The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In D.C., Black families reel from the pain of hundreds lost to covid-19 and killings

A family passes through Northeast Washington, where Black families have been hit hard by the coronavirus and gun violence. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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A grandma lost her brother and niece to covid-19, barely surviving the disease herself.

A father lost his teenage daughter to gunfire and fears the killing has been forgotten.

And a cook who lost his job due to the pandemic now skips meals to make the food stamps last.

African Americans in the nation’s capital have always suffered more than Whites during crime waves and economic downturns. But 2020 has been a particularly devastating year for Black D.C., magnifying racial inequalities that were already among the worst in the nation.

Between the coronavirus pandemic and a surge in homicides, nearly 1,000 lives were lost this year in the District. Almost 80 percent have been Black, even though African Americans now make up less than half of the city’s population.

Some Black families have been struck by both the pandemic and gun violence, the twin tragedies compounding already immeasurable pain.

Abu Baker Bangura lost his 18-year-old son, Richard, in mid-August after the college-bound honor student was shot two blocks from home in Northeast Washington — so close Bangura heard the gunfire. Two weeks after the burial, Bangura found himself attending another funeral — for an uncle who died of covid.

“This has crushed us,” Bangura said.

And there have been other losses. Black unemployment nearly doubled in D.C. during the first few months of the crisis, while children of color have endured worse educational setbacks than their White classmates.

And amid demonstrations for racial justice, Black D.C. residents have watched the capital — a place long celebrated as Chocolate City — become a magnet for groups with ties to white nationalism. During an election protest earlier this month, members of the Proud Boys stole two “Black Lives Matter” signs from African American churches, smashing one and setting the other on fire.

Historic D.C. Black churches attacked during pro-Trump rallies

“Just when you think things can’t get much worse,” said Marie C. Johns, who worked in the Obama administration and belongs to Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal, one of the churches, “you have people spewing hate and defiling a place that is absolutely sacred to my family and others, a place built by our recently freed ancestors.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting member in Congress since 1991, said she couldn’t remember a worse period in her 83 years.

“It’s a very dark time,” said the native Washingtonian. “Everybody is waiting for 2020 to be over.”

'It is a beast'

Loretta Simmons lost her brother to covid in March, when he collapsed yards from the doctor’s office, unable to breathe.

Two weeks later, her daughter and grandson came down with coughs and fevers.

Soon, Simmons also fell ill. The 71-year-old from Northeast Washington spent April on a ventilator. A few days after she was discharged, her niece died of the disease.

“This thing has hit my family tremendously,” said Simmons, who is still suffering from breathing issues and brain fog eight months later. “It is a beast.”

Across the country, African Americans are almost three times as likely to die of covid as Whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the trend is even starker in the District, where African Americans have died of covid at a rate six times higher than Whites.

Of the 786 lives the disease has claimed in the capital this year, roughly 75 percent of the victims have been Black, even though African Americans make up 46 percent of the city’s population.

Some of the dead were public figures: an attorney in the mayor’s office; a groundbreaking law professor who helped create the Peace Corps; a pioneering psychiatrist renowned for her work with addicts and AIDS patients; a photographer who risked his life to capture the Freedom Rides.

Others were less renowned but no less mourned: a beloved teacher’s aide; a 105-year-old born before the 1918 flu pandemic; and a psychiatric hospital patient who was estranged from her family but whom caregivers considered a “gem.”

For Howard Croft, it began in late May with a fever after a trip to his oncologist. His wife, Cynthia Kain, thought the 78-year-old civil rights activist and educator might be having a reaction to the steroids that were part of his cancer treatment. But then his fever spiked and a trip to the hospital turned into a month-long fight for his life.

Croft was given remdesivir and transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he was put on a ventilator. After two weeks, something happened that seemed scripted by the scrappy, self-made storyteller: He came off the breathing machine.

“I was so happy,” Kain recalled. “I thought he had turned the corner.”

