There were 10½ pages of names, single-spaced. One by one, Daphne Alston began reading off the sad litany of Baltimore’s 343 homicide victims in 2017:
Sheamon Pearlie, 20. James Williams, 33. Davonte Jackson, 24. Jamal Washington, 38. Timothy Stephens, 32.
Alston is the co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons & Daughters United Inc. (or MOMS) which on New Year’s Day held its third annual memorial service for victims of homicide. In the past, the group has held the ceremony at Baltimore’s War Memorial. This year, the group met in the big chapel of the March Funeral Homes East on North Avenue.
“A few years ago, we would have spent this holiday celebrating with our friends and families,” Alston said. “Now, a funeral home is where we spend most of our time.”
She’s become intimately familiar with mortuaries citywide since July 14, 2008, when her son, Tarik Sharif Alston, was shot and killed while talking on a cellphone. Tarik’s death turned his mother into an activist committed to doing everything she could to end the violence, which meant that in the past decade she has attended a soul-sapping number of funerals. Three years ago, she co-founded MOMS.
“Anthony Griffin, 26,” Alston read. “Gerald Long, 79.”
She paused, then shook her head in weary disbelief. “A 79-year-old man,” she said, and then continued the thought: “I’ve been reading these names for so many years. I don’t know why this year is the hardest.”
One of the few people in the room who wasn’t hanging onto Alston’s every word was a young boy in a puffy orange and olive jacket named Sherman Carrothers III, who attended the memorial service with his mother, Ebony Owens.
Sherman is 7 years old, and he was restless. He had to stay seated for more than an hour on a hard pew in a room with a lot of crying grown-ups while Alston read more names:
Claude Maid, 32. Corey Earl Brown, 40. Waddell Tate, 97. Victorious Swift, 19.
“My son was stolen from me,” the latter’s mother, Victory Swift, told those attending the memorial service. Victorious, a 19-year-old art student, was fatally shot March 26, but when people refer to the teen in the past tense, his mother gently corrects them. “Not was,” she said. “He is.” She went on to express the fear that haunts her:
“Our future is being murdered,” she said. “If we don’t stop it, we will become a nation of people who are terrified of our children, and they will devour us.”
From his perch in the pew behind his mother, Sherman began to play with his mother’s long cornrows. For a few minutes, she tolerated the series of small, incessant tugs to her scalp, then flipped her hair over her right front shoulder and out of the boy’s reach.
Thomas Johnson, Jr. 16. Reese Bowman, 8 months. Anonymous Male, no age given. Tyrese Davis, 15.
Chanel Gaskins reminded the crowd that about a dozen names on the list belonged to children ages 17 or younger. The vast majority, she said, were the victims of gun violence. Her own daughter, 13-year-old Iyanna Watkins, was fatally shot July 31 in Middle River.
“When we have a night of no numbers, we’re thankful,” she said, although she noted that in the past year, this was increasingly rare.
“We all know what the problems in our community are,” she said. “They have to be faced. We have to pick up the pieces. My baby was only 13 years old. Enough is enough.”
Though just 7, Sherman has already lost two close relatives to gun violence. His older brother, Decorey Horne, who used to play football with Sherman, was killed in a drive-by shooting on March 16, 2016. Just 11 months later, the boy’s father, Sherman Carrothers Jr., was fatally shot, on Feb. 8.
“Grandma picks me up from school now,” he said.
Each year, as the homicide numbers rise, organizing the annual memorial service is a little bit harder for Alston to do, she said.
“I just don’t see any end to the killings,” she said. “I’ve been coming out all these years, and I don’t see even a dent.”
But when she starts to think this way, she said, she reminds herself not to despair.
“I start to wonder what the homicide total would be if we didn’t come out each year,” Alston said. “Maybe it would be up to 500 or 600 by now. So, I guess this is a happy/sad kind of day.”
The service ended, and people began to file out of the pews. Sherman, freed at last from constraint, threw his stocking cap high into the air, then ran down the aisle of the chapel to catch it.
His mother lagged a few paces behind her son to talk to her fellow mourners. But Sherman had been waiting long enough. Out of the door of the funeral home he hurtled, into New Year’s Day.