Catch the Vision: The Story of the
Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
MYRTLE FAYE RUMPH was born in Texas and studied business management at El Camino College. She later owned a moving company and other enterprises with her husband. The murder of her eldest son, Al Wooten Jr., shattered her present ambitions and resurrected her dreams to be a teacher and missionary. Redirecting her pain, Mrs. Rumph formed the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center in 1990 with the help of family and friends who also caught the vision of a more positive approach to stopping youth violence. She retired as president of the center in 2010 after 20 years of service.
| NAOMI BRADLEY-MCSWAIN is executive director at the Wooten Center. She has a bachelor’s in journalism and marketing from Cal State University, Northridge, and a master’s in intercultural studies and children at risk from Fuller Theological Seminary where she wrote her thesis paper on gang prevention and intervention in Los Angeles. Naomi is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor who participated in the founding of three youth centers, including the Wooten Center, where she served the first four years as executive director before returning in 2011.
- Wooten Center founding and lessons learned
- Starting and operating a youth center
- From South to South Central: You have experience
- From tragedy to triumph: A positive response to crises
THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 1:
One by one, children trickled into our youth center. As usual, the first to arrive came straight from school just to hang out or get help with their homework before our classes started.
While waiting for our three volunteer tutors to arrive, I usually kept the kids busy with board games and television, and chips, cookies and soda from Park's Market down the street.
It was April 29, 1992. My eldest son would have been 39 that day had it not been for his murder three years before. The Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center was his legacy, my attempt to keep my son's name alive and help prevent some other mother from feeling my pain.
But the money to keep things going was hard to come by. I was growing tired of scraping up the finances month after month, tired of trying to convince people to help support our cause, tired of the disappointments caused by over 50 funders turning down our proposal.
What was starting to bother me most, more than our gospel concert fundraisers with about a dozen people in the audience and less than $100 in the till, was sitting alone with a couple of kids and a handful of brochures in front of Von's supermarket selling cans of chocolate caramel candies to pay the rent.
It didn't help sitting at that little card table with frizzy hair and yesteryear's clothing. I hadn't gone to the beauty shop or bought any new outfits but once or twice in the three years since I opened the center.
That was a sharp turn from the days when I got my hair relaxed straight and dyed sparkling sherry every six weeks. I wore tailored suits and hats on Sundays at the holiness church I attended faithfully for over two decades. And I drove nothing but Cadillacs. My husband Harris and I bought a shiny new one every two or three years.
Compared to my youthful days sharecropping and living with my parents and eight brothers and sisters in a five-room house in Chisholm, Tex., I had become pretty well off, despite the fact that I, like most people I know, was just payments away from losing possessions like my car and my house.
Before Dunnie's death my life centered around my church, my family and the businesses I owned with my husband, Harris Rumph. We always had some type of enterprise going, from a lawn service to a coin-operated laundry and a 28-unit apartment complex.
When the center opened, Harris and I owned H&M Moving and Storage, a growing company with five employees, a diesel truck and 30-foot moving van.
Ours was a comfortable, middle-class existence with our new Caddy in our tidy garage next to our pastel yellow single-family residence, complete with dishwasher, family room, lemon tree and laundry hook-ups.
Trim lawns, lush bushes and bright flowers lined the Inglewood street where we lived. Quiet evenings watering our thick green grass led to friendly conversations with neighbors we knew well through our block club.
Our two-bedroom and a den house was in the part of suburban Inglewood that black folk often aspired to when looking to leave the ghettos of neighboring Los Angeles, It was the kind of place I longed for in the 1960s as a fresh-from-the-South single parent living in a Los Angeles housing project.
My life before the youth center did include some community service. At church, I helped distribute clothes to needy families. I also gave donations to missionary causes and an occasional charity every now and then.
I gave, but only so much.
I could never have imagined one day spending my entire savings and selling my cherished Inglewood home to hold onto a place for children other than my own. Not to mention allowing H&M to slowly falter because I spent everything I could on the youth center.
That little three-room storefront on Western Avenue in South Los Angeles and the kids who came through its doors became my main interest. I didn't care what anyone thought about my new priorities, including Harris.
We had our rifts over dwindling finances and had some nights when silence haunted our house. I felt I had supported his dreams throughout our 30-year marriage; answering phones, filing invoices, typing letters while he directed our course. Now I had something I wanted to do. I was still as shy and soft-spoken as ever, but Harris had never seen me so stubborn. He knew I didn't mind if he walked away. I just didn't care anymore.
For the most part, Harris was supportive of my ambitions and was there for me to cry on his shoulders. He wanted me to be happy and actually admired how I chose to respond to Dunnie's death. He saw the change in me before most people did and early on accepted that things would be different.
