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Mother of legendary black Upstate officer, slain on duty: Stoic anguish, dreams of change

Delores Howard said, with emphasis:

"No, you don't."

She raised one hand Saturday morning and pointed a don't-do-it finger at my iPhone. She sat on the arm of a chair in her living room, near her front door. Morning light poured through a couple of windows, and she cut a perfect outline, a beautiful profile, against the sun: Slight figure leaning forward, eyes toward a brilliant sky.

"No, you don’t," she said again. I had asked if I could take a picture of Delores in the sunlight. I told her it was so bright no one could see her face. This was so, but Delores said no. We have known each other for years. She has always hated to have her picture taken. I gave in, as I always do.

She pointed instead to a rack of photographs a few feet from the chair, all these framed images of her children, including several of her oldest son:

Wallie Howard Jr.

You want a picture, she said, take one of him.

He was a police investigator in Syracuse who died, at 31, in the line of duty. He was working an undercover drug buy on Oct. 30, 1990, and a couple of men approached his car in a grocery store parking lot. It was a double-cross. They tried to rob him of $42,000.

Wallie Howard Jr. as an officer with the Syracuse police. (Courtesy Syracuse Police Department)

Wallie Howard Jr. as an officer with the Syracuse police. (Courtesy Syracuse Police Department)

Wallie shot and wounded one of his attackers. It was the first time he'd ever fired his gun at another human being. A 16-year-old named Robert Lawrence, a teenager called “Bam Bam,” was on the other side of the car. He pointed a gun toward the passenger’s side window and shot Wallie in the head.

Close-range homicide, at 16 years old.

Delores found out a little later, while she was doing dishes.

Saturday, she rested on the arm of the chair, hands folded in her lap, looking toward images of her son.

“All this carrying on,” she said in a soft voice.

She was talking about two African-American civilians, shot and killed last week in Louisiana and Minnesota by police officers.

She was talking about an African-American sniper in Dallas who opened fire at a peaceful protest and killed five officers, before he was killed himself.

She was talking about a sequence of unbearable American tragedy.

For a moment, Delores said nothing. Her oldest son became a police officer, a true believer, and is now an Upstate legend. Yet more than a quarter-century after she lost him, everything he believed in seems threatened, pulled backward.

What is astounding, with Delores, is that she displays no anger.

Instead, the room was filled with sorrow of almost tactile nature.

At 77, Delores has great skill in walking paths through sadness. She lost two grown children and a grandson, who died as an infant. She survived cancer, a recovery she never takes for granted. She saw things as a little girl few of us can imagine.

Wallie Howard Jr. as a child, early 1960s, the old Hilltop housing complex, Syracuse. (Courtesy of Delores Howard)

Wallie Howard Jr. as a child, in the early 1960s, at the old Hilltop housing complex in Syracuse. (Courtesy of Delores Howard)

All that pain, built on a lifetime.

Delores carries it with grace.

She is African-American, and she came to Syracuse from South Carolina when she was a child. While her parents never told her why they left the South, it doesn’t take much guessing. Her father was a mason, skilled with brick or stone, but his talent didn’t do him much good where he grew up.

He came north, she said, and he helped “put up buildings in Syracuse that are already gone, and some that are still here.”

That work was not there for him in the Jim Crow south, ruled by cruel laws of legal segregation. Delores remembers how white children on a school bus would spit on her as they drove past her on the road. She remembers how her parents would be forced to use a rear door whenever they tried to ride a bus, and how the drivers – if they felt like it – would laugh and pull away before blacks had time to climb on board.

She remembers how she had to stand if she entered any room where white people could sit down, and how that standing -- for a little girl -- could go on for a long time.

And she remembers the fear of lynching as a real and deadly thing, a terror that seeped into her house.

In that world, you did not see the police as your friends. In that world, justice meant the opposite of its definition.

Her family got out, heading north, part of what is known as the Great Migration. Delores and her husband had four children in Syracuse before the couple separated. The oldest, Stephanie, died in her 20s from sudden kidney failure. Wallie, the son Delores always called Junie, grew up to become a record-breaking high jumper in high school. He left college to sign on as a police officer after he was recruited by Herman Edge, a father figure who was the city’s first African-American deputy chief of police.

Through Edge, Wallie learned the unique nature of his role. Even in the 1940s, when Delores arrived in Syracuse, the city had no black officers. Her son grew up to be part of a slow transformation. Wallie spent his early years patrolling the South Side, a primarily African-American neighborhood. He worked alongside several other black cops. Fellow officers remember how he loved the feeling when they’d pull up to a bar fight or a family argument and someone would look at them, astounded, and say:

Hey. A brother!

They did their job. Most of the time, they could do it peacefully.

Before anyone gave it a formal name, they did their own grassroots community policing.

Wallie had plenty of close friends within the department, people from all backgrounds who loved him, but he understood there was a certain dynamic that he sometimes had to face. When he was a child, his mother bought him a new bike when he finished the fifth grade. A close friend also received one at the same time. They were riding up and down the street, celebrating, when a white officer saw them and asked if the bikes were stolen.

They told him no. He demanded to see receipts.

What kid carries a receipt for his new bike?

The police confiscated the bicycles. Delores had to go downtown to prove Wallie’s bike belonged to him.

Posthumous Purple Heart awarded to Investigator Wallie Howard Jr. by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, held by his mother, Delores Howard. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

Posthumous Purple Heart awarded to Investigator Wallie Howard Jr. by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, held by his mother, Delores Howard. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

It was a tragic, damaging assumption. Wallie's story proves just how wrong it was. But the son, like the mother, was typically slow to anger. He worked his way up through the department, eventually joining an elite federal narcotics task force. He was a guy with a big smile, an unforgettable laugh, a guy who loved a practical joke: He used to bring in cans of soda wired to shock anyone who picked them up.

Wallie was also an officer serving the community where he grew up, a young father with two little kids, an investigator who approached his job with fierce intensity. He spent much of his childhood in a housing project. He had witnessed what many children live out in the city, the crushing desperation that destroys too many lives. He saw the narcotics trade as corrosive, as a dead-end marketplace of drugs and  money that -- in the end -- undermined countless families.

He was shot and killed by a 16-year-old from Brooklyn who’d moved Upstate to work for a ring of cocaine dealers, a 16-year-old who’d essentially been on his own throughout his life.

Wallie was claimed by the same cycle of madness he sought to change.

Saturday, Delores again fell silent, remembering, a mother framed by sunlight.

She has spent more than 25 years trying to find sense in the impossible.

What gives her strength, above all else, is vivid memory of the way Wallie made her feel when he walked into her house, the joy her son carried wherever he went, the hope he brought to the harshest corners of his job. All of that only intensified her grief amid the bloodshed of last week. The crescendo was the coverage of the killings in Dallas, which immediately brought her back to the day she lost her son.

Delores understands, in as intense and intimate a way as possible, the courage and willing sacrifice that define a great officer. She also remembers officers from both her Southern childhood and her years in Syracuse who committed cruelties and then "hid behind a badge,” and she knows there is much in this nation that we must confront and change, and she knows her son gave his life believing that we could.

No, she said, the picture shouldn’t really involve her. She picked up an image of Wallie and allowed me to capture that photograph, his expression gentle and reflective, such great dreams in fragile hands.

Sean Kirst is a contributing writer for The Buffalo News. Email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com.

 

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