Jessie Snead's house is the one at the corner, the only one with the porch light on and the door open in a long, dark block of walkups on Reisterstown Road. Inside, there's a warm, bright gathering of women — a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinner for a sisterhood of survivors, the mothers of young men who were killed during the bloodiest part of Baltimore's epoch of violence.
Their grief — and their friendship — goes back several years, to a terrible time in the city.
Jessie Snead's son, Terrance Thompson, was shot to death in September 1993, a year in which the homicide count reached 353, a record. The case is still unsolved.
Maria Whiting's son, Valgene Donte Alston, was shot to death in September 1995; the homicide total that year was 323.
Ellen Bentley is in the living room, looking stoic as ever. From her neck hangs a golden pendant engraved with the face of her son. Donald Bentley was a Gilman School graduate and a college student when he was shot to death in 1989, the year before Baltimore's killings kicked into high gear. There were 248 homicides that year.
"He was going to be the mayor of Baltimore City one day," Ellen Bentley says, and you believe her. Her son's killer has not been found.
There are about a dozen women in the room, and they've all contributed to a potluck Thanksgiving meal a week before the official holiday. Jessie Snead's house smells of roast turkey and baked ham. The other women have filled her kitchen counters with casseroles and desserts.
This is a gathering of some of the strongest women of Baltimore — mothers once stricken with grief, now supporting others. Survivors Against Violence Everywhere is the name of their group, but no one carries a membership card, and they paid their dues in tears years ago. Maria Whiting and others formed another group they call Joy For Healing: In The Midst of Our Pain We Still Shine.
These women know each other and their stories; they know the names of each other's sons, too.
"That's what I'm thankful for, that we can all get together and share our love for our sons and carry their names forward," Jessie Snead says. "I'm thankful for this group, that we can all share our thoughts about what we went through."
In 2010 so far, there have been 202 homicides. Violent crime has been trending downward for years, though the numbers are not always convincing to a citizenry accustomed to steady reports of shootings. Still, considering the time when Jessie Snead and Maria Whiting lost their sons — with annual homicides topping 300 through most of the 1990s — a Baltimorean is allowed to utter qualified thanks that things are not as bad as they once were. Once the city seemed lost to the drug dealers. The dealers killed their customers and each other, or anyone who just happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong moment.
That's what his mother says happened to Valgene Alston. There was a parade on a Saturday afternoon in West Baltimore. There was a fight at the end of the parade; somebody crossed someone else, then someone pointed a finger at Maria Whiting's son, then someone shot him in front of his grandparents' house.
"He had just finished playing basketball — he wasn't involved in the fight," his mother says. "He was a very good child who had never been in trouble."
No one has ever been convicted in the shooting death of Valgene Alston.
The years went by, and then came a day in January 2007 when Maria Whiting learned that her eldest son, Ray, had been shot to death, too. He was 27 years old. Maria Whiting believes Ray was not the intended target of the shooter; the intended target, she says, survived the shooting.
The person accused of killing him has been tried twice; both trials ended with hung juries. The state is expected to retry the case in January.
Maria Whiting has been through a lot — the loss of two sons to violence, and still no one convicted in either crime. She also happens to be a survivor of colon cancer, a fact she just mentions in passing during the Thanksgiving gathering.
"I can still stand and smile," she says. "I have a lot to be thankful for. Though I lost my [sons], I'm thankful for the years I had with them. I'm thankful that I had an insurance policy so I could bury them properly and they could be buried from a church. Some mothers don't have insurance or the money for a proper burial.
"I'm thankful that my sons knew Jesus. … And I'm most thankful to Jesus for giving me the strength to endure the loss of both my sons. I see no purpose in being bitter your whole life. My middle son, Ray, had three children, and I have a relationship with them."
And she'll always have the other women in the room, certainly some of Baltimore's strongest.