Brothers: How four young black men found their mission to change our city, starting now

AATF Fellow and Atlanta native Wes Bellamy, 26, started his own nonprofit called Helping Young People Evolve (HYPE), a program that combines boxing and mentoring to empower young black men. Photo: Nick Strocchia

Leaders of the new school
Last week, Bellamy’s group HYPE joined efforts with City of Promise, which Davenport runs, to hold the first of a series of monthly breakfast sessions called Real Men 101 at the new Jefferson School City Center, which during segregation was Charlottesville’s black high school. The idea is to gather together young African-American boys ages 6 to 12 and start them talking and thinking about how to be men. Bellamy, Davenport, and Harrell will all be involved as discussion leaders, and it’s a good example of how the group I interviewed works together.

It would be easy to label them “the new generation of black leaders” and say that they’re bringing a practical brand of activism to a town that’s been focused on policy initiatives. This week, City Council will decide whether or not to fund a Commission on Human Rights with the power to enforce violations. And while all of the guys think it’s an important step, their focus is much closer to the ground. They feel like they represent a new movement, a burst of energy aimed at bringing about real change. It’s the kind of talk that can rub people who’ve been working in the community a long time the wrong way, and in fact it often does.

Bellamy bears the brunt of the criticism. At 26, he’s the youngest of the four and has lived here the shortest amount of time, just over two years, but already the list of groups he’s involved with is impressive. In addition to HYPE, which he founded, he works with 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, The African American Teaching Fellows, and Young Men With Great Minds. He’s on the Charlottesville Housing Advisory Committee, Charlottesville Citizen Advisory Panel, and the Advisory Board for PHAR (Public Housing Association of Residents). His actual job is teaching Computer Science at Albemarle High School, and in whatever spare time he has left, he’s studying for his master’s degree, all with the goal of eventually becoming a high school principal, like his mentor, Dr. Jesse Turner, who took the reins at Monticello High School last year.

If you’re an older, established community leader, you’ve probably seen people like him come and go. They show up talking big, and then after a few disappointments, they pack up and leave. Bellamy definitely talks big. He’s gregarious and super-social, a born networker. He’s filled with boundless energy and an eagerness that borders on recklessness. It’s easy to see how people could see him as arrogant, and I’m sure people do. And I’m also sure he’s O.K. with that.

Davenport doesn’t see his friend that way, because he believes the work they’re engaged in takes all types.

“The reality is that it’s hard [to effect change].” Davenport says. “People want things to happen faster, or bigger than the complexity allows … It may just be that it’s hard. To do the right thing, it just may be hard, you know what I’m saying?”

Right before we enter his office, located within the offices of Children, Youth & Family Services, Sarad Davenport tells me that he’s in the business of saving lives. He speaks softly at times, at others his voice rises like a preacher’s. His office is relatively free of decoration, the most prominent thing on the walls being a poster-sized, framed cover of Ebony magazine featuring President Obama after the 2008 election.

As the director of City of Promise, Davenport works with children and families in the 10th and Page and Starr Hill neighborhoods, a territory that includes Westhaven, the city’s oldest housing project. Charlottesville’s poverty rate of 20 percent is twice the state average, and Westhaven, whose population is primarily African-American, is where poverty, and its attendant problems, is most acute. Davenport knows this well. After his grandmother’s home in Vinegar Hill was torn down, Westhaven is where she moved, and it’s where Davenport lived until he was 5, where his grandmother continued to live until she passed away. There are serious problems in Westhaven, and he’s determined to fix them, but when I ask him for some hard data on the problems, he doesn’t like it.

“I had an awesome childhood,” he said. “I felt safe, I had community, I had family…I remember playing in the parks. The Parks and Rec people would actually come to the parks, and they would have games for the kids, and there would be a structured environment. Kids could grow. I had such a positive experience as a child in Westhaven.”

But he also tells me how hard it is getting people outside the community he’s trying to help to understand the extent to which that help is needed. He believes parts of the city are “a powder keg.” So why then, shouldn’t I pile on the statistics? The cold hard facts? Why not show people the extent of the problem?

Because it’s a fine line, he says, between demonstrating that the problems the community faces are real and emphasizing them so much that they seem irrevocable. In other words, the message always cuts two ways.

There was a certain point as a young man when Davenport couldn’t imagine what his life was going to be like after the age of 21. His future seemed like a fog. For so many of his peers, it was a question that didn’t need answering. It was unlikely they would live that long.