But covid had ravaged his lungs, and within a few days it was clear something was wrong.

“He just kept going downhill,” Kain said. “Down, down, down.”

The call she was dreading came at 3 a.m. on June 20. Kain, who had just recovered from covid herself, caught an Uber from their home in Southeast Washington to Baltimore. Their daughter drove down from Providence, R.I.

They played one of Croft’s favorite songs — Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” — as the man who’d spent his life working for change let go.

It hurts Kain to see the disease that claimed her husband ravage the Black neighborhoods he so loved.

“Why is all this visited on our community?” she asked. “Why are we having to bear all this terrible weight of covid and gun violence and joblessness? It feels really unfair.”

'They took my baby'

Saige Ballard was standing outside a Capitol Hill house party, talking to a young man in the June moonlight, when someone approached from the street and opened fire.

Bullets struck Ballard in her upper body. The 18-year-old had returned to her parents’ home in Northwest Washington this spring after covid cut short her freshman year of college. She was giddy about moving into her own apartment at Georgia State in the fall. Her father and older brother, both chefs, had begun teaching her how to cook.

Instead, she was pronounced dead at MedStar Washington Hospital: the 70th homicide victim in what would become the bloodiest year the District has seen in more than 15 years.

As with the pandemic, African Americans have suffered the brunt of the bloodshed. Of the 198 homicides in the capital this year, nearly all were Black, according to police data. At least seven were Hispanic and two were White.

Six months after he and his wife rushed to the hospital only to find they were too late, James Ballard fears that his only daughter — who would have turned 19 on Nov. 21 — is being forgotten amid a flood of killings. Her death received little media coverage, and police have no suspects.

Detectives tell her father they are working hard to find her killer. But Ballard doesn’t understand why the mayor didn’t hold a news conference for his daughter, as she did for a 1-year-old slain earlier this month.

“It’s like Saige is just another case,” he said. “Because gun violence is just so prevalent in the District.”

The city’s Black homicide victims range from an 11-month-old baby to an 81-year-old Korean War veteran. At least 18 were teenagers.

Christopher Brown was playing video games with his younger brother and grandma in August when a friend invited the 17-year-old to a cookout advertised on social media. The event had swelled to hundreds of people by the early hours of the next day, when gunfire erupted.

At least 20 people shot, one fatally, at a party attended by hundreds in Southeast Washington

Brown’s grandma awoke to her phone ringing.

“Poppy got shot,” a friend told her, using Christopher’s nickname.

Patrice Brown began calling emergency rooms in search of the boy she’d raised like a son. Someone at UM Prince George’s Hospital Center told her the ER had received a young patient with no identification and a fatal bullet wound to his chest.

The teen had “Patrice” tattooed on his arm.

“They took my baby from me,” she said of the Aug. 9 shooting, which injured 21 others.

Christopher left behind a young son and a shattered family.

For Thanksgiving, Patrice made Christopher’s beloved cornbread, which the teen called cake. “As soon as I got everything fixed, I broke down,” she said. “Because he’s not here.”

Amber Wilson also spent the holiday in mourning. Her daughter, a 31-year-old dance instructor named Noelle, had been found shot to death six weeks earlier in an alley in Anacostia.

“My daughter was always the fashionista,” Wilson recalled with a laugh. “She’d come over for Thanksgiving, flying through the door fashionably late, saying, ‘I’m here.’ ”

This year, Wilson made Noelle’s favorite foods once more. Then she took the plate of ham, sweet potatoes and corn pudding to her daughter’s grave and ate with her, one last time.

'Come home'

For Tyrone Parker, the surge in homicides was a call to action. The 74-year-old helped found the Alliance of Concerned Men in 1991 — when the city suffered a record 482 killings — two years after his own son was slain.

Parker and his fellow “violence interrupters” have spent decades trying to defuse tensions in some of the city’s most dangerous areas. But lately, bloodshed has crept close to his organization.

