October 18, 2002
BY YESTERDAY morning, word had spread through the neighborhood about the Bible, and a few people came by to see it where it lay - open and still readable, flat atop the pile of ashes and embers from the rowhouse fire that killed Angel Dawson and her five children.
A news photographer trained a camera lens on it, then some women came by to ask what page it was, and we craned our necks and stepped over the wet, black debris - the burned chairs and bed frames, wall paneling and bicycles - to find the message in the mess.
The Bible had been shoveled or tossed out the front window of the Dawson home on East Preston Street, and it had landed - open to a passage from the New Testament - with its pages soaked translucent and singed. We could make out a passage, later identified to be from Matthew, Chapter 15:
And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders ... false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man.
There was murder here, the police say. The house was firebombed - apparently because Angel Dawson was a vigilant citizen of East Baltimore, unwilling to surrender the front steps to drug dealers and any other low-life who loitered at the corner crowned by her Formstone-front rowhouse.
So, Angel Dawson died a martyr for that future Baltimore in which we are asked to believe, free of the drug dealing and the intimidation, the violence and the wasted lives that mark the city's past quarter-century.
It's been noted that Dawson had been in a dispute with one neighbor, in particular, and the grandmother of this man thinks Dawson unfairly accused many neighborhood teen-agers of drug dealing.
OK, grandma. Maybe.
But the main story here, at East Preston and Eden, appears to hold up - Angel Dawson, who died an awful death with her kids, was unwilling to do what too many men and women in East Baltimore have done and continue to do - remain silent while the drug dealers sell their poison.
Some are silent because they're afraid. Some are silent because they've given up. Some are silent because they're stuck where they live and they live next door to drug dealers or their kin, and they don't want the trouble that could come from a phone call to the police.
This Angel Dawson was not thus.
She was neither timid nor jaded. She must have still believed in a better Baltimore.
But Dawson and her husband, Carnell, must have feared for their lives and the lives of their children. Someone firebombed their house just two weeks ago, and the Dawsons were fixing to get their kids out of the neighborhood, if you go by what a friend of theirs, Kenny Cooper, said yesterday.
"I was just walkin' with her on Tuesday," Cooper said, "and she was tellin' me about this house she was looking at to move to." A big house, she told Cooper, with more bedrooms for her children, in the 1800 block of N. Caroline St.
Now a woman stopped her car on Eden Street and stepped out with a small, clear-plastic angel with gold, plastic wings. She held it by its gold string, then carefully tied it around the wrought-iron railing on the steps on the side of the burned-out Dawson house.
The steps were crowded with stuffed animals by now - maybe 12 for each of the kids who died in the fire - and notes and expressions reflecting great belief in God, if nothing else: "Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal." There was a Paddington bear, and Ernie of Sesame Street, Christmas ribbons and angels, a blue "Go Navy, Beat Army" football, flowers. Someone had put stuffed animals in the Dawsons' mailbox by the door.
I couldn't look at this anymore and went for a walk through the neighborhood and reached this conclusion, even in the midst of this tragedy: Angel Dawson, and people like her, make a difference. It's important to believe that. It's not a given that the low-life drug dealers always win.
Even with the recent trouble before the fire, the neighborhood Angel Dawson defended was on its way back from decline and abandonment.
There is a city park on Eden Street, a block from the Dawson house, and yesterday it was clean and green, and - most encouraging of all - the hoops on its basketball court had nets. There was a long row of neat, refurbished houses, one with expensive awnings on its windows and white buckets of begonias and petunias by its steps. The houses had been vacant just five years ago.
The sidewalks were empty in the morning, which was a good sign because it meant children were in school. A custodian from the Presbyterian church on the corner swept litter from the street. On the west side of Eden, someone set up scaffolding to renovate a house. Along Preston, near Scruggs Funeral Home, there was a boarded-up house with a sign on it announcing a zoning change and the promise of improvement. Someone had placed a "Baltimore Believe" bumper sticker there.
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