Piecing Together the Past
Verdessa McDougald lives in a small, brick house in Southwest Baltimore. I had been trying to talk to her for months, occasionally calling, mostly leaving messages, letting her know I was still interested in what happened to her son.
I had questions about the documents I had been looking at and I hoped to run them by her. I also wanted to get a better sense of Woodson’s life. Eventually, she agreed to meet with me.
She wasn’t quite ready when I arrived at her home so I stood on the sidewalk in front of the door, waiting for a few minutes. The block was quiet, slow. One older man shuffled by. The block, McDougald told me when I went inside, is like a family–she calls one neighbor her son. But she still spends most of her time alone since Woodson is dead and her other son, Maurice, whom she calls Greasy, is locked up.
“See that hat up there?” she asked, shortly after letting me in, pointing to a brand new white baseball hat wrapped in plastic and sitting up on a shelf. Tyree’s name was written across the brim in pink cursive, a white dove detailed with the same pink lying beside it on what could be called a shrine to her dead son.
McDougald said that Maurice was locked up at the time of Woodson’s funeral and he asked everyone to wear pink, his favorite color, “because that way it will feel like I am there.”
She said she wanted to find a photo album that had the same color as the hat and the dove. “I just haven’t found one yet. I’m going to do all his certificates, pictures from when he was born up until he passed. Also I want to put his baby picture on the wall right there. And a recent picture of him on the wall right there.”
That’s how we ended up on her couch, flipping through old photo albums and looking at pictures of her son.
I’m struck by a picture McDougald took of Woodson in 1980, when he was 4 years old. In the photograph, framed by her fingers gripping at the album in which it lay covered in laminate, he is kneeling down in front of a toy muscle car, bright red with yellow flames, wearing a blue tracksuit with white stripes, a new watch on his wrist. On his head, a motorcycle helmet, the word “POLICE” printed on its visor, sat with a slight tilt on his brow.
“Ain’t that something,” McDougald said. “He liked police and then they kill him.”
McDougald, whom people call Mama Dessie, is a 59-year-old light-skinned African-American woman with soft brown eyes buried in the burrows of her cheeks, the kind that probably got pinched a lot when she was a kid. She had Woodson when she was only 18 and raised him as a single mother. In the photographs, Woodson has her cheeks, puffing out as he smiles.
“He started wearing glasses when he was young,” she said. “I think he used to throw them away. He would come home and say he lost them. He didn’t like them but then people used to start calling him ‘the professor’ because they’d say ‘you look like a little professor with them glasses on.’”
Her eyes lingered on the image, reluctant to leave it, even as she turned the page.
“I used to always buy him books and always read to him. See he got books over here, books over here,” she said pointing at another photograph, where he is surrounded by children’s books. “I used to always keep books for him and make sure he’d read.”
Woodson was seven years older than Maurice, who called him Unk. Because McDougald was struggling with drugs, she told me, Woodson helped family members raise his little brother.
In 1992, McDougald was arrested with cocaine. She spent three years locked up. She said she read and she prayed and she wrote poems that she sent to her sons.
“I lock myself away from everything and everyone because only there/ I can find happiness everlasting that never end. I search for that/ Deep down in my soul,” she wrote in one poem later published in an anthology.
In another, addressed directly to her sons, she refers to “A love you never knew” and ends with “Never wanting to be set free/ Wishing you were here with me.”
McDougald was set free, from jail and from drugs, she said. But Tyree’s troubles with the law had already begun. He was first arrested at 14. His first adult charge came right after he turned 18. He was first convicted on drug charges in 1995, the same year McDougald was released. In 2001, he was charged with 15 counts, the most serious of which was attempted murder. According to court records, he was using a number of aliases at the time, including Donte Allen. He was found not guilty on all counts.
In 2002, Woodson was charged with attempted murder again, but the prosecutors decided not to pursue those charges.
The last time he was locked up, he had been away long enough that his grandmother didn’t recognize him when he surprised her at a barbecue. After that, McDougald said, he started working and he was getting his life together. But the police, she said, wouldn’t leave him alone.
“Eight years before my son was ever shot, police threatened him. Southwest District cops threatened him,” she said. “My sons had told me that what they said to them was ‘We know y’all sell drugs. We can’t catch y’all but we gon’ get you off the street one way or another.’”