HOUSTON – They gathered in a small park across from Jack Yates High School, huddling in a gray drizzle. Reminders of George Floyd, Class of 1993, stood all around: in the street mural that featured his football jersey number of 88, in the painting of his face that looked down from a chimney.
And now, in their move to name this park after him.
"George Floyd was also a Jack Yates Lion, which really, really brought this home," City Council Member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, herself a Yates alumnus, told the small crowd.
"And so I truly hope that things will change, because we don't want to have to keep lifting people up because they have died."
In the year since Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, his alma mater has worked to honor his legacy.
Already celebrated as a star football player who helped lead his team to the 1992 state championships, Floyd has become the face of racial justice to his one-time peers and the next generation of students at Jack Yates. The community came together swiftly in the days after his death, and hundreds of alumni gathered at Jack Yates for a candlelight vigil.
The school is named for a freed slave who became a prominent pastor and community leader, and opened in 1926 as Houston's second school for children of color. Today it's attended by 800 students, most of them still Black.
"We're a very, very tight-knit school," said Jeffrey Boney, president of the Yates alumni association. He graduated two years ahead of Floyd.
Boney recalled how surreal it was for old classmates to see Floyd murdered on camera, how hard it still is to accept. A council member in the Houston suburb of Missouri City, Boney worked with others to create a scholarship program in Floyd's name that awarded a total of $6,000 to several 2020 graduates months after his death.
Among the recipients was Cornelius Ballard IV, who just finished his freshman year at Texas Southern University, a historically Black school near Yates. Ballard, who aspires to be a gospel singer, said he enjoyed studying Black leaders — the career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the activism of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks.
What happened to Floyd opened everyone's eyes, Ballard said, and prompted him to think: "Things were supposed to change. ... Why is this happening in 2020?" The oldest of three brothers, he said Floyd's killing spurred discussions in his home for months.
"The number one rule is to basically try not to get involved with the police," said Ballard. But if you do, he said, "you shouldn't even have to worry about that type of stuff happening to you. They're here to serve and protect."
Ballard said he found himself overcome with emotion in April as he watched former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin convicted of murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death — not long after he won his scholarship.
As Floyd's death inspired action around the world, a group of his old football teammates were considering how they might acknowledge him on his home turf.
While attending last summer's March on Washington, Vaughn Dickerson was impressed by how quickly a "Black Lives Matter" mural was painted on a D.C. street near the White House. He pushed with others for a similar display locally.
Now "Black Lives Matter" has been painted down two blocks of Alabama Avenue, running alongside Jack Yates High in the school's colors of crimson and gold and flanked with Floyd's jersey number and 1973-2020, the dates of his birth and death.
Standing outside the high school, Dickerson looked at the mural and noted the many efforts that have begun in Floyd's name.
"We're still fighting the good fight of faith," he said. "Some of the [responsibility] has fallen on us to continue to see his legacy go on and not to let his name die in vain."
Dickerson and another Floyd football teammate and friend, Herbert Mouton, drove around the neighborhood one morning last month, pointing out all the ways it had changed since they played in the parks and streets as boys.
Texas Southern and the University of Houston have expanded and bought up property, and higher-end developments are springing up on the outskirts of the long-impoverished area. The YMCA where they once played basketball is no longer here, and empty lots dot the landscape where shotgun houses were razed.
They drove by Cuney Homes, the public housing project where Floyd grew up, and recounted the struggles that pushed their friend to move to Minneapolis in 2017 in search of better opportunities.
"A lot of guys aren't trying to leave the Cuney Homes — all they know is survival mode," said Mouton. "But for Floyd to move to Minnesota to get his life right really meant a lot."
Growing up here, Dickerson said, he believed they had passed the age when they were likely to be killed as Black men. He said it made Floyd's death in Minneapolis at the age of 46 all the more surprising.
"We had a stigma that Black men weren't going to make it to live to 25, so by us graduating and going off to college, we thought we missed it," he said.
Dickerson, Mouton and two of Floyd's other teammates formed the organization 88 C.H.U.M.P. (Communities Helping Underprivileged Minorities Progress) to give back to people facing the same disadvantages they had while growing up.
"They still need assistance out here. ... Once we get off these cameras and everybody goes their separate way and follows the next story, we've got to ask ourselves what progression is really being made," said Dickerson.
As the anniversary of Floyd's death loomed, the former football players collaborated with their alumni association, public officials and other organizations to upgrade the high school football field they plan to name for him. The project "is going to keep these kids out of trouble," said Dickerson.
In the wilting heat, they joined community leaders to announce the upcoming installation of synthetic turf on the football field. Students crowded into the bleachers and cheerleaders gathered by the stage.
Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis told the audience that much had changed since Floyd was killed.
"We're talking about how to open the doors ... for people who have been left out for so long," he said. "It's important that today, here at the high school where George Floyd played and graduated, right across from the Cuney Homes where he grew up, right in the heart of Third Ward, something great is going to happen.
"And we regret that somebody had to die so that we would do this, but we ought to take this and see what lessons we learned and in what ways we are all inspired to do better than the life that was there for George Floyd."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210