Nevaeh Williams — her name backwards is “heaven” — wore a pink shirt that called her the “sweetest girl in the world.”
In the 4-year-old’s hand was a paper telling her what to do if she finds a gun, given to her Wednesday by an anti-violence activist at Phoenix Place Apartments.
As Jack Logan, founder of Greenville-based Put Down the Guns Now Young People was carrying out what he says is God’s command for him to keep kids safe, about a mile away, a city gym was bursting with enthusiasm.
Those 70 children later dashed through the doors of the Morris Chapel Baptist Church into a large parking lot, where they immediately launched into a fierce water balloon fight — all smiles and joyful determination.
Last year, on that same asphalt, the scene was much different, as community members gathered, pleading for an end to the violence that took two young lives in July 2018, including one snuffed out by a bullet just feet from the place where those grievers — and children — assembled.
Bishop Oliver McCray Jr., who presides over Morris Chapel, noticed the juxtaposition too and says that’s one reason why his church’s rapidly growing summer camp is so needed.
At $20 a week per child, McCray said the venture isn’t about creating money for the church. He views it as an informal ministry.
“It’s partnering with the community because these kids don’t come to Morris Chapel. These kids are from everywhere. And they do structured stuff. They do art, they do math, they do science,” McCray said.
McCray’s church has witnessed the consequences of Greenwood’s plight, hosting a May 24 funeral for 24-year-old Cody Alex Hawkins, who was shot the week before.
With elected officials, faith leaders and community activities seeking ways to avoid future tragedy, McCray said in the days following Hawkins’ service, he got a message from God to go another direction.
“What I’m trying to do is change the narrative. I’m trying to focus on the positive instead of the violence, the gangs, the negative stuff. I was in prayer about this whole situation, because I was just really, really bitter and angry about how that guy died,” McCray said.
Since Hawkins’ death, four more people have been killed in shootings: 22-year-old Zykevious Ramsey on June 4 in Greenwood and then on June 23, Johntavier Moss, 24, Steven Tinch, 26, and 62-year-old Shirley Jones in Abbeville.
And on Tuesday night, city police and the Greenwood County Sheriff’s Office responded to shootings at the H2O Ultra Lounge at 1601 Highway 72/221 E. and to an Oakhill Street residence that was struck.
“I don’t want to get into the police thing, I don’t want to get into trying to get people to snitch, I don’t want to be a part of that. The Lord spoke to my heart and said to me, ‘focus on the positive,’” McCray said. “This is what people need to see, that there is an alternative to all this stuff going on.”
The camp’s origins lie with Kamela Simmons, who runs a foundation that sponsors youth basketball for girls. Simmons asked McCray if her group could use the gym, and that blossomed into the concept of sponsoring a summer program.
“It’s amazing to have somewhere safe and fun. They can just be kids. It’s nice,” Simmons said.
Such is not the case for a 14-year-old boy who lives across town at the Phoenix Place Apartments. Although he wants to be outside playing football with friends, both he and his mother — who spoke to the Index-Journal Wednesday on the condition of anonymity — are too fearful to take that risk.
“I keep my son in the house. I don’t want to lose in in the streets,” she said. “It’s just a shame we have to live like this in our own home.”
She said she and her son sleep on the floor at least twice a week. And during the school year, he’ll often call home daily to make sure his mother is safe.
“I tell him, ‘You don’t worry about me here. Get yourself an education,’” she said.
Logan spent the day canvassing many of the same city streets where shots have rang out.
“We stay busy so a mother doesn’t have to go to a mortuary,” he told a Phoenix Place resident.
Shellie Kallek has lived at Phoenix Place for 10 years — and she insists that people not only know who she is, but also her phone number.
“It’s 911,” Kallek said. “People will run to the landlord and tell her stuff, but don’t tell the police. They don’t want to come this way because I tell everything I see. I don’t play games. I don’t run in and go to bed.”
There’s a buzz in the air around Uptown — City Manager Julie Wilkie said the trucks, trailers and tents preparing for this weekend’s Festival of Discovery.
