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Rosa Lee's Story: The Series
The Washington Post, Sept. 18-25, 1994
By Leon Dash; Photos by Lucian Perkins

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

Rosa Lee & Me: What One Family Told Me -- and America -- About the Urban Crisis (Oct. 2, 1994)
The Readers React (Oct. 2, 1994)

Rosa Lee Cunningham's Obituary (July 8, 1995)

Part Seven
A Grandson's Problems Start Early

Rosa Lee Cunningham sensed that something was wrong as soon as she stepped off the A-6 bus and started to walk up Fourth Street SE. On most sunny afternoons, the drug market outside her apartment building is in full swing. But on this Saturday in June 1991, the crack dealers who usually congregate on the parking lot and sidewalks were nowhere to be seen.

Squinting in the midday sun, Rosa Lee scanned the street. To her surprise, she spotted two of her grandsons, 11 and 12 years old, standing at the entrance to the parking lot. One was looking up Fourth Street, the other down. Across the street, in a cluster of teenagers, stood another grandson, 18-year-old Junior. Rosa Lee knew that Junior occasionally sold crack, but she didn't know why his young cousins were hanging around.

"What are you doing?" she demanded of one of her grandsons.

"I got Junior's back," the 11-year-old said.

"What do you mean, 'You got Junior's back?' " Rosa Lee sputtered.

Before the boy could explain, Junior sprinted over.

"Grandma," Junior said. "They ain't doing nothing. All they doing is earning a few dollars."

"Yeah, and earning a little time in jail," Rosa Lee said.

Later, when I interviewed Junior, I found that his behavior that day was a striking example of the dangerous tests of manhood that occur on the streets of some Washington neighborhoods and take the lives of so many young black men.

Junior said he had paid the boys $10 each to keep watch for a neighborhood drug dealer who had been selling crack to his mother, Patty. Junior believed the dealer was planning to kill him to settle a grudge. He told the boys to warn him if they saw the dealer's white car.

The previous day, Junior had "stepped to" the dealer. "It was a beef about my mom, at first," Junior told me. "My mom owed him money and never paid him. My mom wasn't ever going to pay him. So he said that he was going to hurt her. I said, 'Hey, if I catch you, I'm going to have to hurt you.' "

Rather than hide, Junior had decided to bring the confrontation to a head. He had to be on the street or lose face. He borrowed two guns from a friend and hid them in bushes nearby; first sign of the dealer's white car and Junior would retrieve either the .44 with the extended clip or the Tec-9, whichever was closer.

Word of the possible shootout had spread through the Washington Highlands neighborhood, clearing the street of all but the fearless, the foolish and the unsuspecting. But the dealer never showed up; he later decided to let Patty's debt go.

Rosa Lee didn't know any of this when she confronted her three grandsons. She knew only that the drug culture had worked its way into a third generation of her family.

CHAPTER ONE: Junior's Mask

Unlike his mother and grandmother, Junior has never used drugs. "The people who use leave their minds on the street," he tells me one day in September 1991. "I'm not going for that."

The idea scares him, just as it scared Rosa Lee when she started selling heroin in the late 1950s. For more than 19 years, Rosa Lee shunned the drug while selling it to others; when she finally tried it -- at Patty's suggestion -- she got as hooked as her customers. Now she is on methadone, which satisfies her craving for the drug. Patty, however, is a regular user of heroin and crack.

As a young boy living in the Clifton Terrace housing complex, Junior watched the stream of men and women come to his grandmother's apartment to buy heroin and inject it. He saw how heroin destroyed his mother. Drugs were a fact of life at Clifton Terrace, and he decided at an early age that he wanted no part of it. "I wasn't interested in drugs at all," he says. "When I heard about pot and all that, I wasn't with that. ... I wasn't with all that smoking and getting high."

He says this matter-of-factly, as if we might be talking about yesterday's weather. It is our third interview, but I have yet to break through Junior's mask. He only lets people see as much of himself as he wants them to. If someone shouts at him, he rarely shouts back. His doelike eyes remain blank, his voice stays level, his facial expression reveals nothing.

He smiles, though, when I challenge his reputed ability as an excellent boxer and an above-average basketball player. "I don't beat up on old men," he says, offering instead to take me one-on-one in basketball "any time and any place."

