It was just a moment: fear for her son's safety, then instinct kicking in. Almost as soon as video aired of Toya Graham slapping and berating her son amid a mob of rock-throwing teens at Mondawmin Mall, she was propelled into the limelight: viral fame, TV interviews, travel, cash gifts, promises. And then, the disappointments. And always, the struggle. "I'm still a mom. I still have my six children, and we still have to do what we have to do on a daily basis to keep our heads afloat," said the
It was just a moment: fear for her son's safety, then instinct kicking in. Almost as soon as video aired of Toya Graham slapping and berating her son amid a mob of rock-throwing teens at Mondawmin Mall, she was propelled into the limelight: viral fame, TV interviews, travel, cash gifts, promises.
And then, the disappointments.
And always, the struggle.
"I'm still a mom. I still have my six children, and we still have to do what we have to do on a daily basis to keep our heads afloat," said the 43-year-old West Baltimore resident. "To this day, a lot of people still think that Oprah gave me a mansion and that I have all this money and Michael has all of these things, and that's just not so."
A WMAR cameraman had captured that moment: her son, Michael Singleton, ready to hurl a brick at police at the start of the riots last April, and Graham, demanding he drop the brick and chasing him away in a cursing fit.
Graham was labeled Baltimore's "hero mom" in one breath, and a "desperate, lonely and uneducated" woman in the next. Then unemployed, she received around $12,000 from a GoFundMe campaign started by an anonymous woman in North Carolina and a few months' rent from a stranger. Oprah Winfrey sent $15,000, which helped Graham pay bills and buy a Toyota Avalon.
Requests for TV appearances sent her and her family out of state to California, Texas and New York for the first time.
There was talk of a reality TV show and a book deal.
BET, St. Joseph Medical Center and Under Armour offered her jobs, she said.
R&B singer Alicia Keys visited her and urged Graham to contact political activist Van Jones to obtain a scholarship for Michael.
"Make him keep his word," Graham remembers her saying.
Graham appeared earlier this year on the "Steve Harvey Show," and Harvey mentioned the prospect of mentoring and a camp for Michael, she and Michael said.
Then came the letdowns.
Graham said Under Armour was the only organization that kept its promise with a job offer, sending her children gear for school and offering her a job on the assembly line. Graham, who had just received her certified medication technician license, said she refused because she was looking for something in her field.
A spokesperson said St. Joseph "reached out to see if we could help" but did not offer Graham a job. BET did not immediately respond to calls and emails for comment.
A Sun reporter emailed the "Steve Harvey Show" but did not immediately receive confirmation about the camp. Days later, Graham received an email with information about applying to the camp. By that time, Michael had started at Woodland Job Corps Center, a live-in program in Laurel.
Graham said Jones reneged on the scholarship. Somer Huntley, Jones' chief of staff, said that Jones had agreed to help Michael apply for scholarships but Graham never followed up.
And the attention Graham garnered strained family relationships; she and a brother are no longer on speaking terms.
"Was I expecting anything out of it? In the beginning, no, because I just wanted to get my son out a situation," Graham said. "But when you have so many people coming to you and telling you so many things, your expectations go high, and mine did. And then they were shattered."
Still, she is grateful for the trips and people she has met. She is now employed as a caregiver in senior assisted living homes in the city.
"Had it not been that my son was down there, none of this would have happened," she said. "But I never want to see my son in a situation like that. Never."
For Michael, who just turned 17, some jokes from friends and schoolmates followed the video, but "everyone knows how my mom is," he said — protective.
He sees himself as a kid "just trying to make it out of Baltimore City." He said he would have still gone to Mondawmin Mall that day — because "black lives matter," he said.
"It was another opportunity to get back at the police for what they've done to my friends," said the former Francis M. Wood Alternative High School student, who said he has witnessed police brutality — beatings, degrading language, friends slammed to the ground. The death of Freddie Gray was just a boiling point.
"I feel like I'm personally affected by it because it could have been me. It could have been anybody that day," Michael said. Not all police are bad, he added, but police-community relations have only worsened. Michael's approach to the ordeal, however, has changed, he said.
He traveled to Los Angeles — his first time away from home alone — to host a coding class with hip-hop artist Ty Dolla Sign earlier this year.
"I'm just trying to stay out the way and do something positive in my life and not be no statistic," said Michael, who is attending the Job Corps to get his high school diploma and start training in hopes of becoming an electrician.
Looking back, Graham wouldn't have changed a thing — aside from her cursing.
"I did not want my pastor to hear me curse like that," said Graham, who has been a member of Berean Baptist Church for years.
"But would I have changed the way I went down and got my son? No, I [wouldn't have]," she said, flashing back to the scene of Mondawmin Mall, the line of armed police officers, and her son, dressed in all black with brick in hand. "I'd rather do it, than see someone else do it to him."
And there are people who still recognize Graham on the streets for what she did that day.
"I get high fives," she said.
The Rev. Eric Williams, co-founder of Good Word Ministries in Trenton, N.J., will honor Graham next month at the Faith Fighters Award Banquet, an event recognizing people who have used their faith to overcome obstacles in life.
Williams said he was inspired to meet and honor Graham, after "seeing that video, seeing [her] in some ways literally fighting for her son.
"She wasn't doing it for show. She was doing it because she cared and she was trying to save her son," Williams said.
The lights and cameras are gone now, and it's back to reality, Graham said, and in some sense, she is relieved.
"There's a lot that goes into being in the limelight," she said. Now, "I'm trying to do something different."
"Different" means allowing Michael to spread his wings, she said, but the streets make it difficult.
Last month, three of Michael's friends were killed.
His friends Cornell Gilbert, 16, and Syiid Brinkley, 13, died in a crash in a stolen vehicle on March 16; both were passengers. Days later, another friend of Michael's, Raekwon Parker, 20, was shot and killed in Baltimore.
Speaking just before his birthday, she said, "I'm still trying to keep [Michael] in the house. And he's going to be 17 years old. I know at this point I'm only hindering him instead of helping him. ... I'm going to do what I have to do to make sure my son don't become a statistic of the streets of Baltimore."
For both Graham and Michael, April of this year marks a new chapter.
One year after the death of Freddie Gray, The Baltimore Sun asked city leaders and residents what Freddie Gray means to them. (Baltimore Sun video)
On April 5, the day after his birthday, Michael left for Job Corps.
He helped his family move out of their three-bedroom home on a primarily vacant block on Rayner Avenue to a three-story home with four bedrooms in Druid Heights. It's blocks away from where the riots happened, but there, Graham said, she'll have enough room for four of her daughters, one who's moving back home, her 4-year-old granddaughter and Michael when he visits on weekends.
"The women who started the GoFundMe account asked me, 'Would I ever leave?' My thing back then was 'No.' I was born and raised in Baltimore. I'm 43 years old. That's all I know. But now if I could leave to make sure my children would be safer then that's what I would do," Graham said.
Graham is now working more than 80 hours a week as a caregiver — nearly 60 on the weekend alone, and Graham said she's picking up more shifts.
"Will I be wearing myself out? Of course, I am," she said. "You got to do what you got to do. And that's what I got to do. I just got to keep moving."