After leaving Westhaven, his family moved to the county for a year, then to an apartment on Grove Street, but neither place had the sense of community that Westhaven had, and since his cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandmother were all still there, most of the time, so was he.

In 1990, when he was 11, he and his mom (his parents had divorced a few years before) moved to Rockland Avenue, or more specifically, the 500 block of Rockland, where it juts out from Sixth Street and dead-ends into some woods. South Rockland, renamed Rosa Terrace, drops down from Rockland at a 90-degree angle. Most of the houses there are one-story duplexes originally built by commercial landlords in 1970. As the ’90s began, half of them were abandoned and boarded up, and South Rockland had become one of the city’s busiest open-air drug markets.

I ask Davenport about growing up on Rockland, and he sighs and pauses for a long time, leaning back a bit in his chair.

“Aw, man,” he says softly, “Rockland was … oh my goodness. Rockland was crazy,” and then he pauses again, and when he finally speaks, the usual force in his voice is gone, replaced by something tender and raw. The words came as he searched for them, and he told a story I can’t bring myself to interrupt.

“I’m more sensitive about Rockland because it still … I lived there longer than anywhere. … It wasn’t safe. So you went to the bus in the morning, got off the bus and went in the house and you didn’t go back out until it was time to go to school again. That was my first experience with, like, firearms, and hearing guns going off all the time, and like peeking out of a window. And then, you know, over time you figure out a way to process it. Because, you have to survive. You have to live. You develop calluses. There was a time when I used to wake up when the gunshots rung out. But then it got to a point where I didn’t wake up. It was a … man. It was a tough time. And that’s what motivates a lot of what I do now. I know that’s traumatic for children. Because I experienced it. … And you cannot be your best when you’re going through that. And I think that in general, in whatever environment you’re in, whether it’s Westhaven, wherever, I think that there’s a certain lack of respect for humanity when people have to live in those types of environments. Anywhere in the world. And children have to live in those types of environments. It’s not fair to their growth and development.”

The years between the ages of 16 and 24 are vulnerable ones for African-American men growing up in low-income neighborhoods. At a time when most children of middle and upper class families are being told that their future is limitless, that they can go to college, and then go be whomever they want to be, children growing up like Davenport are learning that this is probably it for them.

Davenport’s future may have seemed to him like it was unclear, but his mother had other ideas. She’d only attended a two-year college herself, but she told the guidance counselors at Charlottesville High School that, despite his 1.9 GPA, her son was going to college, and that they were going to make sure it happened.

He escaped to Old Dominion University, where he took his first trip abroad, discovered his love of reading and writing, and met his wife, Cortney, with whom he now has three children. College saved his life, or at least gave him the four year laboratory of self-discovery that I, and many like me, take entirely for granted. It wasn’t easy. He was filled with self doubt, uncertain if he was college material, and only attending to make his mother happy. He was shocked, then, when his GPA was 3.7 his first semester, so shocked, he promptly dropped out.

“I was struggling with the perception of who I thought I was and what I thought I was capable of,” he said. “I always felt a certain level of inadequacy. Like there was this inherent inadequacy, and it was shocking to me, and I left.”

It was only after a summer trip to Europe that he decided to enroll in school again. Going abroad made him see, as it did for me, that the world is bigger than America, or Charlottesville, or Rockland Avenue. That experience allowed Davenport to see that it was possible for him to move beyond his origins without losing track of them.

Davenport graduated, got married, and found a job developing online classes for the CFA Institute in Charlottesville. But in his mid 20s he experienced what he calls a “dramatic shift” in his life, a need to make giving back his sole focus. He enrolled in the seminary program at Virginia Union University, graduating after three years with a master’s in practical theology, education, and counseling.

His goal was to work in Charlottesville, but he felt that he needed more experience, so he applied for a teaching position in Southeast D.C. for a national charter school network called KIPP, or the Knowledge Is Power Program, and got it. He spent three years teaching in D.C., which at the time had the lowest performing schools in the country. He won a teacher of the year honor and made good money. He was happy and doing well.

Then he got an e-mail from a friend telling him about this great position opening up in Charlottesville, director for City of Promise. It was Tuesday, August 17, 2011. The application needed to be in by Friday. He had a resume ready, so he applied, he said, on a whim, and promptly forgot about it. He didn’t hear anything else until December, when he got a phone call inviting him to an interview. After several rounds of interviews, he got the job, which by that time he believed to be his destiny.

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