Siretha White was shot to death during her own birthday party. A stray bullet shattered a window in the front of her aunt’s house, where family and friends surprised her for her 11th birthday.
The shot, fired by Moses Phillips, struck her in the head, killing her almost immediately.
But on March 11, 2006, that bullet did not only fatally strike Siretha; it marked the beginning of the end of a family’s joy.
When this kind of violence occurs in a community, it has lingering effects on families, close relatives and neighbors. It often shatters the bonds that once held them together, sending people in search of safer, more reliable, more livable neighborhoods. Although this search for a new environment usually is done in an effort to forget past tragedies, such events rarely leave people's memories.
Little Siretha and her family, the Woods, had lived in a white house on Marshfield Street in Englewood in Chicago’s South Side. They were among the first African Americans to move into the neighborhoods in the 1960s, when white flight was just taking off. Today, it is one of Chicago’s most racially segregated communities.
Over the years, the family developed a large support network of friends and neighbors, and Siretha’s mother, also named Siretha, became the neighborhood's matriarch. Siretha Sr. fed everybody on the block who needed a meal, never turning away the kids and adults who showed up.
I came to know the Woods days after Siretha was killed. Her mother had nicknamed her "Nugget" because she reminded her of a "little nugget of gold that brought life and joy to all their family gatherings." I attended her funeral and followed the family for three years. After Nugget's death, Phillips was sentenced to 75 years in prison. The day of the sentencing, Siretha Sr. was so overcome with emotion that a prosecutor read her statement, which said in part: “The impact of losing my daughter in this — the suffering and the loss — cannot be measured.”
Over those years, they brought me closer to their family and into the circle of friends who showed up for food and good times. I shared and witnessed many moments, both great and tragic.
Many of the people I’ve met became my friends, too. But gun violence would again make its indelible mark: We've lost a few of these friends as well. Cedric, Nugget’s uncle and my buddy, was shot to death. Then there was O.C., who lived next door to the Woods. He was a high school coach and mentor to many young people on the block. He was shot and killed while selling shoes out of his truck to make extra money for his family.
These two murders sent the family fleeing Englewood for safety a year after Nugget’s death.
I visited them the day after Thanksgiving, several months after they left. Their new house, which sat next to the railroad tracks, was smaller and cozier than their old one. A beautiful white Christmas tree with purple glass ornaments the size of grapefruits greeted me when I entered. The sight of that dazzling tree and so many family members preparing for the holidays was a sign that some semblance of normal life had finally returned to the house.
But as the months passed, their phone numbers started to change. I didn’t see them for a year, and then they moved again to another South Side neighborhood. For five years, I lost contact with the family and their circle of friends, but I was eventually drawn back in by a significant family gathering.
Last year, my friend, Charles, reunited me with the Woods family. I joined them to celebrate what would have been Nugget’s 18th birthday. Nugget’s brothers were taller. Her older sister had a little boy that was three years old. I saw almost everyone that night, except for Outlaw, who was in jail for a botched burglary. But he called that night to let us know he wished he could be there anyway.
Nugget's mother thanked everyone for coming out, and said that this would be Nugget’s last birthday party. “I can't do this anymore," Woods explained. "It's too painful to celebrate her birthday year after year. I love you all — thanks for coming."
Then we sang happy birthday.