A true sense of community - that's what Malik Rahim and Varilin Dampeer like about their New Orleans neighborhood, Algiers. But that cohesion has made the coronavirus pandemic all the more devastating.
“In the whole community of Algiers every family knows somebody who passed away from the virus,” said Dampeer. Rahim’s best friend from childhood passed away recently, and Rahim’s son lost both of his grandparents from his mother’s side.
People of their generation - Rahim is in his mid-70s and Dampeer in her mid 60s - are united not just by faith or their church communities but also by having known each other since childhood. Everyone is intimately connected. Locals who have contracted the virus, or worse, have died from it, aren’t just names and faces: they are close friends and family, many are members of the same gospel choir on Sundays.
In the United States, Covid-19 disproportionately affects people of color. For Black Americans, it is part of a triple crisis - a deadly virus, the legacy of racism and police violence, and a major economic crisis. George Floyd, whose killing on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparked weeks of protests across the country and around the world, represents this crisis quite accurately. Floyd’s autopsy showed coronavirus antibodies - he survived the virus to then die by the hands of police.
But millions of Americans have taken to the streets to protest for justice, peace, equal rights and opportunities. Activists, scholars, nonprofits and church groups see some silver linings such as increased public involvement and new ways to engage with their communities.
So far, the US has seen 6,825,697 cases and 199,462 deaths. Where race/ethnicity was available, the Covid Racial Data Tracker, which was created by The Atlantic magazine and is listed on the website of the Federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), found that 21 percent of the dead were Black, meaning 38,827 Black lives were lost. These numbers are disproportionate considering that African Americans comprise roughly 13 percent of the US population.
A study by a group of researchers at Amfar, the Foundation for AIDS Research, recently showed that majority Black counties have been home to 52 percent of the coronavirus cases and 58 percent of the deaths from Covid-19. The study was published in July in the Annals of Epidemiology.
The Black communities of New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington, DC, have all struggled with a disproportionate virus outcome. New Orleans and Atlanta, as cities located in the south, are similar regarding socioeconomic circumstances for low-income Black families and their health outcomes. Washington was chosen as a point of reference, to see whether circumstances for these populations are different in the nation’s capital.
Local nonprofits and church groups have been trying to address the pandemic’s direct health outcomes, while also getting to the core of key issues plaguing Black Americans that have received increased public attention through Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. They have put the focus on civil society activities, first of all, because the crisis is so extensive that it takes community groups, as well as officials, to respond, but also because many activists and community members regard the grassroots level as the place where real and lasting change can happen. The pandemic has inspired activists, nonprofits and church groups to find new ways to help their communities. For each city, local activists, faith-leaders and nonprofits share their personal stories and show how they dealt with the pandemic while trying to help those around them at the same time.
In mid-to late March, when coronavirus cases started to rise, mayors in all three cities declared a state of emergency, according to their official government sites. They encouraged telework for all non-essential workers, prohibited large public gatherings, closed down in-door dining, shopping malls, entertainment venues, and schools, and promoted social distancing guidelines and face coverings. Non-essential businesses, such as nail salons and barber shops, also were ordered to shut down. In line with federal policies, emergency relief funds and unemployment stimuli were paid to citizens who had lost their jobs or struggled otherwise economically. Coronavirus shutdown measures culminated in formal “stay-at-home-orders.”
Since then, legislation has been put into place to help with the economic devastation caused by the virus, including freezes on rent increases, eviction bans, expansion of unemployment insurance, food assistance programs and initiatives to help the homeless. New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington all began a phase-by-phase reopening of their economies in mid-May.
These hard-hit communities in New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington are dealing not only with the pandemic’s direct health outcomes, but also with the economic consequences, structural racism manifested in areas such as housing and healthcare, as well as disparities in education that often determine the fate of an entire family.
As of Sept. 22, according to the New York Times Covid-19 Tracker, Louisiana had a total of 163,253 cases and 5,386 deaths. New Orleans accounts for 12,407 of these cases and 587 deaths, 435 of which were African Americans.
The Census Bureau’s population estimate for the city of New Orleans in 2019 is just over 390,000. About 60 percent of New Orleans residents are African American and 34 percent are white. While the poverty rate for white people is approximately 11 percent, it is about 32 percent for African Americans.
Looking at the high number of deaths and infections, Rahim said, “It’s the legacy of racism. Our communities are the most polluted. If you want to find a Black community in Louisiana, look for a refinery, look for a chemical plant, and you’ll see that it’s around our community.”
The CDC finds that the average life expectancy for African Americans at birth in 2015 was 75.5, which is over three years less than for white Americans. Ronald Braithwaite and Ruben Warren’s article “The African American Petridish” from April 2020 shows that the legacy of slavery has permeated all systems and structures in the US and has shortened the lives of African Americans.This legacy, according to Braithwaite and Warren, includes disparities in the healthcare system, racial residential segregation, practices of redlining/disinvestment in communities, limits to education, and lower wage jobs. The term “redlining” refers to a Federal Housing Administration practice introduced in the 1930s of color-coding maps of metropolitan areas to indicate where it was safe to insure mortgages - any areas where African-Americans lived were colored red to indicate to appraisers that these neighborhoods were too risky.
Additionally, as reported in Bloomberg in April, a high percentage of essential workers are African American, many of whom do not have sufficient personal protective equipment. This jeopardizes the health of their families and their communities. Black people tend to live in very densely populated neighborhoods, a result of high poverty levels, so if a worker in these communities gets the virus and brings it back to the community, it spreads quickly. Once it spreads, the people are less likely to receive adequate care.