Junior's controlled demeanor resembles that of the teenage "enforcers" who come by Rosa Lee's apartment once a month to demand that Patty and Ducky pay their crack debts. It is the demeanor that psychologist Richard G. Majors calls "cool pose."

Majors, a researcher at the Urban Institute, has studied the attitudes of teenage boys in poor urban communities. "The emotionlessness is nothing more than the notion of masculinity," Majors said. "These youths are obsessed with issues of pride and dignity. Never lose your cool, even when you are fighting. All they have is this cool. All they have is this mask."

Junior's uncle Ducky, one of Rosa Lee's six sons, knows better than to cross Junior. Ducky once tried to steal some of Junior's money so he could buy crack; when Junior found out, he wasted no time in setting his uncle straight. Using boxing techniques that he learned during his years in juvenile detention, he pummeled Ducky until he had to be pulled away. As his fists flew, his face remained impassive. Afterward, he showed no sign of anger or satisfaction. Ducky may have been family, but this was business.

I don't know how extensively Junior has become involved in dealing crack. He tells me that he is working occasionally as an enforcer for some of the neighborhood's top dealers but that he isn't selling right now because his new 15-year-old girlfriend has asked him to stop. "She felt it might take me away from her," he says. "I was making money. I was making over $600 a night."

Earlier in the week, I had suggested that we go together to see "Boyz N The Hood," the John Singleton movie about three boys growing up in south central Los Angeles. Doughboy, played by rap star Ice Cube, deals in drugs and sees no future for himself; Doughboy's brother, Ricky, has a chance at a football scholarship if poor grades and test scores don't get in his way; the third, Tre, has the brightest prospects thanks to a strict father who has raised Tre with strong values. An argument over a girl and turf ends with a gang of boys hunting down Ricky and killing him in a drive-by shooting.

Junior seemed interested in my offer, but before we could make plans to go, he saw the movie on his own. He doesn't trust me yet. I may be brown-skinned like him, but I grew up in a middle-class section of Harlem and graduated from college. I expect he'll always see me as just a middle-aged man with a graying beard and a good job.

He liked the movie, he said, because it was real. It reminded him of Clifton Terrace and Washington Highlands, the two neighborhoods he knows best. He has seen "guys bumping you just to get some attention" and then pulling out a gun.

He says he identifies more with Doughboy than with Tre. Doughboy wouldn't back down from a fight; Tre did.

"I grew up like that," he tells me. "Tre didn't. Ice Cube was like me."


He was born when Patty was 14. By the time he was 2, his mother was using heroin. Some days, she says, she was so high that she has a hard time remembering how she performed even the simplest tasks -- changing his diaper, feeding him, getting him ready for bed.

One of Junior's earliest memories is of police breaking down the door of Rosa Lee's apartment looking for drugs. He was two months shy of his fourth birthday. "I just remember them knocking on the door," Junior says. "We all woke up. They hollered, 'Open the door or we're going to chop it down!' "

He remembers the sounds more than the sight: the sound of ax on wood, then shoes, then the shouts of the officers. One image stays with him: his grandmother, her hands cuffed behind her back, being led out of the darkened apartment. Police found 60 bags of marijuana that day in Rosa Lee's apartment. She served seven months in jail, records show.

At the time of the raid, on Aug. 18, 1976, Rosa Lee was selling heroin and marijuana from the four-bedroom apartment, where she was living with Patty, Junior and three of her other children.

By the time he was enrolled at Meyer Elementary School at age 6, Junior already had a reputation for being hard to handle. Patty says she was summoned to school several times during Junior's first-grade year because he was threatening classmates with a knife and demanding they pay him a dollar.

That same year, 1979, Patty and Junior moved into another Clifton Terrace apartment with a man she refers to as her common-law husband. His nickname was Joe Billy, and he sold heroin on 14th Street NW. Patty and Joe Billy lived together until 1985, when Joe Billy died of a stroke while in custody at the D.C. jail.

Junior has always blamed Joe Billy for his mother's heroin addiction, although he knows now that Patty had her first hit three years before she ever met Joe Billy. "He brought my mom down," Junior says. "That's why I hated him."

Junior remembers the first time that he saw Joe Billy and Patty us ing heroin together. They had just moved to the new apartment, and he was walking past their bedroom. He saw two needles on the dresser and Patty and Joe Billy hunched over a "bright light." They looked up, saw him and shut the door.

