Documentary Uncovers Student Challenges During D.C.’s Crack Epidemic

by: Shantella Y. Sherman Special to the AFRO ssherman@afro.com
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A scene from the documentary showing two of the 67 seventh graders in the “I Have a Dream” program at Kramer Middle School.

Washington, D.C. has been known over the years by several monikers, “Our Nation’s Capital,” “Chocolate City,” and for an unfortunate period of time, America’s “Murder Capital.” It was during the latter, at the height of a seemingly unending crack epidemic that an entire generation of children – primarily in the city’s Southeast quadrant – faced the debilitating effects of the epidemic’s addiction and violence. Kramer Middle School, sadly, sat in its center.

Among Kramer’s students, 67 seventh graders were promised college scholarships by area businessman Stewart Bainum through the I Have a Dream program, a national movement to provide kids in underserved communities the opportunity to attend college. The documentary, “Southeast 67,” examines twelve of those students’ struggles to balance the dream of college with daily survival in a community that often mirrored a war zone. Now 20 years later, some members of the 67 attended a documentary screening about their struggles on April 29 held at Kramer Middle School.

Martece (Gooden) Yates came from a professional home with middle-class standards. But between her seventh and ninth grade years, Yates’ mother became a casual user of cocaine, and eventually an addict to crack.

“I didn’t want people to know that my mother was a crackhead,” Yates told the AFRO. “My world just fell apart. I went from being this kid who had this huge support group and everything, to, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is going on here? I mean, I would come home and the phone would be cut off. Or to just wonder, you know, ‘Where’s the car?’”

Yates’ story was an all-too familiar lament among young people coming of age between 1988 and 1994 in D.C. And while countless stories have recounted the destruction of the crack epidemic, none have analyzed the impact it had on its youngest, most vulnerable survivors. For Dominick Washington, who attended the Kramer screening, the beauty of “Southeast 67” was witnessing the resilience of the young people.

“In the middle of scenes with police breaking down doors, parents unable to kick addictions, and their friends being killed in the streets, these 12 and 13-year-olds were expected to go to school, perform well academically, and somehow ignore all of the trauma going on around them,” Washington told the AFRO. “The documentary is mind-boggling… it brings tears to your eyes, because so many of us had no compassion for them and we could not have survived it.”

A few of the Southeast 67 students returned for the screening, not having been back to the school or seen each other in years. It proved an emotional experience for them, as well as two of their instructors, Phyllis Rumbarger and Steve Bumbaugh, who also attended the screening.

Bumbaugh, a Black man, who entered Kramer bright-eyed and unknowing as the Dreamer’s project coordinator, understood the textbook methodology of dealing with at-risk youth; he was covered in blood his first day of school, before the first-bell rang.

“A typical I Have a Dream program would hire one project coordinator, whose job was to inspire 70 kids growing up in the middle of the drug wars in the toughest neighborhoods in the United States,” Bumbaugh, who was only 23 at the time, told the audience. “That was wellintentioned at the time, but it doesn’t work. My first day of school, my pressed white shirt was covered in some kid’s blood from breaking up a fight. The kids were looking at me like my first day would definitely be my last.”

Bumbaugh stayed. And alongside Rumbarger, an unassuming White woman, the Southeast 67 began to experience life along the parameters of the all-American lifestyle and utter chaos.

“Part of the issue, which was really a shock to me, because I had never worked in that kind of a neighborhood before, was, why, at the age of 12 or 13, should you have a dream that you can go to college, when, in another half of your brain, you don’t really expect to live past 16? And that’s real,” Rumbarger said. “That’s because their cousin has died. Their sister has died. And some schools were violent. And so, you’re not safe. And it’s not the culture to stay in school. So, that was one of the hardest things. And almost everything ties to that.”

“Southeast 67” has garnered several honors including The Rosebud Film & Video Festival 2016, and the San Diego Black Film Festival awards.

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