New Orleans is part of what has been called the cancer alley, an 85-mile stretch starting in Mississippi known for its high concentration of polluting manufacturers, such as Total, Formosa, and Shintech, that produce different kinds of plastic for both industrial and consumer use. Since the 1980s, politicians and scientists have known that Black and poor communities suffer most from the nation’s pollution. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health released a study in early April showing that the conditions causing higher risk of death from the coronavirus can be triggered by long-term exposure to air pollution.
Ronnie Feist is a 54-year-old New Orleans resident who works in communications for the New Orleans port and lives in St. John’s Parish. His neighborhood, like Dampeer and Rahim’s, is a tight-knit community of fewer than 4,000 people. By late May, more than 30 people had died, among them a couple who lived four houses away. His church, the New Jerusalem Baptist Church, with fewer than 200 members, lost five parishioners to the pandemic.
“Here, everybody knows everybody,” said Feist, “Basically, here in our community, every family was affected by the virus in one way or another.”
Right when the lockdown started, he began to feel sick. He lost his sense of taste and gradually became weaker. He went to St James Hospital on March 28, where he was diagnosed with Covid-19. They transferred him to Baton Rouge General, where he spent 15 days, nine of them in the ICU on a ventilator. Having heard about all the deaths on TV, Feist had tried to put off going to the hospital and argued even more strongly against going on a ventilator - the nurse had to convince him.
“It was an experience I would never want to experience again,” said Feist, “The hospital was full. They were working constantly, and it basically looked like a meat-packing factory. What they had to do was come in for about 30 to 60 seconds and move on to the next patient.”
“When I was in the hospital a few years back and requested something, I got it in less than a minute. This time I requested just ice and water and it took three to four hours,” Feist recalled. “During the 15 days I was at the hospital, that’s all I ate, other than what they gave me through the IV. I didn’t eat the hospital food. And being without family around - that made it even harder.”
While Feist was in the hospital, he lost his mother, who was 82 and died from heart failure, and his aunt, who was 65 and succumbed to Covid-19. Three other members of Feist’s immediate family also were in the hospital with Covid-19. He wasn’t able to communicate with anyone in his family while he was in the hospital. He never said goodbye to his mother or his aunt. There were no funerals.
“It was really hard on my children and my wife. No phone calls, no visits. It’s just you alone with the hospital staff,” Feist said.
This sense of isolation plagued Dampeer and Rahim. The two were used to facing extreme events, and they were used to facing them together. In the past, they’d always relied on their faith communities to support them. The worst part about the coronavirus, and what made it different from past crises, was that Dampeer and Rahim couldn't gather with other parishioners because of the social distancing rules. This was especially painful for funerals.
“It was kind of sad during the whole Covid crisis to see the people dying in the hospital and have to hold the nurse and the doctor,” said Dampeer, “Why were the pastors and the priests, and the faith group not there and gave them their last rites? They do it when they go to the death sentence. They’re there in the battlefield when people die going to war. Why couldn’t they be there in the hospital and just put on the masks and the suits?”
Due to Covid-19 restrictions in hospitals established by the CDC, which allowed only one immediate family member or legal representative at the patients’ hospital beds, no religious leaders were allowed to enter the hospital wards.
(Varilin Dampeer and Malik Rahim in their living room)
(Rahim in front of photos showing him and other Black Panthers during the protests in the late 1960s)
Dampeer and Rahim have been together for 12 years. They met after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans. In the aftermath of the hurricane, Rahim founded the nonprofit Common Ground, which rebuilt houses, provided immediate food and water assistance, established mobile clinics and shelters and partnered with environmental groups for volunteer projects. Dampeer led a campaign to receive federal funding. The organization served over half a million people.
During the pandemic, Dampeer and her husband have been running a food drive to help out within their neighborhood. They also sit on the health and wellness committee in Algiers, where they have been providing coronavirus information. They’re getting ready to start a bike club to help community members improve their health. The arrival of hurricane season starting in June further complicates their situation.
Jamaal Weathersby, the pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in New Orleans, also experienced the devastating impact of Covid-19 in his parish. New Hope has about 1,000 parishioners. Weathersby contracted the virus, as did the mother of the church, a position generally held by an older woman who serves as an example to the congregation and gives stability to the church. The minister of music, the administrator, the finance manager, as well as the outreach coordinator all contracted the virus. About 40 church members were infected, and four people died, one of whom was only 17 years old. The mother of the church, who is 95 years old and suffers from congestive heart failure, survived and has fully recovered.
When the first cases in the US became known, New Hope actually threw what Weathersby now calls a “Covid birthday party” for the church’s mother. The congregation and some of the mother’s relatives were invited. Later on, 10 of the people who had attended tested positive for Covid-19.
“Back then, it was the beginning of March, people didn’t really know what was going on. Early on in the game, the President could have at least acknowledged that it was a real issue - I’m sure if he would have, we would not have had the birthday party,” Weathersby recalled.
St. Augustine Catholic Church in New Orleans is the oldest African-American parish in the United States and has continuously had a non-segregated congregation. Its current pastor, Emmanuel Morenga, who is originally from Zambia, Africa, moved to New Orleans to take over its leadership in 2014.
(Pastor Emmanuel Morenga at St. Augustine Church)
(The Tomb of the Unknown Slave in front of St. Augustine Church to commemorate the slaves who lost their lives building the church and didn’t receive a proper burial)
The congregation’s inability to gather and support one another has been Morenga’s greatest challenge. St. Augustine has lost a number of people to Covid-19, as well as other illnesses, since the pandemic started. Morenga has been trying to get creative and be available for his congregation as much as possible through virtual means.
