in American cities. We heard gunfire and sirens at night. Our children were entering their teens. We went through the soul-searching that all parents of adolescent boys face: How could we provide good examples while shielding our sons from the worst temptations and dangers of their increasing independence? Should we move to the suburbs for safer neighborhoods, better schools? When both sons got accepted at an area magnet high school, the school issue became moot. Other dangers still lurked, though. Through the Brookses and the Brandons, we got a searing introduction to how these dangers sometimes played out in the lives of young black men.
In December, 1992, I learned through the neighborhood grapevine that Brandons’ older son, ”Teejay,” had died. He was 29. He had been missing for two days when his body was found by a stranger walking his dog. Teejay had been killed gangland style. Grieving with the Brandon family and attending Teejay’s funeral were some of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. The funeral was held at Mrs. Brandon’s home church, a historic Baptist congregation in their previous downtown neighborhood. The place was packed. Some of the younger women sobbed loudly. Teejay’s two young children could not understand why their dad was in a box that would soon be closed. The minister did his best to provide comfort, but the unsolved murder left a wound that took a long time to heal.
I don’t remember exactly when Randy Brooks moved back home. At some point I started seeing him again. Randy, a star athlete in high school, had gotten a tennis scholarship to a historically black college. For a while afterwards, he worked as a computer operator. Then we lost track of him. When Randy reappeared, he was suffering from HIV. Anti-retroviral drugs were still in their infancy. Randy hated their severe side effects. Eventually he decided to stop treatments. Attending his funeral in 1997, at a different Baptist church, was also hard. His mother, an assistant pastor, gave the eulogy, based on the 23rd Psalm. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
The tragedies on Edgewood are not its only stories. There are successes, too—Jon became an award-winning high school teacher and choral director in Connecticut; Stacy is a school administrator in Maryland; Sharon is a geologist in Texas.
Both during and after our Edgewood stay, I traveled widely, seeing parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, Latin America. Mostly, though, I’ve continued to live in the U.S. South. As I get to know more of my neighbors in our increasingly diverse communities, I continue the transition begun on Edgewood years ago. I may never totally outgrow my origins. Too often, I get abstract knowledge about a problem, but lack the wisdom, compassion, humility, and engagement to make a positive difference. Still, I work, one day at a time, at the necessary transformation of a recovering stereotypical white liberal.