CHAPTER THREE: 'I Can't Control Him'

By age 9, Junior had a reputation at Clifton Terrace. He hung out with the older boys in the housing complex -- teenagers who had dropped out of school and already spent time in juvenile institutions. The older boys liked him, Junior says, because "I was vicious back then. I'd take you out in a minute, whether you were grown or not. 'Cause growing up around Clifton, you grew up like that. Everybody was wild around there!"

Occasionally, Junior would do something to annoy Patty and she would use her fists to let him know. "Junior mostly had his way, but when I did hit him, I was mostly high," she told me one day at Rosa Lee's apartment. "I would whale on his ass with my fists!"

To fend off her beatings, he threatened to use his knife on her. He now says his threats were justified. "She was trying to hurt me! She was using her fists. I remember she blacked my eye. That was child abuse, what she was doing. ...That's my mom and everything, but I wasn't going to let her hurt me."

By the fall of 1982, when Junior was 10, Patty had lost what little control she had over him. He began to commit burglaries with some of his teenage friends; he shared some of his take with Patty and she used the money to support her heroin habit.

Junior was arrested six times between October 1982 and the following summer, mostly for committing robberies with a knife. Suddenly, the outside world became intensely interested in Patty, Junior and their life at Clifton Terrace.

One social worker concluded that Patty was afraid of Junior and rarely attempted to discipline him; another social worker said the 24-year-old Patty seemed to treat Junior more like a brother and did not take his delinquency seriously. Junior skipped school about half the time, missing 87 days of the 1982-83 school year.

The breaking point came at a September 1983 hearing in juvenile court.

Patty says she didn't realize until she arrived that the judge, who was aware of her drug problem, was considering taking Junior away from her. When the crucial moment came, she found herself giving up rather than fighting. "There's nothing else I can do," she remembers telling the judge. "I can't control him. Go ahead and take him."

The judge ordered a U.S. marshal to take custody of Junior, who remembers the scene vividly. "I went off," he told me. "Started cussing, throwing chairs."

A second marshal was called to help. Junior kicked at them, desperately trying to work himself free. "Momma," he cried, "don't let them take me! I'll be good!"

He turned toward Rosa Lee. "Grandma! Grandma!" Rosa Lee shrugged her shoulders in a show of helplessness.

Junior screamed obscenities as the marshals wrapped their arms around his chest and legs. Years of anger about his mother and her relationship with Joe Billy began to spill out: "You let that {expletive} MAN IN OUR HOUSE! HE MESSED UP EVERYTHING!"


For the next seven years, the government was Junior's parent and the juvenile system was his home.

His first stop was the D.C. Receiving Home, where officials quickly concluded that he needed a highly structured program to help him overcome his severe educational deficiencies and emotional difficulties. He made progress during his two years there, then was sent to a foster home in Virginia. Within a few weeks, however, he was arrested on theft charges with two older boys. After his conviction in 1985, he was shipped off to a juvenile group home in Pittsburgh.

A few months after arriving in Pittsburgh, Junior ran away. Still only 13, he made his way back to Washington and showed up at Patty's Clifton Terrace apartment. After five days, Patty notified the city's human services agency. He was shipped back to Pittsburgh.

Twice over the next year, he came to Washington for approved visits. Both times he ended up in trouble. He was caught in a stolen car. He ran away from the counselor who was supposed to escort him on the return trip to Pittsburgh. He was arrested by police for possession of a handgun.

By the summer of 1987, the juvenile authorities decided Junior needed more discipline if he was ever going to straighten himself out. They sent him to Vision Quest, a program in rural Pennsylvania for teenage delinquents who have washed out of more conventional group homes. "We take the toughest of the tough," said Michael Noyes, a Vision Quest spokesman.

Developed in the 1970s when pressure began building to do more than just warehouse delinquents in decaying urban facilities, Vision Quest symbolizes the evolution of society's thinking about juvenile crime. The program seeks to take troubled youths out of their urban environments and teach them a new set of values in the wilderness. The teenagers learn to "master any environment," Noyes told me -- and thus, the theory goes, build a sense of self-sufficiency and self-esteem that will turn their lives around.

The different quests are modeled after American Indian rites of passage, Noyes said, and are structured "to provide the opportunity for the kids to reflect on past" behaviors and future goals.