Once Morenga started streaming the church services virtually, he actually had more participants than at church services pre-pandemic.
The church formed partnerships with various community organizations. It connected volunteers to people in need of grocery runs, doctors visits and other errands. It also partnered with a meal assistance program and worked alongside a nonprofit seeking out people within vulnerable communities who were struggling with housing issues. The nonprofit gave funds for living expenses to people who hadn’t qualified for the federal stimulus checks . Although his congregation has a roughly equal number of Black and white parishioners, all of the families infected with Covid-19 that Morenga knows of are African American.
Generally, the areas comprising the deep South, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, which are mostly tied to poverty. These comorbidities elevate the risk of dying from the virus. African Americans also tend to acquire these conditions earlier on in life. While the general population is at increased risk at ages 65 and over, this age might be more around 50 or 55 for African Americans, according to Thomas LaVeist, dean of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans. Moreover, Louisiana, Georgia and 10 other states have refused to expand Obama-era Medicaid federal benefits offered under the Affordable Care Act. This prevents millions of low-income residents from accessing health insurance.
Nghana Lewis, a professor of English and African studies at Tulane University who specializes in Black women’s health, said that recent coronavirus-impact data is oddly “shocking” to the general public.
“If the mainstream had been looking at the margins for centuries, then the mainstream would know that there’ve always been these health disparity issues,” Lewis said, “So the fact that Covid is disproportionately affecting Black communities shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”
The economic shutdowns have also impacted African Americans disproportionately. According to the Economic Policy Institute, only 19.7 percent of Black workers, or less than one in five, can telework.
Entering the crisis with lower incomes and less wealth, African Americans are less able to withstand longer-term job loss than are white Americans. Federal Reserve statistics show that the median Black household had just under $18,000 in wealth in 2016, while the median white household had nearly 10 times more, amounting to $171,000. In 2018, the typical Black household earned three-fifths of what the typical white household earned - about $70,600 for white households and $42,600 for Black households.
Ashley Shelton, the founder and executive director at the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice in Louisiana, spoke of what she terms “convenient amnesia or convenient ignorance.” To her, the main problem is the disconnect between decision-makers and communities on the ground. Despite warnings by people in health, politics, and academia, policy makers weren’t witnessing these communities’ experiences first-hand, making it difficult for them to know how to respond to the pandemic. “Until it comes into your family, your community, your space, it’s not a real thing,” Shelton said.
The Power Coalition is a group of nonprofits. The work it does “is driven by directly impacted people, so we can tell the true story and see what it’s going to take to recover from this disaster, helping the communities to continue to lift their voices,” Shelton said. Some of its partners include Step Up Louisiana, Housing NOLA, Women with a Vision, and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
Shelton and the Power Coalition presented policy recommendations to a number of legislators, including Congressman Cedric Richmond. The demands center around the safety of essential workers, addressing job losses, retooling the workforce, and the exacerbated affordable housing crisis. According to Shelton, Richmond received the policy recommendations with interest, but there hasn’t been any kind of impactful legislation. Normally, the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, a coalition partner, doesn’t run out of affordable housing units until August. This year, for the first time in 10 years, it ran out in May. Shelton’s organization also advocates for legislation around paid sick leave, a benefit that 40 percent of the people in Louisiana don’t have.
To Shelton, and the people her organization is in contact with, it all boils down to a need for unity and joint efforts to combat today’s manifold crisis.
Pamela Bourgeois, a New Orleans native, volunteers for Step Up Louisiana, one of the Power Coalition’s partner organizations.
When the pandemic started, as elsewhere in the US, people in her community weren’t sure what was happening, what needed to be done to curtail it, and testing wasn’t readily available to everyone. In late June, it took almost two weeks for her to receive her negative Covid test result.
(Pamela Bourgeois at a supermarket in her neighborhood
Since the pandemic started, Step Up has done personal protective equipment drives to hand out masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. It also hosted virtual town halls to show elected officials what the community’s issues are, while pressuring them to find solutions. A recent town hall addressed unemployment and how to move forward after federal benefits were set to expire on July 31. President Trump signed an order on Aug. 8 to continue a $300 payment of supplementary unemployment benefits, with an optional $100 extra, which would have to be funded by the states themselves. The deadline for states to apply for this assistance was Sept. 10.
Many of the nonprofits, church groups and individuals interviewed in the communities of New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington have participated in marches for Black Lives Matter, or tried to protest and mobilize in other ways.
Step Up organized a “Step Up for Black Lives - Defund the Police” march on June 13, for which Bourgeois was a speaker. “The time for change is now,” she told the crowd. ”You shouldn’t have to tell your children that they’re going to be hated for who they are.” She also emphasized income and charter school disparities in Louisiana.
(Step Up Lousiana at the Step up for Black Lives - Defund the Police March Bourgeois spoke at)
(Protesters taking a knee in Jefferson County right outside of the New Orleans metro area)
Rahim, as a former Black Panther, said that 50 years ago, Black Americans were fighting under the same conditions, the same things happened during the protests, and not much has changed. Black Americans are still getting killed and are subjected to police brutality.
Rahim decided to join the 1968 protests after going to war in Vietnam and witnessing racism first-hand. He remembers officials burying a pool in his neighborhood because they didn’t want to racially integrate it. People in the army were calling him and other African American soldiers “niggers.”
“That kind of racism got me to protest, as well as seeing Martin Luther King [Jr.] die, who was standing up for everybody. He was talking about rights globally, not just civil rights. He was talking about injustice,” Rahim said of the civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968.