With Dunnie's murder came the realization that my own worldly desires palled in comparison to other needs. After Dunnie was killed, all of that stuff – my clothes, my car, my house, my business, my savings, my planned retirement – became secondary.
I was willing to sacrifice my own concerns for our youth center, but I didn't know if I had the strength to go another month begging for dollars in front of the local supermarket.
And now, for the fourth year in a row, my son's day of birth brought the most aching realization that he was really gone. No amount of wishing, or praying, or pleading, or searching could make him materialize in front of me.
That April 29th morning, I sat thinking and praying at the chipped wooden desk in my partitioned office, thinking and wiping tears so my eyes would not be red when the kids came in from school.
When the first string of children, about eight of them, arrived that afternoon, I barely managed to pull away from my office and wipe the tears from my face and desk.
Usually, no matter how I felt from day to day, the kids could cheer me up. Their hugs and kisses, crayon drawings of flowers and houses just for me and boastings about their improving grades helped keep me going. But it was hard to erase my feelings this time.
Just moments before, sitting alone in my makeshift office, I had seriously considered closing the center. But where would the kids go if I actually did shut things down? What would they do?
Several of our teen-age boys used to hang out on street corners after school. They were the tagging crew that painted much of the graffiti in the alley behind our building, nice, but mischievous boys with a lot of pent up energy.
To some, they were "wannabes" destined for serious trouble. To me, they could go either way with the right influence and opportunity. I had to stay, even if it was just for them.
Give me strength, oh Lord, my heart uttered that April 29th. Your word says, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."
Little did I know, joy would come in droves as a result of an event about to occur that afternoon. But first, more weeping.
At 3:30 p.m. April 29, 1992, on my son's 39th birthday, a jury in Simi Valley acquitted four white Los Angeles police officers of beating a black man, Rodney King.
I was angry, Lamar Porter was furious.
I'm going to jail tonight!" the 14-year-old shouted.
Kids as young as nine years old camped in front of the television watching the burning aftermath of the verdicts, some of them feeling their first pangs of racial hatred.
What should I say? What should I do?
Gathered in our lone classroom, sitting in gray chairs borrowed from Love, Peace and Happiness Christian Fellowship, facing a green chalkboard donated by Marcus Garvey Schools, we talked about the verdicts. I asked the kids how they were feeling.
"It's not fair."
"They beat Rodney King for nothing."
"Those cops should go to jail."
"They let them go because they're white."
The owner of a telephone supply center next to our building interrupted our impromptu session. Mr. Gorham said people were rioting about a mile away on Florence and Normandie avenues.
We flipped the television on (I had turned it off to help calm the atmosphere for our discussion) and saw the pictures of young men attacking white motorists at Florence and Normandie.
That's when tempers really flared in our place. Lamar, Jason Wilbourne, Edward Nelson and Brett Williams jumped up from their chairs and headed for the door.
They were going to Florence and Normandie, the teen-agers shouted, and nothing could stop them. The four boys stormed out our front door and headed North on Western from our 91st Street address. I managed to get the five younger children in my car and drove them around the corner to their homes.
On the way, I tried to convince Lamar, Jason, Edward and Brett to go home. But they were too bent on revenge, too fixed in their sudden belief that attacking white people was the right response. I watched them go, the four boys with their light complexions.
They wouldn't listen to me. This was quite different from the times these same young men sat in my office seeking my advice. They even brought me their photo albums filled with pictures of the squiggly lettering they spray-painted on garage doors along an alley behind our building.
We had special times together on Fridays at a bowling alley down the street. I would pack as many kids as I could, usually about six, into my beige Cadillac Seville for the short neighborhood field trip.
In the search for more things to keep our kids busy, I brought my sewing machine to the center and started a sewing class. I figured only girls would come, but the boys did too. They made sleeveless t-shirts and would dart through the center smiling and flexing their muscles, usually with a basketball cradled in their bare arms.
Those fun times together, and the kids knowing why I started the center, created a special bond between us. I could talk to them about their grades or about tagging and they would listen because they knew I cared.
In trying to do something positive, they started a club they called Young Black Ballers, or YBB. A"baller," they explained to me, is somebody who plays basketball. It could also be somebody who "has a grip of money," they explained.
The boys said the group started as a thing between friends, fellow basketball players, but evolved into a tagging crew when some of the boys started putting the group's initials up on walls. They eventually got into a fight for wallspace with another crew who would cross out YBB tags, and vice versa.
I had never dealt with anything like that. Growing up in the 60s when graffiti was practically unheard of in Los Angeles, my three teen-agers gave me little trouble. They didn't even stay out too late for parties. In Dunnie's case, he played hooky from Gardena High School a couple of times. But that stopped when he got tired of me grounding him and taking the keys to the car he had bought for himself with his part-time job earnings.
