Part of a year-long series, presented by The American and the Brown School at Washington University, on changing the narratives and outcomes of young black males in St. Louis.
During my religious upbringing, I was taught, “Train up the child in the way they should go and they will not depart from it.” These words help set the foundation for the work I do. I believe that effective parenting plays a major role in the emotional and psychological development of a child. Children are very moldable; hence, train up the child. In my opinion, the best training for a child comes mostly from two responsible parents.
I was born and grew up until the age of 15 in Memphis, Tennessee. I am the oldest of eight siblings, who were reared by a mother who was mostly a single mom. Eight children are a lot to provide for. I never knew my father prior to turning 55 years old. During my first 12 years of life, I met him briefly (maybe two times). I did, however, have a step-father, Fred Harmon, who was a good man but he was in and out of our lives.
My mother Mennie Wilson was a strong, proud black woman. She taught us morals, values, manners, respect for authority, respect for ourselves and for others. She gave us love, tough love, but we knew we were loved. Education was a must; we went to school every day and did homework every evening. Church was every Sunday and Friday, with Bible study during the week.
Structure was part of my training; so was responsibility and a strong work ethic. When my stepfather was there, he provided for us and disciplined us when needed. There were rewards for good grades and good behavior – love and training.
When I was 15 years old, we moved from Memphis to Rochester, New York, and at that age I thought I was a man. I began to run the mean streets of Rochester, and by the age of 16 years old I was out of my mother’s house and on my own.
At the age of 17, I was sentenced to Elmira Correctional Reformatory Institution for burglary and released after serving 14 months. At 19, I was arrested again and sent to Auburn Correctional Facility for suspicion of burglary and parole violation. I was released after serving one year. Then at the age of 24, I was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Attica Correctional Facility for selling drugs.
Fortunately, I made some money in the street life and I had a paid attorney. As a result of having a paid attorney, I won an appeal and sentence reduction. During the appeals process, my original charge of selling drugs was changed to operating as an agent of a drug seller. I was offered a plea bargain and my sentence was reduced to three years. I had already completed two and a half years, so I took that plea bargain and was released.
After each release, I returned to those mean streets. I used marijuana, cocaine and at times heroin during my street run. But it was that crack that took me to my knees – I became a drug addict. Finally, at the age of 31, I figured it out. This street life is not working for me. My mother’s training kicked in. I made the effort to change, and my life began to improve.
But that crack proved hard to put down until the age of 43 when I entered drug rehab. After a 30-day stay in rehab I left, and the very next day I enrolled at St. Louis Community College. After earning my associate’s degree in May 1995, I enrolled in Fontbonne University and received my bachelor’s degree in August 1996. That fall I enrolled at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, and in December 1997 I earned my Masters in Social Work. The structure and educational training I received from my mother paid off.
I have often wondered what life would have been like for me with my father or a consistent father figure in my life. Fathers help to guide a child in the right direction. I would not have been able to run the streets and get caught up in that life. We were rewarded for good grades, which means I would have completed my education as most normal young people do. I would have grown up with and in a family environment that most likely would have led me to become a family man, not a street thug.
I founded the Fathers’ Support Center, St. Louis in December 1997. The overarching goal of the agency in its infancy was to impact outcomes for children, and now more than 20 years later that is still the primary goal. In 1997 I started with one employee, me. Today we have 57 employees and have achieved national attention for our impact.
The methods and strategies employed in our responsible fatherhood programing were created by me through my lessons learned. We teach men responsible behavior in the area of parenting and living life as a citizen in our community. In 2016 we developed a mom’s project to help women to develop the skills for responsible parenting – children do not come with a manual.
According to Kids Count, in St. Louis city and county there are 127,000 kids growing up in homes without their fathers – and 56 percent of those are African-American. Almost half of those children are African-American boys. We have learned that our young black males desire the love of a father and benefit from the directions that a father can give. Fathers help to shape the emotional and psychological development of children. Fathers also provide structure and stability for their children and help to shield them from the various pitfalls of life.
Over these 20-plus years, we have served over 14,000 fathers with over 97 percent being African-American males. We target fathers as a way to produce positive outcomes for children. Most fathers who come to us are the non-resident and non-custodial father – the so-called deadbeat dads. It is our vision that every father can be a responsible father committed to a cohesive family relationship.
Halbert Sullivan is the founder and chief executive officer of Fathers’ Support Center, St. Louis.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.