Weathersby, the Pastor at New Hope Baptist church, has been meeting with other pastors to discuss how New Orleans churches of all backgrounds could come together and have conversations about race and related issues exposed during the pandemic.
“I know that change doesn’t happen overnight. I know that the gentlemen I spoke with might not be able to do anything personally, but it just feels good to see that they care. That’s first and foremost, to know that what matters to me matters to my white counterparts as well. The church here has not come together to march or rally for BLM or any of those types of things. I’m really looking forward to seeing white churches, Black churches, Hispanic churches all come together for a common goal,” Weathersby said.
Growing up, Weathersby had to deal with instances of racism. On the day of his senior parade, he was in a car with three of his friends, two white friends in the front, and he and a Black friend sitting in the back. When the police stopped them, the officers made Weathersby and his Black friend - but not the driver or the other white student - get out of the car and show their papers.
In high school, he had a white teacher, who, he said, kept sending him out of the classroom for no reason. The teacher eventually accused him of bringing a pistol to school. The police got involved and never found the gun. The teacher was fired.
Weathersby’s grandmother was one of the founding members of New Hope Baptist Church and Weathersby has been its pastor for almost seven years. New Hope has always tried to help the community - giving out coats for children in the winter, providing school uniforms and hot meals for families in need. After a forced six-week break, with most of the church leaders on sick leave, New Hope set up a Covid testing site, handed out masks, and partnered with a group that supplied meals for 200 people twice a week.
“This is a very poverty-stricken area, so we have a lot of people who just need a hot meal. Since the schools closed, we never realized how much the kids depend on the lunch and breakfast in school. If it weren’t for that, they wouldn’t have anything to eat,” Weathersby said.
(Pastor Weathersby in front of the altar at New Hope Baptist Church)
New Hope organized a BLM march with several of the church’s male members and the district’s police officers. According to Weathersby, New Orleans, as a majority Black city with a strong sense of community, doesn’t have the type of distrust towards the police as in other places.
“Our mayor and the police chief are trying to make these demonstrations as peaceful as possible, and in many cases, they are willing to actually stand with those who are participating in the march,” Weathersby said.
To Weathersby, the legacy of slavery is very real, “Black people for a long time have been at a disadvantage. It bothers me that many people don’t realize the effects that slavery had on the Black race, and that the segregation and the Jim Crow laws, and the issues in the 60s had a tremendous effect. They literally suppressed this whole group of people. Black people are the only people in America who did not come here by choice. We were brought here against our will and enslaved for hundreds of years with no rights. To think that you can rise above that in two or three generations without any help - you have no land, no money, very little education, no family structure - how do you do that coming from absolutely nothing?” Weathersby said.
Rahim and his wife think that what is truly necessary is faith-based leadership during this phase of change and protest.
“Something like with George Floyd would never have occurred if we truly lived in a Christian world. We’re all fake-ass Christians. A young person of faith needs to take over,” said Rahim.
”And the multiracial character of the protests is giving me hope. I’ve seen what white privilege can do, and how it can be used for justice. What made the Civil Rights movement so successful is that it was led by believers. We lost that faith with [the death of] King.”
Atlanta, where a large part of the civil rights movement took place and one of the first large US cities with a Black mayor, likes to think of itself as a role model for other cities.
Stanley Pritchett, a native of Atlanta, who was around for the movement in the 60s said, “Atlanta has been a progressive city. It has put us in a unique situation. This serves as an opportunity to be a role model and a leader. I certainly hope that we can be a beacon of light for other communities.”
Reverend John Foster has been the Pastor at Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Atlanta for eight years. In 1847 Big Bethel was founded as Union Methodist Church. It’s the oldest predominantly African American Church in Atlanta.
(John Lewis Memorial next to Big Bethel)
Big Bethel is located on Auburn Avenue, in a neighborhood that can be seen as Atlanta’s equivalent to Harlem - a Mecca of Black businesses, artists, and churches in the era of the 20s and 30s.
“If you fast forward to the 50s and 60s, this is the birthplace where you had a lot of the ministerial background for the civil rights movement. On Auburn [Avenue] there’s these four pillar churches, including Big Bethel. These churches formed the pillar of the civil rights meetings, the civil rights marches, the civil rights strategy,” Foster recalled. “They helped the whole civil rights effort. The whole city of Atlanta was able to integrate in a very non-violent and peaceful way.”
Churches in Atlanta, like those in New Orleans, have been trying to play a part in the protest movement, raise general awareness and cause changes.
Big Bethel has served as the starting point for several BLM marches, for which it provided its resources. Foster addressed the crowds either before or after each of the protests. The church also provided a site for free Covid-19 tests during the pandemic, and it plans to have more testing days.
Foster constantly preaches to Big Bethel’s young church members that this moment in history is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get involved and that they shouldn’t let it pass by.
He regards today’s movement as less church-centered, compared with the 60s - the church hasn’t taken as much of a leadership position this time around.
Foster sees the protests as necessary to provide the energy and the stimulus to get things going. A true victory in his mind “is to draw notice to the inequities, to the things that are not right in society that’ll drive us to do things on various fences. The protests have to be followed by passing laws and putting things into practice in order to have a lasting impact,” he said.
But Atlanta’s Black community has also been particularly hard-hit by the virus. Of the total 307,339 cases and 6,604 deaths in Georgia, reported by the John Hopkins University Covid-19 tracker, Fulton County, where Atlanta is located, saw 27,080 cases and 564 deaths. So far, according to the Georgia Department of Health, there are 80,047 recorded cases of African Americans testing positive for coronavirus in Georgia.
