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It’s the late 1960s. College students are protesting the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. Astronaut Neil Armstrong becomes the first human to walk on the moon. In Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo is police commissioner. And a 30-something woman attends a Black nationalist conference that sets into motion one of the city’s most impactful anti-violence organizations of the next few decades.
The House of Umoja in West Philadelphia was created by Falaka Fattah after she and her husband David discovered one of their six sons was a gang member.
What started as an effort to save their child’s life inadvertently turned into a program that would change the lives of thousands of Philadelphia boys.
“I found out there were two gangs who would’ve considered it a trophy to kill my son,” said Fattah, who is known as Queen Mother Falaka Fattah, after continental African tradition. “So I was trying to save him, not save the world.”
Philadelphia’s gang problem in the 60s and 70s doesn’t play out the same way as the social media-fueled neighborhood feuds that stain city streets today, activists and former gang members said. They attribute modern day violence to a number of factors, including the ubiquity of online communication, poverty, access to high-powered weapons, and a breakdown of the family.
But everyone who spoke with Billy Penn said looking to the House of Umoja’s principles could be useful in creating solutions to Philly’s gun violence epidemic.
“House of Umoja was based on an Afrocentric concept of self-worth, and that you are your brother’s keeper,” said Councilmember Curtis Jones, himself a former House of Umoja resident. “So could that be instituted today? I would say yes.”
The initiative started when the Fattahs took in their son’s gang, their family rowhome suddenly becoming shelter for 15 young men.
News of the home as a refuge for troubled boys spread, and more gang members landed outside Fattah’s West Philly doorstep. Inside, the community mimicked an African familial structure. Matriarch Fattah wore African garb, and residents spoke some Swahili, an East African dialect. The heads of household emphasized the seven Kwanzaa principles, Swahili words for things like peace, faith and self-determination. Umoja means unity in the language.
Probation officers began realizing their clients were living at House of Umoja, so around 1970, courts started sentencing boys to spend time at the West Philly sanctum, Fattah said. Two years later, the group began to receive government funding.
Over four decades as a residential treatment home with an anti-violence program, Umoja worked with 3,000 boys. It garnered the praise of two sitting presidents and constructed a “Boystown” of more than 20 properties. One of its most significant feats was the Imani Peace Pact, a 1974 gang truce credited for decreasing violence in Philly. Homicides dropped from a decade high of nearly 450 that year to a decade low of 320 just three years later.
Four and a half decades after the truce, Philadelphia is staring down the barrel of close to 500 annual homicides.
And the House of Umoja is preparing for a rebirth, helmed by the founders’ 46-year-old grandson Anthony Bannister-Fattah.
“Anthony, he’s our future,” said Mother Fattah, who at 88 is still involved in Umoja programming. (Her husband David died two years ago.) “It is an intergenerational leadership. Instead of husband and wife, it’s grandmother and grandson.”
Bannister-Fattah, 46, said he’s working on a shoestring budget, and is seeking grant writers to help find funding
“For the House of Umoja to be in this situation — and it’s the crown jewel in Philadelphia regarding conflict resolution — why hasn’t the city reached out?” Bannister-Fattah said. “The city’s in turmoil and nobody’s reaching out to the House of Umoja.”
Why ‘children were killing each other’ in Philly
Fattah left the 1968 Black nationalist conference inspired to launch Umoja magazine. A journalist by trade, she wanted to create a communication vehicle for her community. After publishing a few issues, readers’ letters flowed in.
“People…wanted to know why it was in the city of Philadelphia that the children were killing each other,” Fattah said. “We were known as the gang capital of the country.”
Between 1968 and 1970, homicides in Philly jumped almost 170%, from 262 to 435 annually.
A 1972 New York Times report highlighted the city as one of four major metros where gang activity was on the ups. Fattah had no street cred, but her husband David was a former gang member turned teacher. He set out to investigate, so Fattah could respond to her readers’ queries.
In addition to discovering their own child, Robin, had fallen into gang life, David found that the northward migration of African Americans from the South was creating neighborhood-based, familial-like factions influenced by a person’s southern origin.
“They were trying to get away from the terrorists, the KKK,” Fattah said. Once up north, they’d run into others from their home town — “that’s the origin of the word ‘homie,'” she said — and clique up.
“All gangs had family and neighborhood feuds,” said Jimmy Allen, 72, a former member of West Philly’s The Bottom gang and early House of Umoja resident. Territorial groups like 56th and Lansdowne and The Moon Gang in West Philly, Junior Black Mafia in South, and Brickyard in the Northwest cropped up in the late ’60s.
Allen added: “They escalated in the 70s because weapons came into play.”
