by Ben Jealous, President of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation
During the civil rights movement’s struggle against discrimination and voter suppression in Jim Crow America, the Black Church was a source of refuge and resolve. Today, a new wave of voter suppression laws is targeting Black voters, and new generations of Black clergy are bringing their moral authority to a campaign to defend the Black vote. Continue reading Black Churches have Moral Authority to Defend the Black Vote→
Troy Delone was not always an upstanding citizen. His extracurricular street activities landed him in the country’s largest maximum-security prison, Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, when he was 21. Though he was sentenced to double-life plus five years for two counts of armed robbery, Delone was determined to find his way out of prison via legal means.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry while in prison, a new law gave him a glimmer of hope for a potential release. On Dec. 19, 2016, after serving 16 years, that’s just what happened.
Making good on his word to better serve his community, not only does he work with nonprofits, but he’s also earned his master’s degree in social work from Southern University of New Orleans. In a post on social media, Rick Price said, “Every moment of your life is a second chance.” Delone is living proof of this profound quote.
Zenger News spoke with the odds-defying Delone on prison life, his strong faith and the importance of getting an education.
Percy Crawford interviewed Troy Delone for Zenger News.
Zenger: Growing up in the Iberville Projects [in New Orleans], I’m sure it was hard not to fall into the traps of what you witnessed on a daily basis.
Delone: Yeah man! Being that that’s all you see, you feel like that’s just the way life is. The environment you grow up in is so important. Say you grow up in a house where your mom and dad are doctors. The only thing they talk about all day is medical stuff, and you’re going to pick up on that type of language and mindset. But if you grow up in an environment where the only thing you see every day and all day is crime and criminal activity, especially as a kid, you’re going to think this is the way life is.
Zenger: It becomes a survival mentality.
Delone: Exactly! As you get older you might start seeing other things in other parts of the city and community, but it’s like, “OK, that’s the way they live, but we live like this over here.”
Zenger: When you were 21, you got hit with two counts of armed robbery. When you heard the sentence of double life plus five, what went through your mind?
Delone: It was surreal. I just knew it was a bad dream that I was going to wake up from one day. My mindset was this is not real. I probably went through that state of shock and disbelief for two-and-a-half to three years.
Zenger: They send you to Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. What was it like for you?
Delone: It’s sad to say this, but when I went up there to Angola, it was like, all my family was up there. I have an older brother, we are five years apart, he had already been there six years when I got up there. I also had three of my close friends that I grew up with was up there. There were also other people from my neighborhood that went up there and had been there for a while. It was crazy to see all of them brothers up there like that. That was my thought process, “All my family up here.”
On top of that, the atmosphere in the dormitories that we were living in, it’s like people had lost the reality that they were in prison and sentenced to life sentences. People were watching TV, playing cards or chess. They were just going about life like this was normal. It was insane to me. I hated being in the dormitory because it’s like they didn’t realize that they are in prison.
So I used to stay in the education building, taking all kinds of self-help classes, using the law library and the regular library, and just getting involved with the clubs. I started getting access to that community and being around like-minded people who were like, “Man, we gotta figure out some kind of way to get out of here. Not only that, but once we do get out, we gotta make a difference in our community and prevent other people from falling into this trap as well.”
Zenger: At one point, they reduced your sentence to 198 years. Was that what made you want to get in front of a parole board, because that reduction wasn’t going to let you see the outside world again, either?
Delone: My focus at that point in time was, whatever it takes to get out of here. If I had to go home on 198 years of parole, so be it, as long as I’m free. I’m still in the system but at least I have the liberties to be able to go to the store, go to work, get in a car and go take a ride with my family. It’s small stuff, like being able to go get something out of the refrigerator or watch TV and not have 60 to 80 other guys around you constantly. Just having that, I was like, I’ll take it.
When I went before the pardon board, they granted me clemency. I had the favor of God. People that surrounded me, stepped up and spoke up for me. The pardon board was like, “This guy here, he’s obviously not the same person he was when he was arrested and convicted, and we want to give him another opportunity.” My sentence was commuted from two consecutive life sentences to 198 years.
But then they said I had to go up to the parole board and I’m like, “The parole board?” Basically, the same people that sit on the pardon board sit on the parole board, too. So it was the same group of people. It was a matter of me being patient to be able to parole, because when they commuted my sentence, they said, “With immediate parole eligibility.”
I was able to go up on the next parole board and was released. I probably was one of the last ones to make parole and be released on the same day. They don’t do that anymore, but like I said, I just had unmerited favor from God. Just trusting and believing that God had opened the door for me that no man can close.
Zenger: You earned your bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry while in prison. How important was that?
Delone: The degree in and of itself wasn’t the thing that was the most impactful for me. The thing that was more important for me was through my studies of the seminary, I really was able to develop my own personal relationship with God. My mom raised us in the church. When we were kids, up until the age where I was able to completely rebel, we had to go to church every Sunday. We were in there from 9 in the morning until almost 3 in the afternoon. I had a foundation. I knew about God, but I didn’t know him for myself. I believed in God, but I didn’t know that I could communicate with him, and he could communicate with me. That’s what came out of my studies at the seminary.