The Census Bureau’s population estimate for the city of Atlanta in 2019 is 506,811. About 52 percent of Atlanta residents are African American and 40 percent are white. While the poverty rate for white people is approximately 8 percent, it is about 32 percent for African Americans.
Pastor John Foster said local faith leaders have been trying their best to “promote social distancing and best practices for wearing face masks.” To him the most important thing churches need to do right now is to educate their parishioners about the measures they need to take in order to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic.
According to Marvin Fleming, who works in Big Bethel’s administration, “The pandemic has been bringing light to some of the things that have brought a lot of frustrations.” Before the pandemic, Big Bethel provided subsidized housing in its properties around the downtown Atlanta area and also organized a clothing closet. With the pandemic, it all had to shut down.
The decline of seniors who “have lost their lifeblood” because they’re unable to get out and enjoy fellowship with other members, is another issue Fleming has been observing. “You can see a demise of mental capacity from the lack of interaction with people. We’ve seen one at a time passing away,” Fleming said.
Fleming has been visiting the homes of senior church members to make sure they have their computers and streaming services set up to access the church’s online services.
Sarita Davis, the graduate director of African Americans Studies at Georgia State University, started a Covid-19 online panel series through the university to spread knowledge, educate the public and promote agency and self-determination for Black people. The themes cover healthcare, housing, incarceration, education, economy, unemployment, media, and faith.
To Davis, racial profiling and stereotypes against Black people are a very personal issue.
“I feel it myself, as a 57-year-old Black woman. I try not to go to certain places where there aren’t a lot of people who look like me, because all it takes is one person to say you did something. When I’m shopping, I’m very careful. If I pick something up, I make sure I make an exaggerated effort in terms of putting it back. If I were in a restaurant where maybe I haven’t been before, I always try to be overly nice to the server - you don’t know what people might do to your food,” Davis recalled. “The heightened sense of awareness Black people carry around doesn’t dissipate.”
Many other residents of Atlanta feel the same way. One of them is Marvin Fleming, who’s a former employee of Rich’s Department Store.
“Having been born and raised in the South and seeing the things that a Black man has to go through not just in everyday living, but in the corporate structure. I’ve worked in the corporate structure all my life. The best jobs went to white employees, the jobs that paid the best commissions were all white employees. Back in the 60s we organized a strike against the company,” he said.
Even though Fleming worked his way up to management positions at Rich’s, he knew there were always differences in pay. He says a general manager decided to fire all Black people in management at the company. Fleming went into IT to work for Atlanta public schools and eventually became a church administrator.
“I came out of a slum. I knew what that was like and I wanted something better. I worked hard so I could go to college and come out of that environment,” Fleming said.
Similarly, Stanley Pritchett, a member of Big Bethel, grew up in the 1950s and 60s in what was still segregated Atlanta, “Where we as Blacks were treated differently, we were different in terms of rights and equality.” He remembers getting on a bus and having to sit in the back. Everything was segregated for people of color and white people - the restrooms, the water fountains. It was hard for him to understand why these differentiations existed. Neither one of Pritchett’s parents graduated from high school, but they made sure to keep their children grounded and motivated.
“We had to understand that you had to do much better because that’s the only way you’re gonna get accepted. They instilled in us the importance of going beyond high school, go to college, so you could develop yourself. Being the first generation to go to college can be a game changer for families of the future. Now that I’ve been able to see all my four boys graduate college and go to grad school, that’s a generational change for this entire family,” Pritchett recalled.
Pritchett’s family has been a part of the intimately connected Big Bethel community for as long as he can remember.
(Pastor John Foster (left) and Stanley Pritchett (right) standing behind the altar at Big Bethel AME Church)
(Stanley Pritchett at Big Bethel Church)
(Pastor John Foster at Big Bethel AME Church)
But in Atlanta, as in New Orleans, local nonprofits have been stepping up as well.
Kevin Gooch, who is now 40, became the youngest chairman of 100 Black Men of Atlanta in 2019. His organization mentors young Black men and women and provides professional opportunities to them. It hosts a robotics program for children, a career pipeline program identifying college students and getting them ready for the workforce, as well as other programs to engage children and their families. The organization also gives out scholarships to help finance tuition.
100 Black Men of Atlanta has had to cancel all of its fundraising events since the pandemic started. As a result, it lost a lot of money and donations. The inability to get together and to hold member and board meetings and the planned summer camp for the student members has been the other great challenge for the organization.
In response to the pandemic, Gooch’s nonprofit started a program called Feeding 100 Families of 4 that provides food to the families who are part of the program.
“With students at home, the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, and the lack of meals usually provided in schools or in summer programs - that impacts the ability of parents to feed their family,” Gooch said. If virtual learning continues, 100 Black Men of Atlanta plans to continue its food assistance program for the rest of the year.
Several members and close supporters contracted the virus - some of these members’ relatives didn’t survive. Gooch suffered a tremendous loss himself. His mentor, who was like a second father to him, succumbed to the virus. The courthouse in his hometown of Covington, Georgia, was renamed after his mentor. Judge Horace Johnson Jr. was a candidate for the Supreme Court of Georgia and a past president of the state Council for Superior Court Judges, where he was the first Black president.
“Knowing the importance of our organization, the community needs us now more than ever. We need to deliver on our promises and have been trying to double-down on our programming to do more and connect more with our students and the communities that we serve,” Gooch said.