Junior had a difficult time adjusting to the strict discipline and limits. He went on 10-day hikes with no eating during the day, then spent a year on a horse-drawn wagon train quest to Florida and back, a 4,000-mile round-trip with 75 other teenagers. The trek itself is arduous, and the counselors impose a work ethic that matches. The youths work with animals, prepare meals, set and break camp, all in an effort to foster a sense of cooperation and self-discipline.

"You chop wood," Junior said. "You stay in tepees. Then you go on a quest. A quest is if you want to starve yourself for three days, you can. Hiking to meet your destiny. After the quest, you go on the train. You clean the wagon. You clean the horses. And you move, move, move. ... When it gets cold one place you move somewhere where it is hot. In that period of time, you're suppose to change in all that time. Then you're out."

As far as he was concerned, the counselors and wagon masters had nothing but contempt for black kids like himself. "There's a lot of prejudice there," he said. "They used the word, 'nigger.' A lot of them are from Georgia, and a lot of them are from Tennessee."

He said some tobacco-chewing counselors would get so close to him that they would spray brown spittle on his face as they yelled at him. He got into a fight with a wagon master for choking him and leaving marks on his neck.

Is this a fair description of what he experienced? There's no way to know. Vision Quest officials don't think so. This much is certain: Junior completed his quests but changed little. He went back to the Pittsburgh group home in 1989 and immediately landed in trouble. He and several friends from the Pittsburgh home stole a car, went joy riding and were caught. Junior spent the next nine or 10 months in the home's "lockup," its most restrictive living quarters.

In July 1990, the home's officials decided he had been there long enough. "They gave me a bus ticket back to D.C.," Junior said.

CHAPTER FIVE: 'A Nomadic Existence'

Junior and I are still getting to know each other when I hear that two police officers came to Rosa Lee's apartment complex with a warrant for his arrest. They found him in a hallway with Rosa Lee's 11-year-old grandson, handcuffed him and took him to the D.C. jail.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 25, 1992, I am interviewing him in a small conference room at the jail. He is wearing an orange jumpsuit, the standard garb for a new prisoner awaiting trial. There's an irony to the scene: I first interviewed his mother, Patty, in the jail in 1988, when she was awaiting trial on a drug charge.

Junior doesn't want to say much about the case. I know from court records that he is charged with attacking Deon Cheeks, 18, on Nov. 30, 1991, at Clifton Terrace NW. According to the records, Junior surprised Cheeks in a corridor about 11:30 p.m., stabbed him and fled with $100 that Cheeks had in his pocket. Cheeks was treated for a cut at a hospital and sent home. Junior says he doesn't have any idea why he's been charged. He says he wasn't anywhere near Clifton Terrace that night. He remembers spending the evening at Rosa Lee's apartment in Southeast Washington.

He says he knows Cheeks -- the two grew up together at Clifton Terrace in the 1970s. He says the police might be confused because he and Cheeks had a fistfight not long before the night in question.

Junior is upset because no one in his family has come to bail him out. "I don't like this," he tells me. "I have never been locked down. I've just been in group homes and Vision Quest. This is the first time I've ever been in a secure jail."

His bail had been set at $1,000, which meant under court rules that he needed to post $100 -- 10 percent -- to be released. He's particularly mad at his mother and her crack habit. If she wasn't so addicted to that "little nasty stuff, she could have got me out of here," he tells me.

But Junior has learned not to rely on his mother for money. If she doesn't pay her debts to an impatient crack dealer, there's no reason to expect that she is going to come up with $100 for Junior's bail.

His lawyer tried to get the court to reduce his bail. But Judge Cheryl Long looked at Junior's juvenile record and decided that Junior was "likely to flee" before his trial.

"The defendant does not appear to be a stable member of the community," Long wrote. "He is 19 years old, has virtually no record of employment and has lived intermittently with his mother and his aunt, and with other undisclosed persons prior to his residence with his aunt. This is an extremely nomadic existence for a person of his age."

CHAPTER SIX: Reunion at the Jail

Prosecutors held Junior's case for grand jury action, which meant it would be months before he would stand trial. While he was waiting, he was transferred from the crowded jail to the Modular Facility at Lorton.

He made collect calls to Rosa Lee, pleading for help; he called so often that she stopped accepting them.

One day she hands me a letter from Junior and asks me to read it to her. The letter has capital letters and commas missing in crucial spots, an indication of Junior's writing skills. One test indicated that he reads at about a fourth-grade level, which is typical for inmates between the ages of 18 and 24, according to a Lorton study.

