The two Southeast Washington women met in the 1970s as activists in their Anacostia neighborhoods. Their friendship grew as they pushed for better schools, programs for teenagers and more jobs. Together, they went into crack houses, coaxing addicts to return home to their families.
One woman, former D.C. Council member Sandy Allen, 67, turned to politics to help her community. The other, the Rev. Joyce Scott, 58, turned to faith.
Early on Jan. 2, tragedy brought them even closer. Scott’s grandson, Brian C. Scott, 21, was gunned down at 13th Place and Congress Street SE, becoming the city’s first homicide victim of 2011.
Five years earlier, Allen’s grandson, Jon Allen Jr., 15, was fatally shot on the same corner.
For the two grandmothers, the corner in the Congress Park neighborhood has become a shared reminder of personal loss. For the city, it is a grim symbol of the gun violence that has shattered so many families. Over the past decade, 17 people have been slain within a few yards of the intersection. The most recent was Ra-Heem Jackson, a 16-year-old basketball standout at H.D. Woodson High School who was shot April 7.
Six weeks ago, Scott forced herself to return to the corner. It was the first time she’d been back since Brian Scott was killed and another grandson, Tavon Bell, 21, was critically wounded.
With a microphone and a Bible, Scott brought out her church members, friends and as many residents as she could find for an anti-violence rally. They were there, she told the crowd, to “proclaim this street for peace.”
Sandy Allen was beside her.
“Sometimes you can save everybody else’s child but your own,” Scott said.
The two- and three-story brick apartment buildings that surround the corner are worn but not shoddy. One of them is surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. Thirteenth Place ends in a cul-de-sac locals call “the Circle.”
The Congress Park complex, built in 1950 as affordable housing for World War II veterans, evolved into a thriving majority-black community. It fell into decay in the late 1960s. And in the 1980s, crack cocaine turned quiet streets into open-air drug markets.
Many of those who could afford to move did. Many of those who stayed retreated behind heavy curtains and double-locked doors.
“The ‘neighbor’ went out of the neighborhood,” Scott said.
Scott and Allen each have connections to Congress Park. Both have relatives who live near the corner. Just as it links them now, the neighborhood helped bring them together more than three decades ago.
In 1978, Scott was working for a company that helped find jobs for juvenile offenders when she volunteered for then-council member Marion Barry’s first mayoral campaign. Soon after, the campaign recruited Allen.
The women didn’t know each other even though they were commissioners of adjoining advisory neighborhood commissions in Anacostia. But when Barry (Ward 8) wanted holiday food baskets delivered to residents, they volunteered.
At Scott’s Mississippi Avenue SE apartment, they lined up supplies, blasted “Superwoman” by R&B songstress Karyn White and got to work.
“We were putting food in baskets, drinking wine and singing: ‘I ain’t no superwoman! I’m not the kind of girl you can let down and think that everything is okay!’ ” Scott said, laughing. “We kept playing that song, over and over. Then we went out and delivered them.” Nearby Congress Park was one of the neighborhoods they went to that night.
As their friendship grew, so did the list of projects they tackled. As crack began to destroy families, they became the go-tos for mothers desperate to save their children.
“We have gone into crack houses together and pulled people’s children out,” Allen said. “Then we’d take them home to their mamas.”
While they were helping others, they faced trials of their own. One of Allen’s grandsons was convicted of murder. One of her sons and his father were addicted to drugs, she said. Scott said she once chased her son with a stick around 13th Place and Congress after finding out that he was dealing drugs there. He later served eight years in prison on a drug charge.
“Nobody is immune to struggle,” Allen said. “Everybody is susceptible to having a problem, no matter how hard you work.”
For Scott, the call came early on Jan. 2. She was polishing the sermon for the Sunday afternoon service she preaches at the Inspired by God Fellowship Ministry on Southern Avenue SE and had planned to stop at Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray’s inaugural prayer breakfast.
Instead, she rushed to the corner.
When she arrived, paramedics were trying to save her grandsons. Tavon Bell had been shot three times. He later underwent brain surgery. Brian Scott, who was shot five times in the head, was placed on life support.
She would later learn that her grandsons, roommates who both had baby daughters, had been out celebrating on the night of Jan. 1 at a Prince George’s County club. Afterward, Bell went to the corner, where his mother lived, to drop off an aunt and friend. When the car he was riding in stalled, he called Brian Scott to pick him up.
About 7 a.m., as the cousins were getting ready to leave, a sport-utility vehicle pulled up and shots rang out.
Bell pulled through, but the shooting left him in a wheelchair. Scott died with his family at his bedside. The case remains unsolved.
Allen was among the first to call Joyce Scott.
“She said: ‘I know how you feel. I know what you are going through.’ I knew she did,” Scott recalled. “It took her back to what had happened with Jon.”
On New Year’s Eve 2005, Sandy Allen was on her way to take her grandson, Jon Allen Jr., to lunch at McDonald’s and give him money to go out that night. She stopped first at the Eastover Shopping Center to have a new battery put in her watch. About 1 p.m., her cellphone rang.
He had been shot.
By the time she reached the corner, the helicopter carrying him to the hospital was gone. He died just before midnight — becoming the District’s final homicide victim in 2005.
“He was waiting for me to pick him up on that corner,” Allen said. “That is what is so hard for me about going there: knowing that he was waiting for me.”
Jon, a quiet teen who wanted to be a police officer, lived in an apartment building on the corner. His grandmother had always worried that he wasn’t as sophisticated as some of the youths who hung out there.
“I would tell him to stay in the house or, if he was outside, to be in the front because it was safer,” Allen recalled. Three people are imprisoned in his slaying.
At brunch recently, the friends recalled the time when Tavon Bell and Jon Allen Jr., who had been friends, got into a fight at the corner.
Scott called Allen. They got the boys back together.
“We weren’t having that,” Scott said. “A lot of the kids who are killing each other’s families know each other. They were friends, and we were not going to have them fighting.”
At the rally in May, Scott and members of her congregation wore military-style camouflage pants and green T-shirts that read, “Boots on the ground . . . Time to turn it around.”
As they marched from the Circle to the corner, Allen stood close to the spot where she and her friend lost grandsons and watched.