The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Peace Corps worker was on a date in D.C. with his wife. Then came a stray bullet.

Jeremy “Jerry” Black, a Peace Corps worker, was fatally shot on 14th Street NW on June 29, 2021. (Family Photo)

Cathy Feingold doesn’t know who the women were or what lives they had led.

All she knows is that they appeared during one of her darkest moments and knew exactly what to do as her husband lay on a busy Northwest D.C. sidewalk, dying from a gunshot wound.

That night in June, as Feingold tells it, she and her husband, Jeremy Black, a Peace Corps worker who had dedicated his life to helping others, had been on a date. They had enjoyed dinner with two friends at a 14th Street restaurant and, because the weather was welcoming, decided to take a walk. The four made it only a few blocks when they heard the gunfire.

A group of men, or maybe they weren’t men, maybe they were still teenagers — they haven’t yet been arrested — had decided to have a gun battle on one of the city’s most popular streets. A stray bullet struck Black.

Three men killed, several wounded in spate of shootings in District

A witness would later describe hearing seven to eight gunshots and a woman scream. Feingold recalls her friends calling 911, her turning hysterical and two Black women jumping down from a nearby patio to help a White couple they had never met.

One of the women took off her shirt, and wearing just a bra, tried to stop Black’s bleeding. The other woman pulled Feingold close and held her.

“You don’t want to see this,” the woman told her.

The woman asked Feingold her name and encouraged her to let her husband know that she loved him. “We love you,” she told him again and again, speaking for herself and their two sons. The women stayed with the couple until rescue workers arrived. Then, they went back to their patio.

“It was like they had done this before, like it was just another night on their street,” Feingold tells me when we talk on a recent evening. “They just knew what to do, which actually made me sad. They had been through it.”

Feingold is aware that her husband, as a White man killed on a street lined with upscale restaurants, is an outlier. Gunfire in the city is not rare, but the bullets usually whiz through neglected neighborhoods and most often kill Black adults and children. Children like Nyiah Courtney, a 6-year-old who was looking forward to starting first grade when she was shot and killed on July 16 in Southeast Washington. She was the city’s 102nd homicide victim this year.

“I’m so mindful that this happens every day,” Feingold said.

She is mindful that too many Black families in the D.C. area have felt the “complete and utter devastation” hers is now experiencing. She is mindful that too many Black residents know what to do when someone is shot because they’ve done it before.

She is mindful that shootings will continue to happen — on struggling streets and on expensive ones — if not more is done to address what causes people to recklessly fire bullets at others.

“We’re not going to solve this problem without people dealing with what’s going on inside of them — the rage,” she says. “Who shoots people up? You cannot be a healthy, happy human being. It wasn’t a hit job. . . . It was spraying bullets on a crowded street.”

Thousands of bullets have been fired in this District neighborhood

Feingold has not talked publicly before about what happened on the night of June 29. She is doing so now because she doesn’t want her husband’s death to just raise fears among people who hadn’t before seen gun violence as a threat to them. She wants it to lead to solutions.

Black, who was 53 and known to many as Jerry, had served as a volunteer for the Peace Corps in the Comoro Islands and dedicated his life to working on economic and social justice within the United States and beyond its borders. That calling had brought him and his wife together. They met at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and they worked together at the Ford Foundation.

When they got married, Feingold said, they made a commitment to continue trying to help others. Feingold works for the labor movement and at the time of his death, Black worked for the Peace Corps in the Office of Inspector General. The two also taught Sunday school together and were raising two sons, ages 15 and 17. One was at Quaker camp when the shooting occurred.

On Sunday, the family will hold a celebration of life for Black. One of the speakers will be Ryane Nickens, who founded the TraRon Center, which aims to help D.C. children who have been affected by gun violence.

Just days after Black’s death, Nickens was scrolling through her inbox when she saw an email from Feingold, saying she wanted to set up a fund with the organization in honor of her husband.

“I Googled her name just to see if this was a real person,” Nickens recalls. “I responded just kind of in amazement. Here it is three or four days after you watched your husband being killed and she took the posture of immediately wanting to help, wanting to be part of the solution.”

Nickens grew up in Ward 8 and knows what it means to lose friends and relatives to gun violence. The center is named for her sister and brother — Tracy and Ronnie — who were killed. She created the organization in 2017, she said, to give elementary and middle school students a safe place where they could participate in art therapy, receive one-on-one counseling and learn to work through their anger, all without judgment.

“I wanted to create a space that I didn’t have growing up, that I didn’t have to say, ‘I’m not okay. This hurts like hell,’ ” she said.

When I ask her whether she believes that the young men behind the shootings don’t care about the city because they feel the city doesn’t care about them, she points to an African proverb: “A child that is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”

“That’s what we’re seeing,” she said. “We’re seeing kids that have experienced a lot of trauma, a lot of pain. Folks like to say we’re making excuses for them, but these aren’t excuses. These are the reasons things are happening.”

A girl’s reaction to the Nationals Park shooting made the world look at D.C.’s gun violence problem

When shootings reach into wealthier, more White neighborhoods they tend to draw more attention, and that attention tends to deepen racial divides. It sends the message that as long as the trauma stays in those Black and Brown neighborhoods where it has long existed, people are comfortable; they’re okay with a 6-year-old dying but not with a shooting disturbing a baseball game.

What those shootings should do, though, is unite us. They should make us see that the issue is not Black or White, it is Black and White, and everything in between. They should bring us together to try to find ways to lessen the toll. That is what the fund that Feingold and Nickens created is trying to do.

“The thing that I liked when I met with Cathy is she got it, she understood it,” Nickens said. “And I think it’s going to take more people to get it. It’s going to take all of us to change the culture of our city. We don’t have to all like each other but we all have to work together.”

She and Feingold expected the fund to raise maybe $5,000 or $10,000. As of Friday, the amount had surpassed $119,000. That money, Nickens says, will allow the center to go deeper with the children they’re already serving, expand their services and give out scholarships to young people who have lost — and unless things change, will continue to lose — parents to gun violence.

A few days after Black’s death, a group of Peace Corps workers went to 14th Street to lay flowers on the sidewalk. Afterward, they told Feingold about an encounter they had while there. A Black woman who lived nearby approached them.

“I hope this stops the violence,” she told them.

On Thursday night, just weeks after those flowers were left, bullets rang out again on that same street.

This time, two people were shot.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

An 11-year-old boy’s killing isn’t proof Black lives don’t matter to Black people. It’s proof of our collective failure.

The girl who brought down Robert E. Lee’s statue

She’s endured stares and insults. Her dream: To create a community space where others won’t have to.