The six souls claimed by the New Year’s Day fire at Oscar and Michelle Smith Wilson’s Brookland home were part of an extended family, bound by blood, love, struggle and hope. Yesterday, for a few hours, that family grew into the thousands who came to pay their respects.
They filled Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church on Rhode Island Avenue NE to say goodbye to the Wilsons’ youngest son, Oscar Wilson III, 11; to his 10-year-old cousin, Joseph Wilson Jr; to Kaniya Gantt, 4, and her parents, Tawana Gantt, 22, and Keith Nelson, 23; and to Charles Smith, Michelle Wilson’s father, who was 72.
A single tragic death can send ripples of grief deep into a community. Six at once forms a wave that can devastate.
“Do I have any believers in the room? Do I have any believers in the room?” asked Bishop Alfred A. Owens, shortly after funeral directors gently closed the six white coffins lined up under the pulpit for a viewing that lasted almost three hours.
“This is still the day the Lord has made,” Owens said.
A full-throated wail rang from near the front row. Church ushers dressed in white walked the aisles with fans and tissue boxes.
As family, friends, clergy and dignitaries spoke, it was a chance for the more than 2,000 in attendance to remember the dead, both as a group and as individuals with their own hopes, dreams and challenges.
Charles Smith, a retired auto mechanic, was a generous man who liked to travel. He struggled with dementia in his final years, but daughter Michelle refused to place him in a nursing home, wanting him instead to stay with his grandchildren and other loved ones.
Keith Nelson was the life of the party who dressed up as the Joker at Halloween and dreamed of a music career. Born in the depths of the District’s crack wars in the mid-1980s, he easily could have been one of its victims.
“He could have chosen the devilish path, but he decided to choose the path of God,” said his uncle, Michael Brooks. “It wasn’t easy in D.C. to walk the right road.”
He was devoted to his partner, Tawana Gantt, the daughter of one of Oscar Wilson’s best friends. “Wani Wan” to those who knew her best, she’d begun a promising career in District government as an aide to D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).
“I used to call her my little chocolate chip with a smile,” Thomas said.
Their daughter, Kaniya, brought her mother’s infectious smile to Noyes Elementary School. “Just give us the strength to get through this,” said her godmother, Erica Davis.
Joseph Wilson Jr., the adopted son of Oscar and Michelle, loved to wrestle and talk trash. He’d also discovered girls by age 11, and family members joked that they could smell his cologne from a mile away. Oscar Wilson III, Oscar and Michelle’s son, loved to dominate the video game controller and stand in the kitchen while his mother was cooking and sneak food when she wasn’t looking.
It was a family that held together when falling apart would have been understandable. The Wilsons’ 17-year-old daughter, Taleshia Ford, was killed in 2007 by a stray bullet from a gun brought to a Northwest nightclub by another patron. It happened during a scuffle with a bouncer.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) told mourners that many people would have cut themselves off from the community after such a loss. Instead, the Wilsons fought for passage of a District law that required tightened security in clubs that serve alcohol and admit anyone younger than 21.
“They didn’t withdraw,” Graham said. “They stayed with the issue at the council. They came to hearing after hearing, and hearing after hearing.” The Taleshia Ford Memorial Amendment Act of 2007 passed under Graham’s sponsorship.
The funeral had the trappings of a state affair. Traffic up and down Rhode Island Avenue slowed to a crawl for a mile in each direction from the church. A D.C. police honor guard was on hand. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who attended the viewing, ordered flags on District government buildings flown at half-staff. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who attended the funeral, dedicated his monthly youth hearing yesterday afternoon to Tawana Gantt.
At 2 p.m., after a two-hour service, the coffins were transported to Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood. More than 150 vehicles followed the hearses in the chilly, overcast afternoon.
* By Bill Turque ;Washington Post Staff Writer,Sunday, January 11, 2009