Last week I payed my last visit to Mrs Bennie Lois Clark Singleton. I wanted to take a good portrait of her, but she was, once more, very shy and only let me do "click" five times in the same spot... But I got a photo to accompany the story... here is the final copy of it.
Bennie Singleton quietly entered Richmond’s Garden of Peace Ministries Church looking for other night walkers. This was Singleton’s sixth night walk, and even though family was waiting for her, she just had to come and do her walk.
Since it’s beginning over a year ago, the 78-year-old grandmother has been part of Cease Fire, a program where community, clergy and police work together to stop violence, especially gun-violence, in Richmond. Their main activity is a Friday night walk through problematic areas of Richmond, reaching out to young people and community members.
“We are tired of going to funerals,” Singleton said. “We are tired of children killing each other.”
This particular Friday, the cease fire night-walkers went to Pullman Point, a townhouse-style apartment complex in central Richmond that has a history of violence and shootings.
Once at Pullman Point, the night-walkers covered the entire grounds lined-up in pairs. It was a quiet night and only a few people were out on the sidewalks, but those the group encountered were given a few words and literature about the program.
Singleton was very quiet on this night, maybe because she knew she was observed and she likes anonymity. Still the entire time she held those cease fire flyers close to her heart and walked strong and steady in the line.
“I don’t really like people to know what I’m doing, I get embarrassed if people give me a compliment,” she said. “I like to do things in the background.”
Nonetheless, like any firstborn, she has the character to act and lead when needed.
“I wish there were a lot more Bennies in the city because the city would already be a better place,” said Rev. Eugene Jackson, organizer at Contra Costa Interfaith Community Organization (CCISCO) and one of the leaders of Cease Fire. “She represents the fact that even though you are a senior you do not stop service; she has place and purpose.”
According to Jackson, Singleton is an encouragement to young people because senior citizens like her have a historical perspective of Richmond and they can tell how the community wasn’t always involved in negative activities.
BORN IN THE SOUTH.
Singleton introduces herself as Bennie Lois Clark Singleton. Clark is her parents’ last name.
“I use it now, more than anything, because the Clark is responsible for what I am,” she said. “They made me who I am.”
Singleton was born in Louisville, Ark. in 1934. During War World II her parents were recruited to work at the Shipyards in Richmond, so her family moved to California when she was around seven years old.
In the mid 1940s Richmond was a racist town, Singleton remembers seeing the Ku Klux Klan marching down McDonald Avenue. But coming from a segregated south, she liked Richmond because she could attend an integrated school.
“I really liked that,” she said, “[because] whatever they taught those white kids in that class I could learn it. They couldn’t exclude me. They did not take them in the corner and say this is for you.”
Even though the schools were integrated, they still tried to direct African-American children to concentrate their education on manual crafts like sewing or cooking. But Singleton came from a family that valued education and she managed to force the school to give her a college-preparating education.
“[My father] was a strict disciplinarian who pushed us to get our education,” said Singleton about her father, Benjamin F. Clark Senior.
Singleton started working at the age of 17 at the U.S. Navy as a clerk. She got married a year later and had her first child at 19 years old. A life of family and work distracted her from studying. However, when her father started attending night school, she also went to night school and graduated from Contra Costa College. “Because that man is not going to outdo me,” she said about her father.
“My dad always had us in situations where we were just people with other people. We always lived in a mixed neighborhood,” Singleton said. “I have never felt inferior to anybody because of my color.”
That is why, when Singleton and her husband, James Singleton, were going to buy a house in Richmond, and they were told that only whites could buy the house, they decided to leave for Los Angeles. “It was worse than Richmond,” she said of L.A. It took the family 10 years to come back to what she calls home.
In 1971 the Singletons, now with three children, bought a house at Atchison Village, where Singleton still lives. Her husband died that same year.
Singleton continued working until 1997, when she retired from the banking industry. Today her family has grown and she has five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
FAMILY OF SERVICE
“At his funeral I found out all the things that he was doing,” said Singleton about her father.
