Sad farewell for a slain little boy 400 fill city church for 3-year-old's funeral

January 10, 1997|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Keith Chase had a balcony view of his young friend in the white casket the size of a small bathtub; he looked straight up the church aisle yesterday to see 3-year-old James Smith III with a wreath of flowers shaped like Mickey Mouse, a teddy bear at his shoulder and a dark cap covering the bullet wound in his head.

"In a way, you're scared that when you walk out your door you may never come back," said Keith, a sixth-grader at Northeast Middle School. "Now you got to be scared to go to the barbershop."

James "Boo Boo" Smith -- who rode his bicycle on Keith's porch, loved cars and trucks and had been enrolled in the Malcolm X Head Start program -- was caught in the middle of a barbershop gunfight on Jan. 2, his third birthday.

The afternoon shootout erupted in a crowd at Fresh Cuttz on South Carrollton Avenue, a shop known to some neighbors near the Hollins Market as a hangout for armed drug dealers.

Smith's mother, Cheryl Whittington, was shot in the arm while trying to protect her son. Two men charged with killing the boy remain jailed.

Boo Boo was remembered yesterday at Dalton Baptist Church before being interred at a donated site in an Arbutus cemetery.

The sad farewell on snowy Garrison Boulevard was another in about 30 funerals that Keith Chase says he's attended in 11 years of life and certainly not the first for a murder victim.

"My mother's boyfriend got shot by a group of guys last year and died," said Keith, who has decided that when he grows up, he wants to be an undertaker. "I like the way they fix up the bodies."

While the righteous anger, platitudes and frustration from politicians, clergy and family friends were too late for James, the eulogizers pleaded with African-Americans to come together to solve their problems before any more black children see the grave.

Said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke: "Fighting evil is what we must do. We will fight the evil of guns, the evil of drugs, the evil of despair of a misplaced sense of values."

Speaking directly to the black men among the more than 400 mourners crowded into the sanctuary, City Council president Lawrence A. Bell III said that if people cared enough to mourn a slain little boy they ought to care enough to work for change.

"For you to come and express your sympathy and that you're sad and then not leave here committed 100 percent to changing things, then you should not come here," said Bell to great applause. "Don't just go to the Million Man March if you're not going to work for change. I ask and I beg and I plead -- I'm begging you -- if you care, if you really care, let James' life not be in vain."

Bell was followed by City Comptroller Joan Pratt and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who expressed regrets but didn't have much more to add.

Above the pulpit was a cross made of 12 red Christmas lights and a large sign bearing an Old Testament verse which read: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will hear their land."

Below that piece of scripture, the Rev. Aggie Lee Brown of Dalton Baptist eulogized James as he has at least a half-dozen other murder victims in the past.

"The death of James Smith has tested the heart of the city ," Brown said. "Let us stop talking about what we're going to do. There really is no excuse if you are determined to get a job done that should have been done a long time ago. We must find ways to take the hurt out of our community."

After the three-hour service and before the cold ride out to Arbutus Memorial Park, Yolanda Griffin stopped to talk about what she had heard inside.

Griffin works with James' mother and grandmother at Liberty Medical Center, where the men's health center will be renamed in honor of the youngster. At the service, she sang a solo called "I Won't Complain."

"I think that we have to reach our youth," she said. "And we have to start not in the churches, but on the streets."

Pub Date: 1/10/97

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