About four years ago, the words "SOUTH SIDE THUGS" were painted on a wall buttressing part of the playing field of McGogney Elementary School in Southeast Washington. Shortly thereafter, Sterling "Bill" Crosby, a recent high school graduate, was shot and killed in the same area.
Residents in the Congress Heights neighborhood organized to wipe out the graffiti and take charge of their neighborhood. With the help of local artists, they painted a mural on that wall with a positive community message. But problems with the paint threatened to erase the message prematurely. Neighbors had to redouble their efforts to save the wall.
On Oct. 9, Congress Heights residents and government leaders gathered to celebrate the renovation of the mural, "Say Yes to Education, Yes to Dedication."
Back when the graffiti appeared and Crosby was slain, community residents decided they had had enough. "The slogan on the wall was an unfair indictment on the community," said resident Joyce Scott, who founded the neighborhood's United Women in Christ group and worked to rehabilitate local women struggling with drug addiction.
The residents of Congress Heights were not gang-bangers, as the graffiti on the wall suggested, but a community of families. Bill Crosby was not a thug from the south side, but a 17-year old coming home from a movie, randomly shot after getting off the bus.
Immediately after a prayer vigil for Crosby, Scott and other residents walked down to the wall and covered the graffiti with whatever paint they had. This quick fix led to the idea in 1996 of painting a mural to cover the entire wall. By May 1997, the mural, designed by local artists Rod and Clive Turner, was completed. Spanning 300 feet down Wheeler Road, it featured historic African Americans figures such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson and several local figures, including activist and newspaper publisher Calvin W. Rolark.
The mural was a tremendous success. It lifted the spirits of those living in the community and inspired other efforts such as the Children's Garden Club, which planted flowers in front of the mural and along Mississippi Road.
Unfortunately, the paint itself was not such a success. By spring of last year, residents noticed the mural was peeling and cracking, especially on the innermost panels. Members from the Around the Wall Committee, the group that organized the mural project, reconvened. By last fall, funding was obtained from the Spring Creek Foundation. Community IMPACT!, a nonprofit community support organization, served as the fiscal intermediary on the renovation, just as it had done on the original painting.
"Partnership is the idea," said Marcy Mistrett, a site director at Community IMPACT! The organization set up a bank account maintained by residents who formed a steering committee. The mural is just one of the projects the committee is working on.
Although Community IMPACT! played a major part in raising funds, it was a joint effort. "It was the community and the artists with skill. Everybody had a part," Mistrett said.
"We took more precautions this time," artist Rod Turner said about improving the durability of the mural. "We sealed the wall and primed it."
The paints used as an emergency covering for the graffiti in 1995 were a bad mixture of latex and water-based materials, which caused the later mural to peel and crack. The D.C. Department of Public Works donated several graffiti blasters, and residents used them to strip the wall down to the concrete. The Turner brothers then took giant sheets of tracing paper and literally redrew the mural from tracings of the original panels.
Although the May and August renovation became a full-time job for the Turner brothers, Rod Turner said there were at least 15 to 20 residents at a time showing up to do what they could.
Community members did the stripping and priming of the wall, sealed it and added background colors.
One citizen of special note is Jack Green.
Green, 80, has been a dedicated member of the Around the Wall Committee since the slogan was first covered in 1995. He remembers that when the wall was first painted, "cabdrivers stopped to give money. Whatever they could, $5, $10."
Green kept up this same level of enthusiasm during the renovation. He was present nearly every day with the artists at the wall. He gave his support simply by being there. "I made sure there were meetings, people came, and when paint was needed, I told them to go get it!"
Over the past four years, the slogans on the wall at Mississippi and Wheeler were a symbol for neighbors fighting to take back their neighborhood from the original graffiti that told the families of Congress Heights it was a dying place, and the crews would soon take over.
Barry Lenoir, a resident and an active member of Around the Wall, said neighbors wanted the wall to deliver a positive message.
"They decided the slogan 'Say Yes to Education, Yes to Dedication' summed up their belief that families of Congress Heights are not giving up on the neighborhood," Lenoir said.
This is perfectly illustrated in the mural's center panel in which an elderly man is shaking hands with a child--symbolically passing on his wisdom and experience, in hopes the youth will use it to make the future brighter.
CAPTION: The mural, at Mississippi Avenue and Wheeler Road SE, was a big community project completed in 1997 to cover graffiti.
CAPTION: The mural, which spans 300 feet down Wheeler Road, features historic African American leaders and several local figures.