Growing up, Benjamin F. Clark Senior was a loving but strict father who would take his six children to the movie theater every weekend to see a western, although he would fall asleep. “My dad goes to sleep everywhere,” said Singleton, “any place.”
His family never realized that the tired dad was very busy helping out others and not only working hard jobs like a welder, owner of a grocery store, driver. Clark was also a man of service.
According to Singleton, her father was always involved in the civil rights movement. He helped start and manage the Richmond farmer’s market, he fought for schools and education codes in Richmond and after he retired he would take care of senior citizens and sick people, visiting them, feeding them and cutting their hair.
“I see myself in him,” she said.
“I see a need and I just do it,” Singleton said. “I don’t like wasting time… If I’m not gonna do anything that’s fine, I’m not wasting time. I’m just timing out.”
LIFE OF SERVICE
Singleton’s more than 30 years of work in banking were enjoyable because she loves numbers, but also because through her job she could help people. When the job stopped allowing her to help others, she decided to retire.
But she could not stop being productive, so she started looking for programs to volunteer.
Around the year 2000 she volunteered at the Literacy for Every Adult Program, but discovered that teaching was not her strongest ability. Then she decided to help improve her neighborhood, Atchison Village and the Iron Triangle.
At the time, on McDonald Avenue, streets after 8th Street weren’t been cleaned, and city property like the Nevin Community Center and Park were taken by criminality and danger.
Singleton and other neighbors got organized and started attending city counsel meetings and demanding that the city clean up these neighborhoods.
“What do you mean no street sweeping? What do you mean you can’t ticket the cars?” Singleton remembered her reactions to the city’s justifications. “We would go up there en-masse.”
After a lot of pressure, the city finally took them seriously. They got their streets clean and Nevil Community Center back from drug dealers and drug addicts.
“It takes a lot of people concerned enough to do something,” Singleton said.
Richard Boyd moved to Richmond six years ago, and immediately had to get involved in his community because there was too much violence on his block. He met Singleton at an Atchison Village neighborhood counsel meeting, and she got him involved at CCISCO where he works as a community organizer.
“Bennie is by the book. When we get off the track she pulls us back, she keeps us focused,” Boyd said. “When she is around we listen.”
Today, Singleton keeps on helping community-organized programs, dedicating almost half of her week to two main programs: Cease Fire and Safe Return.
Cease Fire is the program to which she dedicates more time and energy. “These are children starting out,” she said. “They still can make choices and decisions that can alter their lives”
When she walks on the streets of Richmond with the other participants, she said she approached the young people as a grandmother or an aunt.
“I speak to them with respect,” she said, “and if they need a hug, I give them a hug.”
Safe Return is a program organized by CCISCO, the Pacific Institute and the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety. The program aims to help parolees find their way back in to the community.
As a civilian volunteer, Singleton helps the organizers decide what projects are fair to both the parolees and any regular citizen. She thinks that parolees need help because the legal system is not built to give them opportunities once they have served their sentence. But she thinks it is not fair to give them special treatment that could affect opportunities for people who have never brake the law.
Laverne Vaughn works at CCISCO and is part of the Safe Return team. She said Singleton is the big mama of the program.
“She helps in a lot of ways by giving us a different perspective or a way to deal with some of the political stuff we are working on,” she said. “She tells us what we have done well and gives us guidance and corrections.”
According to Vaughn, the team values Singleton’s opinion because she has been in the community for a long time but especially because she is an active member of it.
At 78, Singleton has one bit of advice for young adults. “Education is the key to everything,” she said. “Once you have it up [in your brain] nobody can take it from you and they will pay you for it if they need it.”
She also has one wish for them. “I hope [young people] will see [Richmond] as the Richmond I grew up in,” she said, “where people trusted each other and you could go out all over it.”
Singleton thinks that her hopes are possible because in the end “there are more good people in Richmond than there are bad people.”