ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
George Floyd was laid to rest today in Houston. Our Morning Edition colleague David Greene has been in the city learning about Floyd's life and legacy. This is Floyd's story.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: To tell Floyd's story, you really have to come here. We're in the heart of Houston's Third Ward. You literally feel George Floyd looking down on you. His face is on a mural on the side of a small grocery store. There's a halo above his head with the words Texas made, Third Ward raised. People have been gathering here in a small park nearly nonstop - people like Crystal Hewitt, who knew Floyd's family.
Is this always a gathering place, this...
CRYSTAL HEWITT: We always gather right here.
GREENE: Over here?
GREENE: She tells us about all the other names on this wall - people the community has lost.
So these are people - you know a lot of these names, then.
HEWITT: I know everybody on this wall. Everybody on this wall is from this neighborhood - some of them on here for, like, natural causes, some of them here from death by drive-by shootings. But this is our family, so it's like the ghetto angels of our family. These are the people who looking down on us to help us.
GREENE: Your nephew is on here, you said.
HEWITT: My nephew's on here. My cousin's on here.
GREENE: Can I ask how they died?
HEWITT: My nephew passed away by - he got shot. My cousin got shot. My friend - see Tristan (ph)? Drive-by shooting - just a child.
GREENE: And now George Floyd is on this wall in a prominent place.
HEWITT: Because he the OG. He's the OG of this neighborhood. He always used to tell the younger version of us to try to stay out of trouble, try to do better things. He left Houston to try to better himself. And for him to leave Houston to better himself to get killed - I mean, that wasn't - I don't feel like that was, like - it was crazy. It was heartbreaking to me because he taught us a lot. He's older than me. So I'm 44, so - and he taught us a lot. You know, for me to see him on national TV pass away like that, that hurt.
GREENE: What did he teach you?
HEWITT: You know, the streets is not for - to be - you know, we get out here. We jump off of the porch young. We try to follow in the older people footsteps, selling drugs, doing other things. He says it's not for us. A woman's place is to be doing work and doing other things. A young man is supposed to be trying to look for a job to take care of they family. And that's what he trying to do - take care of his family. He was always a family man.
GREENE: If you walk a few blocks from the little market, you're in Cuney Homes. It's a public housing community. Residents fondly call it the bricks. The buildings are all two stories made of bricks surrounding a basketball court, where much of life plays out. Floyd used to shoot hoops here. He would also drag tubs out onto the court to baptize neighbors with his church.
EDDY BARLOW: The bricks is hard. It's hard.
GREENE: This is Eddy Barlow, who grew up here and now teaches English and coaches basketball at Yates High School, where Floyd went to school.
BARLOW: Ninety-five percent of these kids either living with an aunt, a grandmother or a single parent, you know, because their fathers are either on drugs, in prison, can't get work, have felonies. It's hard.
GREENE: And this was George Floyd's world. At the memorial in Minneapolis, Floyd's brother said the family didn't have much. They would sleep in the same beds. They'd make mayonnaise-banana sandwiches together. But George Floyd and his mom Cissy, who worked at a fast food spot in the neighborhood, are remembered for helping the community however they could. We were talking here on the court the other day with two people who knew Floyd, Xavier Roberson and Stephanie Square. Xavier said he remembered as a boy if he had no money, he would always look for Floyd to be walking through here, and Floyd would never say no. He'd give him a dollar or two.
XAVIER ROBERSON: A lot of these kids get they meals when they go to school. And so that was one reason that I couldn't work out like I wanted to coming from school because I've got to find my next meal, you know? I'm trying to get some money some kind of way.
GREENE: Can I ask you about his mom? Because a lot of people, I feel like, would love to know who she was and what she was like.
ROBERSON: She had a hamburger stand, and she...
GREENE: What do you remember about it?
ROBERSON: Man, that's where we went. We got home, scrape up two, three dollars...
STEPHANIE SQUARE: We'd have enough money that we knew we can eat there.
ROBERSON: For a fact. Yeah. We went there, and we ate. Like...
SQUARE: And, you know, sometimes we would tell Miss Cissy, we'll pay you next week or tomorrow, and she'd be OK with it...
SQUARE: ...Even if we didn't.
GREENE: It sounds like he and his mom were really important to this community.
ROBERSON: They were part of the village. When they say it takes a village, they were part of the village that raised us. You know, and we were the lucky ones.
GREENE: And it wasn't just money and food. Floyd would tell younger kids at every chance to try to stay out of trouble.
