She’s come a long way since then.
During a recent gala at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in the District, Jamiah was one of the featured speakers. The center was marking its 25th anniversary, and youngsters who frequented the place talked about their favorite activities.
“I participated in everything that the center offered,” Jamiah told the audience. She played tennis, performed excerpts from speeches of famous African American women, such as civil rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer and poet Nikki Giovanni. And she took sewing classes, hoping one day to have her own fashion design business.
“When I was less confident, I was always in my head worrying about things that could go wrong — if the prosthesis leg would come off, if I would fall. I was so scared,” she told me. “But I was getting so much love and support from my family and friends at the tennis center that I eventually got over it.”
The transformation had not been easy. Even the toughest soldiers must battle despair and the pain of rehabilitation after losing a limb. For Jamiah, the battle came with the added pressure of adolescence.
“There was a time in junior high school when she was learning to walk on the prosthesis, trying to transition out of the wheelchair,” recalled Natasha Norris, Jamiah’s mother. “Some of the children made a video of her learning to walk and it went viral. Some of the children made fun of her.”
Jamiah’s response? She became a role model for other amputees.
“We were at the rehab clinic one day and this gentleman came over to me and said, ‘I see her working hard, pushing and pushing, and here I am whining and complaining,’ ” Norris recalled. “He said, ‘I think I’m going to be more like her.’ ”
Jamiah, who lives in Southeast Washington, was 11 the first time she visited the tennis center. She showed up in a wheelchair, her head down.
Cora Masters Barry took the girl under her wing.
Barry, the wife of the late D.C. Council member and former mayor Marion Barry, helped the tennis center get its start. She had used funds left over from one of his inaugurals to form the Recreation Wish List Committee, a nonprofit which started the tennis center in 1994.
“I said, ‘You are such a pretty girl,’ ” Barry recalled.
She assigned Jamiah the role of Hamer in the center’s signature “Blacks in Wax” program, a living history performance put on at the Kennedy Center each year. Youngsters dressed in period costumes stand onstage as “wax statues” of iconic African Americans and then come alive under a spotlight.
Jamiah was to give an excerpt of Hamer’s powerful testimony before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention in August 1964.
“She read the text but just wasn’t getting the feeling behind the words,” Barry recalled. “So, I let her listen to an audio tape of Hamer’s testimony.” During the hearing, Hamer recounted being arrested, jailed and humiliated by white police in Mississippi who pulled up her dress while ordering black male inmates to beat her for trying to vote.
“I said to Jamiah, ‘Do you hear that pain? Do you hear the fight in her voice?’ And the next time Jamiah got onstage, she knocked it out of the park,” Barry said. “It was like she had connected Fanny Lou Hamer’s pain to her pain; Fanny Lou Hamer’s courage to her courage. She was no longer the same shy little girl after that.”
There were more changes to come. She changed her diet, cut out junk food and stopped eating meat. She began eating more vegetables, drinking fewer sodas and exercising more. She joined the dance team at the District’s Thurgood Marshall Academy, where she is now an 11th-grader — and she ramped up her tennis game. Jamiah credited Alvin Fludd, the center’s tennis coach, with providing a safe but challenging environment for her on the tennis courts.
“I just expected her to do her best,” Fludd said. “And as it turned out, she could really hit that ball.”
Jamiah lost 25 pounds. She became stronger. Her balance improved. Her mind became even sharper.
“As my body changed, I was able to make and wear a wider variety of clothes,” she said. “I really liked that.”
At Thurgood Marshall, Jamiah was selected to design a T-shirt to mark October as anti-bullying month. Last year, a friend who attended a boarding school committed suicide after relentless bullying.
“She was very smart, and she wasn’t afraid to share her knowledge,” Jamiah said. “But it seems like anytime a person has gifts and talents or anything special, they are going to attract negative energy.
“I want to use my positive energy and creativity to counter that,” she said.
Lately, Jamiah’s been thinking about college and how to turn her love of fashion into a business. She’s already off to a good start. This past summer, she won a scholarship for a week-long workshop at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
“I want to make affordable clothing — especially for amputees,” she said. “I think everybody should have the opportunity to wear clothes that are comfortable and beautiful.”
The dress she wore at the gala had been her creation — a sporty silver-colored design with a hemline just above the knee. It showed off her prosthetic leg.
“Call me a new age fashionista,” she told the gala, smiling confidently. “I am bold. I am courageous. Nothing will ever handicap me.”