This was pivotal, having my identity confirmed that I was not this career criminal, this notorious person. They put these titles on you in the hood, he’s a head busta, he’s a hustla, a playa and all that there. I wasn’t none of that. I was a child of God, and it was pivotal for me to know who I was. Having my identity confirmed as a child of God changed my whole perspective on life.
Zenger: I attended the Angola Rodeo one year, and we were told that only a very small percentage of inmates that enter Angola State Penitentiary ever see the outside world again. Given that, what does your release date, Dec. 19, 2016, mean to you?
Delone: The Bible says, “He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek him.” That was my reward day. I was free when I was in there. Free on the inside. My mind and my heart was free, but my body was in bondage. That was the reward for me to continue to press on and glorify Him in everything that I did. Through my relationship with Him, I was able to help other people. The Bible says, “Let your light shine before men, and they will glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Delone: Thank you! When I started the process of pursuing my master’s degree, it was very challenging because I had a family; married with kids, and I was also working full time. It was a very challenging process that I went through. So when they called my name to get my diploma, it was a monumental moment in my life.
When I was growing up, I was hard-headed, but I was gifted academically. And they had such high expectations for me. My people thought I was going to be a lawyer or doctor if I just did what I was supposed to do. So at that moment, I just knew my sister was so proud. With my mom not being here anymore, I was able to feel her pride and joy through my sister being there.
Zenger: Continue your work in the community, and we’re all proud of you, brother. Anything else before I let you go?
Delone: Just to put a little bow on it, I always tell my son this: The experiences in life each of us goes through are not really for us, it’s to help somebody else. So when something good happens, this is not for me, this is to be used to inspire other people. No matter what challenges you face in life, you can overcome them with hard work, faith and perseverance. There’s nothing you can’t accomplish in life.
BALTIMORE — William Kellibrew was 10 years old in 1984 when his mother, Jacqueline, and 12-year-old-brother, Anthony were killed by Jacqueline’s boyfriend in the living room of their home in Capital Heights, Maryland. Next, the killer approached William.
“He put the gun to my head,” said Kellibrew, who begged for his life. He was spared: The killer instead put the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger.
In the aftermath of his terrible ordeal, Kellibrew’s advocacy against domestic violence drew the attention of Oprah Winfrey and the Obama administration, among others.
The academy “provides a fundamental overview of the entire field of advocacy including victimology, victim rights and victim assistance for residents in Maryland.,” its website states.
Kellibrew shared his perspective after the first day of the five-day program: “I think that it’s important for us to educate ourselves to serve our communities and to create safer spaces for young people. We need to hear their voices to address the deep-rooted trauma that has impacted so many communities.”
The Roper Academy is named for Stephanie Roper, a 22-year-old college student who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by two men after her car broke down in a rural area of Prince George’s County on April 3, 1982.
Stephanie’s parents, Roberta and Vince Roper, formed the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, which eventually became the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center.
The Roper Academy was established in 2003 to train law enforcement officers, counselors and nurses and about victims of crimes, the trauma they experience and the stress that service providers can experience.
Academy participants typically learn at a retreat center in Baltimore County, but In the wake of the pandemic, they attended online for the 40 hours required for the certificate.
Speakers this week included Dianna Abramowski-Liberto, an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore County; Debbie Bradley, victim advocate with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office; and police officers, among others.
Dave Thomas, with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, talked about how the time has come “to shift perspectives on trauma survivors, from disdain to one of concern.”
Lisa Ferentz, founder of the Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education, told participants that many perpetrators of domestic violence started as victims themselves.
“Believing ‘I am bad’ sets children up for a lifetime of self-sabotaging and self-destructive behaviors, dangerous, abusive choices and relationships,” Ferentz said.
In another session, art therapist Mary Ann Hendricks distributed glue, crayons and other supplies for participants to make their equivalent of a “treasure chest” designed to teach them to manage their own trauma.
Heather Pfeifer, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore, said the academy aims to bridge the gap between research and practice.
She also pointed out what might be an upside of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“COVID reinforced how wired we are for affection,” Pfeifer said. “Learning to adapt within these constraints is stress in and of itself, and that is not a bad thing. COVID was this persistent stressor, so I look at it as how can we adapt and what can we take away in terms of lessons learned.”
Debra Stanley, the academy’s executive director, said that for decades crime victims were not part of the justice system that was primarily focused on the defendant and their rights. But more recently, there has been a shift from what’s known in legal circles as retributive justice system to a restorative one, where the rights of the victim are also considered.
“Things have changed so much since the death of Stephanie Roper,” she said, “but more needs to change.”
Similar thoughts were expressed by one of the participants in the week’s training.
“I learned a lot about the human trafficking of children,” said Debra Thomas, a chaplain for the Baltimore Police Department. “They say it takes a village, but we need more people to get involved and be the village to save more children today.”
Over the course of a day-and-a half in late May and early June 1921, a white mob, angered by the alleged assault of a white woman by a black man, burned and looted the predominantly black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The damage covered 35 city blocks, destroying nearly 200 businesses, displacing about 10,000 residents. Hundreds were killed in the Tulsa race massacre, deemed one of the deadliest riots in U.S. history.