The organization started doing webinars, some of which hosted mental health professionals, to show students strategies to manage emotions during a pandemic. Other webinars addressed the civil unrest associated with systemic racism and the George Floyd killing. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery by a white man and his son near Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, and the case’s relation to the criminal justice system were also addressed. One of the webinars hosted a former district attorney, a state representative, the head of the NAACP and the ACLU political director. The organization also offered a webinar for college students interested in practicing law.
Gooch said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the influence and help of his organization.
“My grandmother was my primary caregiver when I grew up,” Gooch recalled, “She worked three jobs. I didn’t have access to any lawyers, doctors, or business executives, so a couple of mentors took me under their wing and showed me the way. I fully understand the importance of that and that’s what made me want to give back. I worked at some of the largest law firms in Atlanta and I want to make sure that young people have the opportunity to do the same things I’ve accomplished.”
To Gooch, the most pressing issue for African Americans in Atlanta, and in the US generally, is education, the core principle his organization centers its programs around.
What is needed, according to Gooch, is generational change. He says: “When the African American community in general has better economic opportunities, you can change the trajectory of a family, a neighborhood, and an entire community. As you accomplish those things, you start to see more social equity and you’re able to dismantle some of the remnants of systemic racism and other social injustices. When you educate people and give them great jobs, they can make money and they have influence - then it’s much harder to oppress them.”
Despite the fact that Washington is the US capital, the Black community there has dealt with strikingly similar disparities and virus outcomes as in New Orleans and Atlanta. Similar to Atlanta, education appears to be a deeply rooted issue that continues to permeate all aspects of Black Americans’ lives. Teachers of color have been at the forefront, trying to combat educational inequalities.
Makeda Smith, a 27-year-old teacher in Washington, feels that she has constantly been on the frontlines, taking care of the younger generation, while also helping to shape a better future.
Washington, according to its official Covid-19 website, has so far seen 15,021 cases of Covid-19; 7,696 were identified as African American, and 3,583 as mixed race. African Americans comprised 462 of the 621 deaths.
The Census Bureau’s population estimate for Washington in 2019 is 705,749. About 47 percent of Washington residents are African American and 41 percent are white. While the poverty rate for white people is approximately 6 percent, it is about 26 percent for African Americans.
Smith’s experiences growing up in Florida and Georgia exposed her to the racism present in American society. She felt she lacked the tools to articulate these feelings until she went to college. She knew she wanted to make a change and believed that the best way to achieve this change was by becoming a teacher in the nation’s capital.
“School is a place where children should feel safe,” Smith said, “We need to give them the language to talk about racism and be able to identify it. Then we need to start a dialogue and challenge everyone’s own practices and biases.”
The school Smith works at is very diverse. Its Black and mixed-race students perform less well in terms of literacy than do the white children.
Moreover, according to Smith, the materials used in school curriculums do not reflect the variety of pupils in the classroom, “Children need to be able to identify with characters that have the same background and skin color they have,” Smith said.
Besides being a teacher, Smith is also a newly established small business owner selling handcrafted jewelry. Here, too, the color of her skin makes a difference.
“As a Black woman with limited capital and freedom, I don’t have the luxury of failure! I didn’t have that fun gap year or Europe trip after I graduated. I didn’t have a mentor or a handbook. But I wanted to be an inspiration for others and show them ‘If she can do it while working full-time as a teacher, I can do it too!’” Smith said.
Smith’s hard work paid off - her sales have gone up with the growth of the BLM movement. She decided to donate 50 percent of her sales through the month of June to Frontline Women DC, a local organization that supports lower-income women of color.
Smith complied strictly with social distancing and quarantine measures because she was afraid of endangering one of her relatives who has cancer. She has a deep mistrust of the healthcare system. Smith feels that doctors never listen to her; they seem to think, she said, that “Black women can take pain.” She wants to subject herself to that environment as infrequently as possible.
The well-known 19th-century African American sociologist and author, W.E.B Du Bois, conducted research to examine the diseases that contributed to high rates of mortality in Black communities. Du Bois highlighted the social conditions other researchers ignored. He also focused on the lack of empathy for the health and well-being of Black Americans, a phenomenon dating back to slavery. In “The Philadelphia Negro,” Du Bois wrote that there were “few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.”
This indifference Du Bois referred to continued between 1932 and 1972, when the US Public Health Service conducted the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” The study examined the progression of untreated syphilis under the assumption that the infection manifested differently in Black people. The day laborers and sharecroppers subjected to the study were told they would receive treatment, but they never did.
A study called “More than Tuskegee: Understanding Mistrust about Research Participation” published in the Journal of Healthcare for the Poor and Underserved in 2010, illustrates that this mistrust among Black Americans still persists today.
Jamila Taylor, the Director of Health Care Reform and a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation, thinks healthcare professionals need to be trained to provide compassionate care to all of their patients, regardless of external factors.
“They need to know how to recognize when bias creeps into their interactions with patients. If you look at the historical foundations of this, these stereotypes or views of people that are different, particularly based on race, can be passed down,” Taylor said. “I think the implicit bias comes into play because a lot of times these are well-meaning white people that may hold these views and may not be aware of how it’s actually harming the people they’re supposed to be caring for.”
Many experts, knowing that Black Americans already die of major diseases at higher rates in the US, predicted that the outcome of the coronavirus wouldn’t be any different.
The Washington Post interviewed nearly 60 public health experts, lawmakers and community leaders in early June and found that many of the first coronavirus testing sites went up in more affluent, white areas, despite previous requests by Black leaders. Inadequate data, which initially hid the fact that the virus disproportionately affected African Americans, contributed to the lack of resources.
