For years, Shamayim Harris — or “Mama Shu,” as everyone calls her — has worked to turn a once-blighted corner of her Highland Park neighborhood into a place of refuge for the city’s youth.
She saw untapped potential in the dilapidated buildings lining Avalon Street, and began in 2007 to buy these properties one by one. She assembled a team of engineers, futurists, artists, urban farmers, volunteers and donors to turn the buildings into an eco-friendly safe place for Highland Park’s children and their families. It was a desperately needed oasis in a city where nearly 60% of children live in poverty.
Mama Shu called it Avalon Village, a place where children could study after school, get a free meal, clean their clothes or shower at the Village’s Homework House study hall. It was supposed to be a safe place. A sanctuary. A place of unfathomable good borne from unfathomable tragedy.
That’s because Avalon Village was also a place meant to memorialize the loss of her son, Jakobi Ra, who was struck and killed by a car when he was just 2 years old.
Together, with her oldest son, Chinyelu Humphrey, she mentored children. The mother and son became the guardian angels of Avalon Village.
But on Jan. 26, this place meant to honor her second son, this place of safety and refuge, also became the place where someone took the life of her first. Someone entered Highland Park’s sanctuary and fatally shot Humphrey as he sat alone at Avalon Village. He was just 23 years old.
Mama Shu, known for her resilient, soulful and loving aura, had seen the place where she turned tragedy into beauty turned to tragedy once again.
The children of Highland Park had lost their rock — and Mama Shu had lost a son. Again.
The pain, she said in a video release online, is indescribable. “It’s like lightning striking twice,” she said.
Dreams — and a life — dashed
Mama Shu and Chinyelu’s work had spread far beyond the borders of Highland Park. In 2016, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the Homework House. The campaign went viral. Inspired by their mission to revitalize her neighborhood, TV star Ellen DeGeneres invited Mama Shu on to her daytime talk show. Before a television audience of millions, DeGeneres gifted her a custom-made home that would become the Village’s welcome center and business space.
During all these years, as the blight began to fade away on the corner of Avalon and Woodward, brick by brick, Humphrey helped keep his mother’s mission and vision alive. He was the helping hand behind all of the Village’s projects.
Mama Shu lost the son she called her fireball child, her brave heart, her protector, her partner. He was the ever-present caretaker of the Village, keeping a watchful eye over his mother and the Village, devoted to protecting the sanctuary they had built together. He was heavily involved in the Village’s “hood camp,” where kids learned to cook, garden, search for edible herbs, and took anti-bullying classes. Humphrey loved the kids, and the kids loved him back, she said.
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The dreams for Avalon Village were getting bigger and bolder. The construction of a science and math lab was underway. The COVID-19 pandemic deepened the Village’s mission of giving back, as more parents in the community lost their jobs. Last year, the Village began offering struggling families money and meals.
To family and friends, it was Humphrey’s destiny to inherit the Village, the touchstone of his mother and brother’s legacy — a destiny he had already embraced early on.
“One day, it just kicked in. Who is she going to pass the torch to?” Humphrey told People magazine in 2017, when he was 19.
A community torn apart
On Tuesday evening, residents visited the Village on the corner of Avalon and Woodward to pay their respects to Humphrey.
The dream of Humphrey’s inheritance is shattered, said Angela Lugo-Thomas, a neighborhood resident and friend of Mama Shu.
“I thought, ‘Look at the legacy your mom is leaving you,’” she said. “I think that’s what hurts the most. He left before her. I never thought this would happen.”
While braving the blistering winter air, residents huddled together in front of a shrine in his honor. The memorial built by family members stood some 20 steps away from the home Degeneres had gifted the community.
Anthony Mitchell was among those who paid their respects to Humphrey, whom he befriended in middle school. Humphrey was a ray of sunshine to everybody, even during the darkest days, Mitchell said.
“It’s freezing out here. You know, and it doesn’t even matter. He’s been on all our minds,” he said. “Since it happened, it’s like we all lost our own little brother. Not a lot of people bring me to tears, but it’s had me crying. It’s had me torn apart.”
Bouquets of white flowers laid at the foot of the shrine, featuring a large portrait of Humphrey. His first name, which translates to “invincible one” in the Kiswahili language, was spelled out with big, white letters. The candlelight flames illuminated the grief on the mourners’ faces.
Seeking justice — again
Humphrey had been holding his little brother’s hand while they were crossing the street together in 2007 when Jakobi Ra was fatally struck by a car.
Paul Thomas remembers that loss well. He was the Highland Park police detective who brought the man who killed Jakobi Ra to justice. Now, he’s been assigned to bring Mama Shu justice one more time; he’s been tasked with solving Humphrey’s murder, too.
“It’s always a tragedy for any parent losing a child, let alone a second time,” he said Tuesday evening.
As time passed, Thomas became friendly with Mama Shu and would wave to Humphrey while on patrol near the Village.
Over the last 10 years, gun violence in Highland Park has dropped dramatically, there were five homicides in Highland Park last year and Humphrey was the first victim to lose his life to gun violence in the city this year. But somehow, that first loss feels like 20 to a community that had relied on Humphrey and Avalon.
There are no suspects in Humphrey’s murder.
A mission that will not be stopped
Mama Shu said she feels vulnerable after the shooting, noting that there is an urgent need to keep Avalon Village safe. She has launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign to raise money for her son’s funeral costs and to pay for more security and install additional lighting and fencing. The campaign had raised over $24,000 out of a $50,000 goal as of Friday.
The Village will also plant a garden in honor of Humphrey’s memory.
As the night sky grew darker, Mama Shu spoke to those who came to pay tribute to her son, thanking them for their love and well-wishes.
She told them that her son’s name meant “invincible,” and so was she, as she vowed to carry on the Village’s mission.
Even if now her Village no longer has its heir.
Anyone with information on Humphrey’s murder is urged to call Highland Park police at (313) 852-7338.