Cars slow down to see what the commotion is about, Wilkie said, and as 6 p.m. today traffic will be cut off to make room for the flood of vendors and competitive cooking teams that will make Uptown their home for a few days.
“This event goes so fast for us, it feels like we were just here running this last week,” Wilkie said, watching as some of the cook teams set up their stations beside her.
Stretching from lunch Thursday to the barbecue competitions Saturday and awards ceremony that night, the Festival of Discovery offers Greenwood a taste of all the barbecue it can muster, and gives cooks the chance to compete in a Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned event.
At the Smoke This BBQ truck, cooks Scott Jarrett and Steve Finger were setting up the metal scaffolding above the truck that holds up their signs and menus. The men were taking a break and said they were grateful for the cloud cover keeping the heat at bay.
Finger said they’ve been coming to the Festival of Discovery from Hickory, North Carolina for years — it’s one of his favorite competitions each year.
“We’ve been coming down since 2007, and we’ve been vending since 2009,” he said. “I mean, they’ve got a forklift sitting for us right over there. We’ve got a big cooker coming in that’s going to need something like that to move it, and the city is always helpful. Anything you need, you contact Julie or any of her people and they’re Johnny-on-the-spot.”
Their focus is on competing, though vending helps pay for the expenses, Jarrett said. It costs about $1,000 in materials to compete, and he said they cook for about 15 competitions a year nowadays.
Randall Knight, owner of Nard’s Backyard BBQ, said he leaves his competition cooking to a team of people that help him. He’s not focused on competing — as owner of a full-time catering business, he’s here for sales.
“I have someone come in and do my competition cooking so I can focus on the vending,” he said. “We get a lot of interactions with corporate customers.”
Usually, he said it takes all day for him to set up the Nard’s tent by himself. On Wednesday, though, he had two helpers and managed to have the set-up nearly finished by about noon. The tent is right across from the main stage for the Blues Cruise, where various musicians will spend the weekend treating Uptown to a near-nonstop concert. Knight said his tent puts him at some of the best seats in the house.
Teams have come back for more than a decade, continuing to compete and sell at the Festival of Discovery, which Wilkie attributes to the city’s goal of serving the cook teams as best it can. That, she said, is what’s grown the event over the years from a handful of teams to the sprawling barbecue festival it is today.
“We pride ourselves on being a team-friendly event,” she said. “That’s what makes our event successful, and it’s made that way by the staff.”
A blood trail Tuesday night in the parking lot of a Greenwood club served as evidence of the shooting that took place there earlier, according to a news release from the Greenwood County Sheriff’s Office.
At 8:48 p.m. Tuesday, 911 dispatchers took a call about multiple gunshots coming from the area of H2O Ultra Lounge at 1601 Highway 72/221 E., the Wednesday morning news release said. When deputies arrived on scene minutes later, they found a blood trail in the parking lot.
Deputies learned a man with a gunshot wound had been taken to the emergency room of an area hospital. Officers secured the scene at the lounge and the crime scene unit went to help collect evidence.
Deputies continued investigating throughout Wednesday, including executing a search warrant at an address along East Laurel Avenue near Airport Road Wednesday afternoon, but had no further information to share by the end of the day, said Sgt. Jeff Graham.
Officers are still working leads and trying to identify a suspect. Graham said Wednesday he didn’t have any information on the injured man’s condition.
Another shooting Tuesday night left no one injured, but did leave a vehicle damaged, according to police. A report said officers went at about 9:30 p.m. to an Oakhill Street residence and spoke with a man sitting on his front porch.
The man told officers he saw a white vehicle drive down Oakhill Street and turn onto Crawford, and as it approached the curve at Holmes Street the man saw several muzzle flashes coming from the vehicle. He didn’t know what the people in the vehicle were shooting at, but told police it seemed to turn onto Williams Avenue traveling toward Pearl Street.
The report said police noted the H2O lounge shooting was gang-related, and officers asked the Ninety Six Police Department to monitor Little Mountain Road, as it is a known location for a rival gang. Ninety Six police found a white vehicle, but the people in it ran, leaving behind a firearm that matched shell casings found at Oakhill Street.
By end of day Tuesday, no arrests had been made in the Oakhill Street shooting investigation, either.