To Smith, however, the protests and the increasing public activism are silver linings of this whole pandemic.
“We can’t look away! There are no distractions in uncomfortable 2020. You might call it divine intervention. These issues have been swept under the rug for so long, but now people finally see the urgency,” Smith said.
Smith feels that the issues that people are mobilizing around are similar to those her grandmother had to struggle with.
“Some problems have manifested in different ways, received new labels, or new names, but the institutional problems and deeply seated invisible issues that people don’t care about, or don’t want to look for with racism are still there,” Smith said.
As a Black woman comfortably located in the middle-class, Smith feels as though she comes from a more privileged place. However, being Black in the US has affected her experiences.
The last time she went to vote, she had to stand in line for hours. She decided to drive to a white neighborhood close by to see how long it took for people to vote there - there were no long lines and people cast their votes within 15 minutes. To her, these are signs of a conscious repression of the Black vote.
Jhacova Williams, an economist for the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, whose headquarters is in Washington, explores the role of structural racism in shaping racial economic disparities in labor markets, housing, criminal justice, higher education, and other areas that have a direct impact on economic outcomes. The Economic Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank created in 1986 to address the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.
During the pandemic Williams has worked on voting discrimination.
“One example about structural racism and how it played out during the pandemic is the Wisconsin primary [in April],” Williams said, “People were forced to risk their lives. You saw stark differences between Milwaukee, which is a predominantly Black area, versus white suburban areas. In Milwaukee, I want to say there are about 180 polling locations and because of the pandemic there were only five. That means you have more people at once in a location, so it’s exposing people. When you looked at the white suburban areas in Wisconsin, you saw something completely different - people were allowed to stay in their cars, they were allowed to drop off their ballots by car, the polling locations were open. Blacks have to risk their lives to vote just like they did in the past.”
Amara Pinnock, who also teaches in Washington, grew up in a predominantly white suburb. Pinnock felt she was sheltered from the inequities in education, because her parents were very involved. She initially went to college to become a veterinarian, but taking a class called “the Social and Political Context of American Education” in her sophomore year made her “put two and two together.”
In third grade, her brother’s school wanted to get him evaluated for special education, she said. His test showed that he qualified for the gifted class.
In a 2016 study, Sean Nicholson-Crotty at Indiana University, and colleagues found Black students were 54 percent less likely than white students to be recommended for gifted-education programs.
“Learning about what was happening in the US, I felt like that was more worth for me building my life on. Thinking about the impact I wanted to leave on the world. I wanted to teach kids that really never got the chance to have a really good educational experience and be a good teacher that can prepare them for the next step,” Pinnock recalled.
Like Smith, Pinnock is part of the Urban Teachers Program, which places highly trained teachers in low-income communities with the lowest performing schools.
A big problem she sees in Black children’s education is the lack of parental engagement, which often stems from parents not having had great educational experiences themselves. Children of color are often unable to read on grade level. For 2019, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 4th and 8th grade exams showed that the average reading score for white students on a scale from 0 to 500 was 26 points higher for grade four (230 vs 204) and 28 points higher for grade eight (272 vs 244) than for Black students.
“In grade three, testing starts to happen, and if they can’t read well, they can’t decipher the tests that they need to take, and then that brings down the test scores, and that brings down the funding - and the funding is already low because we’re in a low-income community,” Pinnock said.
Instead of going to the streets to protest some of these issues, Pinnock has her own form of activism.
“When you think about the energy of protesting,” Pinnock said, “it’s kind of this againstness that breeds more againstness. If I want things to change, there’s different ways I feel I can personally go about it. My protest is being a teacher and teaching kids who look like me.”
Pinnock also has a blog and a YouTube channel dedicated to Black women’s wellness and educational equity. A lot of doctors she had to deal with in the past didn’t want to listen to her, especially when it came to menstrual problems, so she decided to help herself.
“I think that in the Black community, we tend to not know as much about our health and our bodies as we could and should. So, as I’m learning about myself and about ways to heal, I’m hoping to inspire others to do the same,” Pinnock said.
(Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington D.C.)
Pinnock isn’t the only one who chose to protest by serving her community. Abby Levine, the director of the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy program, has seen people’s and organizations’ priorities shift since the pandemic started. The program’s goal is to help nonprofits get more involved in the public policy process and to explain the legal process to them. The Alliance for Justice, whose headquarters is located in Washington, was founded in 1979 and is a national association of over 120 nonprofits.
“Priorities have shifted to being much more local, much more immediate. Beyond that, many of them are looking to serve using a relief, recovery, rebuilding framework, and looking at policy for that,” Levine said. “Some organizations have been looking at the extent to which we can rebuild the systems that we have and recognize that some of these systems, like the criminal justice system, the immigration system, the food system, weren’t great to start with - so how do we use this opportunity to try to fix some of these bigger systemic issues?”
The DC Central Kitchen has been trying to do just that. It was founded by Robert Eggar, a nightclub manager, in 1989. Growing frustrated with his volunteer experiences, he decided to create a new model. The idea involved picking up wasted or unused food and turning it into healthy, nutritious meals for shelters and nonprofits.
“So many people had been facing housing insecurity, mental health issues, unemployment for generation after generation - a systematic change needed to happen. We fight hunger differently. We don’t just give people food,” said Ja’Sent Brown, the DC Central Kitchen’s chief impact officer.
Brown said DCCK’s advantage was that it is founded on the principle of serving and helping the community and adapting its programs to the community’s needs. When the pandemic hit it “went right into the normal mode that we would for any situation in the District of Columbia.” The immediate need, it turned out, was to find ways to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to communities that weren’t able to get them.