SQUARE: He was always encouraging. I actually was very surprised when I started seeing my former students posting messages of encouragement that he sent them. And I thought to myself, wow. He never stopped. All he did was encourage everyone and tell you words like, I'm so proud of you; you're going to make it; you're going to be an example to a lot of others. I think that's his legacy, and that's what we try to do - is to just continue to give back and do the same thing, encourage the younger ones.
GREENE: What's really interesting is that friends who knew George Floyd more recently as an adult here bring up the same thing. Even two decades later after Floyd played some college basketball in Florida and then made his way back to Houston to help his mom, he was still telling kids in the bricks to stay on the right path. But now he was drawing on years' more experience. Nijalon Dunn was with other friends gathered on the basketball court here the other day to reflect on Floyd's death.
NIJALON DUNN: Went through the trials in life that comes from systemic injustice - I mean, look at where we standing at, right? - you know, where poverty is real. And so I think he - you know, he lived a life where every stereotype, you know, that's placed upon a black man coming from poverty and in the city - all those things are real. Yeah, he had a criminal record. Yeah, he did time in jail. But when I met him, it was on the other side of that. The George that I met was a man who had all the stripes, who had all the scars and scratches and the war wounds and who could speak from a place of experience and say, you know, for the 14-, 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, hey; this isn't the way. Like, I've walked down this path. This isn't the way.
So the George Floyd that I met was an advocate for change. Like I've continued to say, yeah, there is a criminal record. There is time served in jail. Shouts out to the district attorneys who prosecuted him. Shouts out to the judges who dropped the gavel. Shouts out to all them. The system worked. And, you know, in this case, we're just continuing to ask for the system to work again.
GREENE: In recent years, Floyd became a lot more involved in church. He was seen as sort of a gatekeeper for the neighborhood. Pastors and aid groups could only come into the bricks to help people if they had Floyd's blessing. The Christian hip-hop musician Corey Paul, who got to know Floyd, says Floyd's decision a few years back to move to Minneapolis was grounded in his faith.
COREY PAUL: He went to Minnesota to progress his life through a Christian ministry for job placements and learning how to drive trucks and - you know, it was an intentional move. Like people been saying, you don't come from areas we from black and go to Minnesota just to hang out. You know what I'm saying? It's - you going there for a reason. And for George's reason, it was to better his life even more.
GREENE: Now many people are searching for something deeper as they grieve.
PAUL: And I think somehow, the Lord is allowing it to transcend amongst people, and I believe it's just because it's true, man. Like, regardless of what people try to say, you talk to 100 people that know him, you would know he was a walking, living, you know, sacrifice. And I feel like God is allowing people to see that.
GREENE: Floyd's death, of course, has led to nationwide protests, calls for policing in America to change, raw conversations about race and discrimination. Here on the basketball court in the bricks the other day, it's also led to this.
BARLOW: Yeah, let's go. We taking pictures and everything. Let's go. What's your name?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She just graduated.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She just graduated.
GREENE: People who knew Floyd had set up tables right on the court to register new voters.
BARLOW: Because coming from where we come from, to be honest, I don't think there was even a conversation about how important voting was.
GREENE: That's Eddy Barlow again, the high school teacher. He was working on this voter drive with Xavier Roberson.
How do you tie his killing to wanting to do this today?
BARLOW: If I can be completely honest with you, racism - getting people out of positions of power that are not for all people, only for a select few amount of people. That's, like, the root of it, you know? If you can get somebody in office that's for all people, then we won't have these problems. Police would be accountable. You know, police would be held accountable for situations like this. So I think this is one of the next steps that we could do to help. You know, it may be small to some people, but it's big for us.
GREENE: This basketball court, the mural of Floyd over at the market have become spaces for almost round-the-clock vigils, places to reflect. Crystal Hewitt comes here to the mural each day when she checks on her mom, who lives in the bricks.
HEWITT: My mother is 65, so she been out here her entire life.
GREENE: Wow. She do OK through the pandemic and everything?
HEWITT: Oh, yeah, most definitely. I'm going to make sure she going to be. I go every day and check on her.
GREENE: Have you and your mom talked about the killing of George Floyd?
HEWITT: The thing that me and my mom talk about - she said when she seen him call for his mother, his mama was coming to get him 'cause that's when he took his last breath - when he called for his mama. That means she was coming for him. It's hurtful. I don't know how other people feel. I'm just sick of it. There been racism in my life, and I'm just sick of it. I love people in general, not people of color. I love people. And to see so many people come out here to show love to him, it's nice. I'm trying not to cry. You know what I'm saying?
GREENE: No, I - you're allowed to cry as much as you want.
HEWITT: I know. It's just hurtful.
GREENE: George Floyd and his mom are to be buried side by side.
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