A lifetime of work for city neighborhood

Cleoda R. Walker of Cherry Hill is honored with service award

November 29, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Thinking back, Cleoda R. Walker wonders if it was wise to take on the Veronica Avenue Boys, a street gang that in the late 1990s sold $10,000 worth of heroin a night in her Cherry Hill neighborhood.

Gang members attacked and beat her brother and grandson, and made threats on her life. But Walker, who promised her dying mother that she would look after the neighborhood, refused to back down.

"I would rather be dead in my grave than to not be free," said Walker, 62, who has spent most of her life advocating for Cherry Hill, which is home to the largest concentration of public housing in the city. "Those boys were trying to stifle me and hold me back, and it was wrong and I wouldn't stand for it."

Walker, who police say has played a key role in fighting crime in her neighborhood, has been honored for her good deeds. At the 62nd annual meeting of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, Walker received the Frances Morton Froelicher Civic Statesman Award. Anne S. Perkins, a former state delegate, also won a statesman award.

At the awards ceremony last week, Walker was accompanied by a friend and supporter. Cathy Brown, 49, also a longtime Cherry Hill resident, said she nominated Walker for the award because she is always willing to serve, even if it means personal sacrifice.

"I can't even remember the last time she took a vacation," said Brown, who is executive director of Cherry Hill 2000, a group formed in 1994 to improve the community. Walker serves as a member of the group's board of directors.

In addition, Walker is chairwoman of the Baltimore Police Civilian Review Board, which reviews complaints of police misconduct; chairwoman of the Cherry Hill Safety Team; board member of the Southern District Police Council; and organizer of a local citizens patrol, which uses video cameras to record illegal activity.

Walker also created the Nosey Neighbor Campaign, which encourages Cherry Hill residents to keep track of neighbors and visitors, and Safe Space Walkers, whose members discourage loitering.

A former vice chairwoman of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and a former board member of the Maryland Housing Policy Commission, Walker has testified before the state legislature and Congress in support of low-income housing.

Walker, who works full time as a supervisor for the state Office of Employment's Maryland Job Service, which matches job seekers with employers, said it was her mother, Leslie Jackson, a former schoolteacher who died in 1992, who turned her into an activist.

Jackson and her husband -- James, a truck driver -- moved their family from Northwest Baltimore to Cherry Hill in the early 1940s. The community, a planned development for African-Americans, offered a suburban setting, Walker said.

Walker's mother taught her seven children -- five boys and two girls -- not to wait for social change but to work for it. She also taught them to stand up for the elderly and disadvantaged, a lesson that was reiterated in Sunday sermons at the Cherry Hill Presbyterian Church, which Walker still attends.

"I made a promise to my mom that I would always give back to the community," said Walker, who raised daughters Gwenda Walker, 41, and Leslie Cornish, 35, in Cherry Hill. "This work gives me joy, peace and happiness."

Still, Walker shudders when she recalls the threats she endured when she and Brown took on the Veronica Avenue gang. Sometimes at night, gang members would watch her from cars parked in front of her apartment complex. She had police protection for a time. Religious leaders prayed for her safety and anointed her front door and windows with holy water.

Walker said she believes that God protected her from harm because he has plans for her.

"I am someone who is willing to do his work here," she said. "Jesus was a servant. Why not me?"

Police Officer L.M. Williams, who has worked with Walker for about eight years, said that he relies on Walker to act as his liaison with some members of the Cherry Hill community.

"Some people don't want to talk to me, but they will talk to her and they know that she will tell me," said Williams, who estimates that during the past five years, crime in the community has dropped by 30 percent. "I rely on her almost more than anyone else. She makes all the connections. She is one of the most powerful community leaders in Cherry Hill."

Walker deflects praise.

"I don't like to say I did things on my own," she said recently. "I always had someone there to encourage and help me."

When she's feeling frustrated and friends can't be found, Walker said she turns to a photo of her mother for solace. It is during these moments of quiet reflection that Walker remembers what Leslie Jackson taught her about the power of community action.

"The perception is that nothing good can happen in Cherry Hill," she said. "But that's not true."

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