In the aftermath, Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church was the only black-owned structure still standing in the historic Black Wall Street district. Today, the church at 311 N. Greenwood Ave. stands as a symbol of black resiliency and fights for compensation for the victims of the massacre.
“It’s really humbling to pastor a church that was here before the massacre and has been part of the rebuilding of the community,” said the Rev. Robert Turner, Vernon A.M.E.’s pastor since 2017. “We’ve been called the ‘grandmother of Greenwood’ as the oldest, continuous landowner in the city, black or white. We provide a place for spiritual health and racial healing while representing what remains of Black Wall Street. [Reparations] is really something our people deserve; for justice, reclamation and recompense. Vernon is the change agent against the injustice [of the massacre].”
While three survivors of the massacre — Viola Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle and Hughes Van Ellis — recently received $10,000 each from a Tulsa nonprofit, Turner continues his weekly marches to Tulsa’s City Hall, seeking reparations from a political structure he holds responsible.
“[The gift] gives us more momentum. But, it’s not the first or the biggest,” he said. “We will continue to go after the City of Tulsa, which, over the years, has been complicit at best, a co-conspirator at worst.”
Dick Rowland was a 19-year-old shoe shiner at a white-owned establishment in downtown Tulsa in 1921. Jim Crow laws forced him to use the “colored” bathroom, which was on the top floor of the nearby Drexel Building. Details vary about what happened next on May 30, but it is well-established that after Rowland entered an elevator in the building, the 17-year-old white elevator operator, Sarah Page, screamed, and a white clerk reported the incident as an attempted assault.
Rowland fled but was arrested the next day. A headline on the front page of the Tulsa Tribune on May 31 that read “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” provoked a white mob that descended on the courthouse jail where Rowland was being held. The sheriff refused their demands to hand over Rowland and ordered a barricade on the top floor to protect Rowland. After a group of black men showed up outside the courthouse, fighting broke out, shots were fired, and 10 white people and two black people were killed.
Hours later, the Greenwood neighborhood was under siege. Damage was estimated at nearly $2 million ($27 million in today’s dollars), but claims were denied by insurance companies.
The case for reparations
“Following the massacre, government and city officials, as well as prominent business leaders, not only failed to invest and rebuild the once thriving Greenwood community, but actively blocked efforts to do so,” states a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch on the case for reparations.
“No one has ever been held responsible for these crimes, the impacts of which black Tulsans still feel today. Efforts to secure justice in the courts have failed due to the statute of limitations.
“Just over one-third of people living in North Tulsa are below the poverty line, and 35.7 percent are black,” the report states. “Just 13.4 percent of South Tulsans are below the poverty line, and only 9.1 percent of South Tulsans are black.”
The City of Tulsa is addressing the effects of the massacre with a number of public-private initiatives.
“Under Mayor [G.T.] Bynum’s leadership, addressing the legacy of the massacre and making unprecedented investments in community-led redevelopment has been at the forefront of his administration’s goals,” said spokesperson Michelle Brooks. “As it relates to cash payments, Mayor Bynum has stated that he does not believe this generation of Tulsans should be financially penalized for what criminals did 100 years ago, as the only option to bring monetary payments is to tax all Tulsans, including black Tulsans.”
Among the more than 20 economic and community development initiatives announced by Bynum is the construction of Greenwood Rising, a $30 million history center and museum to honor the legacy of Black Wall Street before and after the massacre.
“It’s a great idea to increase the knowledge capital [of what occurred in 1921], and it will bring a great deal into the economy, but the benefit will not be for us, it’ll go into the larger community because we don’t own the land,” said the Rev. Anthony L. Scott, pastor of First Baptist Church of North Tulsa, one of the two other black churches in Greenwood. “The museum will generate revenue off of the pain of black people. A percentage of that revenue should be earmarked to benefit those who experienced the pain.”
Scott said he favors a two-pronged approach to reparations: “Survivors and their descendants are deserving of individual monetary reparations because of the massacre that took place. That will compensate those families as far as legacy wealth and helping their families. But, I’d also like to see redevelopment reparations on a grander scale to compensate for a self-sustaining black economic engine that would have benefited everyone had it not been destroyed [in 1921].”
White House response
On the 100th anniversary of the massacre this year, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. issued a proclamation for a Day of Remembrance. During his visit to Tulsa on June 1, he announced new steps to grow minority businesses and target racial discrimination in the housing market.
“Having the president here in Tulsa was great. He was the first president in 10 years to recognize what happened here as a massacre,” said Turner. “But he said nothing about reparations.”
Media reports described Biden as “wary” of backing reparations for black people in Tulsa, and his lack of support for a House bill that would create a commission to study reparations. H.R. 40 was passed by the House Judiciary Committee in April, but opposition by Senate Republicans makes adoption as law unlikely.
Nevertheless, Turner remains optimistic.
“To the naked eye, [reparations] may not be possible,” said Turner. “But, to the spiritual eye, anything is possible. I stay in my faith space and take my orders from God. In the words of Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’”