Words like "gang" and "tagging" were foreign to me. I probably said "gang member" maybe 10 times in my life before Dunnie's murder.
I didn't see YBB coming. I didn't see any of the signs, like YBB scribbled on the covers of notebooks and on discarded paper around the youth center.
I was surprised that our teachings about heritage and unity somehow got warped into something that possibly led to some of our kids getting shot at and a woman getting shot in the head.
Lamar, Shannon and Latoya were standing outside the apartment Lamar's grandmother owned and his mother managed. It was about 8 p.m. on a Friday night. Bullets rang out from a passing car. Our kids hit the ground.
One of the bullets hit a woman in the head. We know that she survived, but never found out who she was, or if she had anything to do with the shooting. Talk around the center was that the shooting had something to do with some of our boys crossing tags.
We found out about YBB about a week before the shooting when my seven-year-old nephew, Matthew, scribbled the letters on the door panel inside his great-grandmother's car.
Matthew's mother, Naomi, was the center's executive director.
"What is that?!" she shrieked, after seeing the pointed letters etched in ink on the car's white vinyl upholstery. "Where did you learn that?!"
Matthew said boys at the center taught him, but he didn't know what it meant. He said he just liked writing the pointed letters.
We asked our boys about it. That's when they explained how YBB had somehow turned out taggers. They promised to disband the group, but the promise came too late to stop the shooting.
All the kids were talking about the incident the next Monday at the center. Naomi called all of the kids there that afternoon, about 20 of them, into our single classroom. She shut the door and stood in front of the children scrambling to sit down in chairs and on tables.
"Did you forget why the center is here?" she cried, tears welling up in her eyes. "Are we here for nothing? Do you know what it would do to Faye and your mothers if you ended up with a bullet in you? Do you realize your little sisters and brothers could have been killed? And for what?"
Naomi worked full-time as a newspaper reporter and had written several stories on the gang truce sweeping Los Angeles that year. She got one of the gang members to come to the center.
Tony Bogard, who had started a non-profit organization called Hands Across Watts to further the truce, sat coolly at the front of our classroom and pulled up a leg of his creased blue jeans. A big chunk of his calf was missing. The new skin was thick and black like an old burn wound. He had gunshots from an AK-47 in several other places on his body, he explained.
He had survived; they had survived, Tony said. Next time, they might not be so lucky. About a year after Tony visited our center, a young man shot him in a dispute in the Imperial Gardens Housing Projects. Tony died on a hospital table, just like Dunnie.
Our young men broke up YBB and joined other center volunteers in painting over the defaced houses and fences. They also spoke in our classes discouraging the younger ones from following their old ways.
Now, for the first time in the three years I had known Lamar, Jason, Edward and Brett, they refused to listen to me. They were too caught up in anger like a lot of people that April 29th.
About 15 minutes after dropping off the younger kids, when I got to the small two-bedroom Hawthorne apartment me and Harris moved into after selling our home, I called Threetha Boyd, Lamar's mother, and asked if her only son had returned home.
He had. So had Edward, Jason and Brett, who all lived on Lamar's street. The boys never made it to Florence and Normandie. After walking and talking awhile, they decided to go home after figuring their mothers would be upset if they didn't come home that evening.
When news footage on television showed looting and fires and high-flying embers around Los Angeles, I felt the whole city was going to burn up, including Western Avenue. I wondered if my thoughts of closing our youth center had already been decided. Was the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center gone? Would I open another one?
I was so confused that night. And I had reached my end. I believed God led us to build a place to help parents steer their children in the right direction, a place to give kids constructive alternatives to adverse behavior. (That's how our first proposal stated our goal.)
I had grown so attached to Carmelina and Donna and James and Susie and Shannon and Devlan and Theodore, Lamont and Kristin, and all the other dozen or so kids who came running from around the block at the behest of their friends to happily complete our first membership forms.
I also believed it was my destiny to be there for those children. Something good was to come out of my son's violent death. Many more lives would be saved.
The term "safe haven" came to mind one day as a new term for our proposals when Devlan ran into our youth center, huffing and puffing and holding his chest.
"What's wrong?" I asked, my heart thumping.
"They're after me," said Devlan, at the time a chubby-cheeked, happy 13-year-old who liked to sweep the sidewalk in front of the center.
"Those gang members. They slowed down and looked at me all hard. They asked what set I was from. I ran and they started chasing me in their car. I thought I was gonna get shot."
I took Devlan home later that night. The three gang members in the long black Cadillac never came back, but the incident hung like a deathly threat for all of us for many months.
Even if I kept one child from suffering what my son suffered, from lying helpless on the sidewalk, writhing from a bullet wound to the stomach, it would be worth it to me....