The sixth-grader at Danforth School had been killed a week earlier when a motorist fleeing a fight in Onondaga Park ran over her with a minivan. Police have charged 21-year-old Jaqueisha Elmore of 110 Jericho Drive with manslaughter. Elmore was held in the Justice Center downtown before being released on $10,000 bail.
After Taizhae’s (pronounced Tah-z-yeah) burial, her friends and family gathered at the home of her grandfather on Cortland Street for a repast: to remember, to mourn, to eat, to drink and to dance. A CD of rhythm’n’blues and hip-hop tunes that Taizhae had created played from a stereo set up in the window of the rundown house. Her aunts LaShonda and Shalita Lampkin remembered her as a smiling girl who loved to dance and loved to get others up and dancing.
Even after her death, she was able to get people to dance. At the family gathering, eight of her girl cousins lined up to show a reporter what Taizhae loved to do best. Cousins from as far away as Lakewood, N.J., jumped, dipped and swiveled to the driving rhythm of “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” Several people who were at the park when Taizhae died said she was teaching a group of women and girls to dance to “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” when the van hit her.
“All you need to know was this,” said her father, Develle Stenson. “Soulja Boy Tell ’Em.” Soulja Boy, the 17-year-old hip-hop phenom from Atlanta, was more than Taizhae’s favorite musician; he was an obsession.
Stenson had more he wanted to say about his little girl. As he spoke of her his eyes filled with tears and he weaved back and forth between the past and the present tense. “Taz was raised right. She has morals. She knew right from wrong,” said Stenson, a barber who cuts hair on North Salina Street. “She wasn’t missing a mother, she wasn’t missing a father, she wasn’t missing her sisters or brothers. She’s not missing a family. A family is missing her.”
Watching the young ones dance and play seemed to give Stenson and the other adults some relief from their grief. “This is what we do,” he said. “We take them through the hard times and then we come back. I can’t just shut down and mourn mine. As long as these babies are happy, we keep going, we’re going to be OK.”
This is a family that has gone through many hard times before. Like many others at the gathering, Donald Brown, a family friend, wore a shirt emblazoned on the front with a smiling Taizhae. On the back were photos of eight other family members who have died young, most of them violently. “We call them our angels,” said the soft-spoken Brown. His cousin Tawanda died in labor, along with her infant child, in 2001. John Dunlap was killed in 2006 outside the B&B Lounge; Ratreal Jones, another cousin, was murdered at the corner of Bellevue Avenue and Rich Street just last year.
And then there was Johnny Chambers. When Taizhae died she was at an event meant to commemorate the life of Chambers, her 17-year-old cousin who was killed in February 2006 by a stray bullet as he left a neighborhood party. The gathering in Onondaga Park where Taizhae died was a basketball tournament held in honor of Johnny. “We’ve got too many angels now,” said Brown, who works with Taizhae’s dad at the barbershop.
Taizhae was one of James Lampkin’s 13 grandchildren. “I had 13, now I have 12,” said Lampkin, an unemployed mechanic and carpenter. He has rented the rambling, dilapidated, two-story house at 417 Cortland St., which connects South Avenue to South Salina Street, for 16 years. Abandoned and rundown houses and several newly refinished homes owned by Syracuse Model Neighborhood Corporation dot the block he lives on. Cortland Street is just a few blocks from the Midland Sewage Treatment Plant, a short walk from Kirk Park, and less than a half-mile from where the much-talked-about downtown revival is taking place. But on this day it might as well be a million miles away.
“This house was like a safety net,” said James Lampkin, leaning on his car and watching his nephews and grandsons toss a football on the sidewalk out front. Just a few feet away, the older women in the family sat in lawn chairs under a white canopy. In the house the younger women were working the kitchen, making sure there was enough chicken and rice for the hundreds in attendance. Beer and wine flowed.
“Even when the drug dealers were out here,” remembered Lampkin, “they respected my wishes. They stayed away from these kids.” He said Taizhae and her sisters and brothers would come by almost every day. “I just want to know what happened. How it happened. Why? Who started it? I just want it to end. Where will it end?”
Taizhae’s 9-year-old cousin, Inphinity Shields, said that Taizhae was her role model. “She was very beautiful. She gave tight hugs, and lots of kisses. She teach me new dance moves—like Soulja Boy.”
Elysha Bennett’s sister, LaShonda Lampkin, pointed to the sky and said that Taizhae was making sure it would not rain. In fact, all afternoon the weather forecasts had called for storms, but it stayed dry. “When somebody passes away it rains, but she won’t let it rain on her parade. When that sun came out, it was her way of saying she’s OK. She’s singing down on my sister.”
The family gathering went on well past dark. Still no rain.