The mass shooting that claimed Christopher Brown in August left bullet holes in the Alliance’s sign. And a young female volunteer was slain in October.

The Alliance was conducting a workshop with young men who’d lost relatives to gun violence in early December when the sessions suddenly came to a halt: Someone in the office had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Parker and his wife, Yvonne, had been sick with what they thought was the flu. But when he took her to the hospital, doctors told them she had covid. Parker tested positive for the coronavirus two days later.

Yvonne was put on a ventilator, but seemed to be improving. When Parker spoke to her on Dec. 7, the fastidious former NASA employee — who proudly displayed a photo with Neil Armstrong at their home in Temple Hills, Md. — reminded her husband of 43 years to collect the mail.

Parker told her he had hung the Christmas wreath on the door and put out the poinsettias, just how she liked.

“I told her I was waiting for her to come home,” he recalled.

She died the next day.

'I'm hungry'

Julius Booker still dreams of steak.

A good slice of meat was an occasional benefit of being a cook at a restaurant in Chinatown, where the prime rib cost almost twice his hourly wage.

The job had been a dash of good fortune in a life otherwise untouched by it. The 56-year-old former construction worker had been on disability since slipping two disks in 2013. Chopping vegetables was easier on his back and paid the bills.

But then the stores in Chinatown began shutting in March, and his boss told him to file for unemployment.

“He said when things got better they’d call me back,” Booker recalled. “But things haven’t got better.”

Instead, Booker, a proud man who learned to cook at a culinary school that feeds the homeless, now fears joining their ranks. He went on food stamps for the first time but they don’t stretch far enough, so he’s taken to skipping meals. He’s three months behind on rent and has no answer when his wife says, “Baby, I’m hungry.”

“I’m not used to hearing that,” he said.

Black unemployment in D.C. soared from 11 percent to 18 percent in the second quarter, according to the Economic Policy Institute. White unemployment went from 2 to 4 percent.

“We’ve seen people lose their first job, then their second job,” said Kim Ford, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Martha’s Table, which is handing out 2,000 bags of groceries a day. “The scariest thing is a lot of these jobs are not coming back.”

Martha’s Table and other charities have begun providing hard-hit families with stipends of $1,100 a month for five months. Many families use the money to buy food or pay the rent, Ford said, but at least two used it to bury a loved one.

Many nonprofits serving primarily African American neighborhoods are struggling to survive — their fundraisers canceled — just when they are needed most, said Philip Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. He worries about the city’s Black children; 1 in 4 were living in poverty last year, and the education achievement gap between White students and those of color is bound to get worse.

“The community is going to feel this for years to come, because our kids are just drastically falling behind,” said Pannell. “We were having a problem with school attendance and the high dropout rate . . . before the pandemic struck. This just made the situation that much worse.”

For Booker, each month without work only brings more debt. He and his wife receive around $1,600 a month in disability and unemployment, Booker said. But rent plus utilities for their one-bedroom home in the Carver-Langston neighborhood often pushes $1,200. What’s left over isn’t enough to pay for food, cellphone service and their one remaining comfort: television.

The Salvation Army rescued him from a $400 overdue gas bill this summer. And Pepco recently agreed to keep the lights on if Booker paid the $343 he owed in monthly installments.

A spate of homicides has rocked Carver-Langston this year. And ever since a neighbor moved out after being mugged this summer, Booker has taken to carrying a pocketknife when he walks to the grocery.

“This has been a hard year, a very hard year, and I’m powerless over it,” he said. “I didn’t do nothing to be in this bind, but there’s nothing I can do to get out of it until everything else clears up.”

He wants to believe that next year will be better, but the signs are ominous. He woke up one recent morning to find a little black bird in his living room. Relatives told him it was an omen of death.

Booker opened the window and carefully shooed the animal outside.

Lola Fadulu, Peter Hermann and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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