Their weapons of choice? “Bannister posts, car aerials…zip guns,” said John “Baby John” Johnson, a 67-year-old former Moon Gang member who lived at Umoja. “Then, to hand guns, then shotguns.” Those close range, one-shot firearms are no match for today’s artillery of automatic weapons and handguns with extended clips, Johnson said.
Gang killings accounted for 160 homicides over a four-year period in the late 60s and early 70s, the New York Times reported, representing a fraction of the hundreds in the city annually.
Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Michael McCarrick told Billy Penn antiquated bookkeeping and intelligence could be a factor in why so few deaths were attributed to gang violence.
“If an incident happens back in the 1970s, it was up to the individual investigator to label it … a direct result of gang activity,” said McCarrick, 52. “It was really challenging to say whether an incident was gang related or not.” He noted that some modern studies suggest gang-related violence was more significant than previously recorded.
Would a peace pact work today?
Anton Moore is a ward leader and anti-violence activist in South Philadelphia where generations-old gang feuds still rage. Moore operates a nonprofit called Unit in the Community. He believes the dynamics of social media and changes in the cultural landscape of communities means House of Umoja’s former tactics might not fly in 2020.
“The parents of today are much different from the parents of back then,” Moore said. “Back then, the village raised the kids. Now, you can’t say something to their child without them getting nasty with you.”
Moore himself is just 34 years old, but former gang members in their 60s corroborated his assessment of a cultural shift inside Philadelphia neighborhoods.
There was more respect for elders back then, said former 56th and Lansdowne gang member Hakim Tendaji. Gang members maintained respect and relationships with one another, said Tendaji, 66, who once lived at Umoja. He doesn’t believe that’s still the case.
“These gangs today,” said Allen, who eventually became a teacher, “your son could be with a guy and the guy would kill him that night.”
The emphasis on integrity and standing by your word helped the Fattahs broker the 1974 Imani Peace Pact.
Within House of Umoja, disparate gang members were already eating, living and working together soberly, as required to stay at the house. It was “almost like a Switzerland area,” Jones said of the house’s neutrality. The boys were required to go to school, got help with finding employment, and there were no fights.
Umoja still operates its peace garden, where boys would go to bury their beefs. Conflicts were hashed out at a weekly “adella” meeting after dinner on Fridays.
When murders were reaching a fever pitch, Mother Fattah in 1972 decided to huddle enemy factions for a day-long peace conference. She sought advice from the United Nations on how to seat warring countries together diplomatically — and actually received a response to her letter.
David Fattah authored the peace pact, signed in 1974 by 400 gang members representing more than 30 groups. Eighty-five different gangs eventually signed on, Fattah once said. The impact was monumental.
“Gang-related deaths, which had been estimated to average 39 a year in the city, steadily declined,” a Times report on the pact noted. “In 1977, the number was one.”
Using ‘what worked’ and adapting to the future
As of Sunday night, Philly police have recorded 470 homicides so far this year. PPD Chief Inspector McCarrick estimated more than 95% were carried out by firearm.
Numerous programs and efforts to address violence already operate around the city, to varying levels of success. There’s not really any standard measure of effectiveness.
Grassroots efforts like Moore’s Unity in the Community operate at a neighborhood level, responding directly to individual families affected by shootings, as well as economic and food insecurity.
“It’s about parents raising their kids,” Moore said. “It’s about fathers being there for their sons. It really starts at home.”
Established organizations like the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network and newer groups like Ceasefire PA deploy “violence interrupters” to respond in real time to shootings, people looking to deploy guns, and those at risk of being shot.
PPD Commissioner Danielle Outlaw this summer released a 37-page report about the Police Department’s new strategy to tackle violence.
The police plan includes a modification of its previous “focused deterrence” program that saw some success a decade ago. Called the “Group Violence Initiative,” it relies on positive police-community engagement and access to social services in high-risk neighborhoods. Per Outlaw’s report, that program is set to start this coming January. Some components require increased funding, according to the report.
At Umoja, one of Bannister-Fattah’s goals is to restore Boystown on the 1400 block of North Frazier Street. He set a goal of transforming it into a high-tech community campus within two years.
Currently ongoing at Umoja are giveaways of donated tech and community classes in computers, 3D printing and app creation. In January, Bannister-Fattah hopes to unveil a neighborhood database called Umojaware, designed to improve community self-sufficiency by linking users to nearby goods, services and a skills library, he said. The planned expansion and ongoing courses are funded, Bannister-Fattah said, with “human energy.”
“When you don’t have money, you have to spend time,” Bannister-Fattah said, adding that he did want to bring back a residential component. “We want to go back and touch on what worked, and partner those things with other community organizations.”
Councilmember and Umoja alum Jones stopped short of committing city funds to such an effort, but noted its potential usefulness.
“A dormitory type of environment filled with future or current day Sister Falaka Fattahs and David Fattahs,” Jones said, “could make a world of difference in changing the mindset of some of these kids.”