“There was a time where you couldn’t leave your house. And even if you did try to go to the grocery store, food was scarce. So DCCK started mobilizing our grocery bag distribution, especially in those low-income and impoverished areas,” Brown said.
DCCK is providing free meals at school sites and has upped its meal preps and provisions to local homeless shelters. It also has a program called “the Healthy Corner Store,” which is designed for food-desert neighborhoods that don’t have access to nutritious food. The organization gave out mini-grants to other groups that were trying to help the community. Some of these nonprofits include small restaurants, the housing program Casa Ruby, and the National Children’s Center.
The organization had to temporarily suspend its culinary food training program, which serves returning citizens who were released from prison, people who are housing insecure, African Americans, immigrants, and under-educated youth. The program prepares participants for careers in the food service industry, granting all students full scholarships for their training. Students go through theoretical course work, as well as hands-on training in the kitchen, and receive certifications at the end of the program.
Food education was also a big part of DCCK’s pre-pandemic work. It provided food demonstration training, showing them how to prepare certain recipes in the kitchen, to African American and LatinX communities and partnered with housing complexes, retirement homes, and elementary schools to change people’s mindsets and make all generations more aware of healthy and balanced eating practices. Since DCCK hasn’t been able to do in-person instructions, it is passing out nutritional information cards and simple recipes along with the grocery bags it hands out.
Like Pinnock, Brown didn’t participate in the BLM marches, but instead decided to support the movement in different ways. She got DCCK to collaborate with DC’s Black Caucus to donate water and snacks to the protesters and partnered with the Metropolitan Police Department to provide meals to officers who were peacefully watching the marches.
In addition, Brown convinced DCCK’s CEO to make Juneteenth a rolling holiday, which gives employees the option to take a paid day off. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the US. It dates back to 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger and the Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved were free. Brown also organized a meeting to prevent any racial inequity regarding promotions in the organization.
“There have been so many silver linings, especially with DCCK. Overall, everybody’s taking a good, hard look at our practices, at our approach, checking our own racism and racial injustice. Because of the pandemic, the city government really kicked in with funding and supporting, as well as individual people,” Brown said.
Churches in the Washington area have engaged in similar relief efforts to those in New Orleans and Atlanta.
Jomo K. Johnson founded the Church for Black Men and Families in DC in 2018. He had been working with BLM Savannah, had a background in ministry and wanted to build a home church ministry network for minorities, hosting church services at members’ houses instead of a permanent facility.
His BLM group in Savannah, Georgia is currently working on a George Floyd documentary, connecting activism with art. It hosted a retreat in Savannah after the George Floyd killing to discuss and reflect with locals. The event was meant as a form of self-care to deal with the Black community’s traumas.
(Jomo K Johnson, Pastor and founder of the Church for Black Men and Families)
Before the pandemic, Johnson’s church partnered with New York Avenue homeless shelter in Washington, sheltering about 300 men, ministering to them and helping them find employment. This had to be put on hold once the pandemic started. To cope with the current situation, the church developed a job placement program for Black men, posting their resumes and qualifications on the church’s website and connecting them with potential employers.
And Johnson’s church is not the only one in the Washington area that has been trying to figure out how best to help within its community.
Christopher Zacharias is the Pastor at John Wesley AME Zion Church and sits on the boards of seven nonprofits, interfaith and religious groups, among them the mayor’s interfaith council for which he is the Vice President, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the Conservative Wealth Organization, which preserves buildings and historical sites for African Americans.
Initially, Zacharias thought the biggest challenge for John Wesley AMEZ would be finances. The real challenge, however, was having to transition online. The church has a predominantly elderly congregation and had no social media presence before Zacharias took over.
“The biggest challenge at this point is knowing that this is the norm,” Zacharias said, “How are we going to connect with an aged church that didn’t have much of a digital presence and connect with them in a way that they still feel spiritually educated and developed and not so lonely. Their big day was Sunday - and now they can’t even get out of the house or get visitors.”
John Wesley AMEZ started handing out food and groceries to impacted communities every Wednesday and Saturday. It is also a voting site.
Having engaged in activism for most of his life, Zacharias “felt compelled spiritually to get out there and get involved.” The church became a hosting center for the BLM protesters, where they could cool off in a safe environment and get drinks and snacks. Zacharias partnered with some mutual-aid organizations, such as Freedom Fighters DC, providing supplies such as food, produce, diapers, napkins and masks. He also participated in some of the marches.
However, Zacharias thinks churches in general need to do more to support the BLM movement and get engaged without making it seem like they’re trying to take over.
“Black Lives Matter. Let’s agree to disagree, but let’s come together in unity for the sake of all humanity. Let’s have equality across the board. So we’re not just fighting blue lives matter, nurses lives matter…If America continues to get to the point of repenting its original sin [slavery], it’ll be a much better place. As well as for our Caucasian brothers and sisters - understanding their white privilege and embracing it into ways to make a difference,” Zacharias said.
In New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington, churches, nonprofits and individuals’ grassroots efforts have laid a foundation for creating an American society of more equal opportunities. While these groups and individuals still battle the constantly changing outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic, they’ll continue their activism through efforts such as protesting, providing training and educational opportunities, or by pushing local officials to implement new policies.
As Tulane professor Nghana Lewis said, the level where change has occurred and will continue to occur is the local, community level, with grassroots efforts of educating, organizing, mutual aid, promoting self-empowerment, knowledge and awareness.
“You have to be your own change-makers and you can’t rely upon the government to do it,” Lewis said.