"Hi how is the family?" Junior wrote in a neat and legible script. "fine I hope. Me I am thinking like this. When I come out I will do good with some 'Help.' I mean I will do better with Help!!"

"my mom I hope she give up coke so she can get her own apartment. you stop the coke from taking your life and you feel good. my mom needs that feeling. ... I will make my mom see the light because here make me see it."

Then he returns to his own plight. "I hope God see to forgive me for the thing I did. ... Love you all. God will help the ones who need Him. He will help the ones who love him so I will try and help me."

Junior's concern about his mother is still evident when I see him at the Modular Facility a few months later. It is early August, and Rosa Lee and I have come to spend a few hours with Junior and her oldest son, Bobby, who is also locked up there.

Rosa Lee embraces Bobby and reaches out to touch Junior's shoulder. Rosa Lee and Bobby, mother and son, hold each other tenderly for a long time. Bobby's thin arms rest on Rosa Lee's broad back, a stark reminder of his recent battle with pneumonia. "I had one foot in the grave," Bobby murmurs to Rosa Lee.

Doctors feared that Bobby's immune system had succumbed to full-blown AIDS. He was diagnosed in 1989; Rosa Lee and Patty also have tested positive for HIV.

Bobby and Junior listen quietly as Rosa Lee complains about Patty's crack use and her prostitution. Bobby and Junior don't say anything, but when Rosa Lee begins to make excuses for Patty's behavior, Bobby explodes. "I don't want to hear it!" he tells her.

"I'm just letting you know how far it's gone, Bobby," she snaps.

She turns to Junior. "I'm just letting you know how far it's gone, Junior. I'm sorry, but I have to tell the truth."

Bobby is worried that Patty's luck is going to run out, that one day she won't pay off her debt and someone -- Patty or Rosa Lee or Junior -- is going to get hurt.

"Let Patty start dealing with her problem," Bobby says, agitated.

Junior jumps in. "When I get out of here, I wish to put my mom in a program. The one where you are locked down. You can't go out."

Junior wants to have his mother committed to a psychiatric hospital. I point out that the courts can't force someone into this kind of treatment unless they are a clear danger to themselves or society. Junior won't give up. He reminds me that Patty has tried to commit suicide several times, and that's proof that she's a danger.

"She just needs someone to pull her in," Junior says. "That's the only thing that's going to help my mom now."

CHAPTER SEVEN: 'What I Have Done'

After months of saying that he knew nothing about the stabbing of Deon Cheeks, Junior pleaded guilty to the attack. On June 7, 1993, the case of U.S. v. Rocky Lee Brown Jr. is called for sentencing in Courtroom 210 of D.C. Superior Court. Rosa Lee, two of her grandchildren and I take a seat near the front.

"Mr. Brown, do you have anything to say before I pass sentence?" Judge John H. Bayly asks Junior.

"Yes, I do, Your Honor. I want to say I'm sorry, you know, for what I have done. ... I'm asking you to, you know, give me a chance so that I show that I am sorry for what I have done, Your Honor."

Bayly says nothing in response. No lecture about the lure of the streets, no threats about what he might do if Junior comes back to his court on a new charge. Bayly sentences Junior to two to six years in prison, but suspends it because Junior has been locked up for 16 months awaiting trial. Then Bayly gets tough: He puts Junior on probation for three years, orders him to work 200 hours of community service, requires him to seek a job and fines him $500.

"Does he have $500 to pay today?" Bayly asks Junior's lawyer, Fred Sullivan.

"No, Your Honor, actually he's been on a $1,000 bond since February of '92, unable to pay that bond, so it is going to take him a while to accumulate that kind of money."

Bayly backs off a little. "Well, I'll make the $500 due by the third of June of 1994 in its entirety."

The prosecutor in the case, G. Michael Lennon, takes note of Junior's troubled background in telling the judge that Junior must be held accountable for his actions.

"No one could fail to recognize the problems that he had as a child and as a teenager," Lennon says, "but what's troubling is all the intervention so far appears to have very little positive effect. And I think that some of the responsibility for that has to be Mr. Brown's."

Later, I ask Junior what he thought of Lennon's remarks. Junior replies in a voice edged with anger.

"He's saying they gave me a lot of help but that I ain't respond to none of it," Junior says. "I say they didn't give me no help."

Continue to Part Eight


© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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