Ella Thomas can remember everything about the most important moments of her life. The 73-year-old remembers the time on the clock when all four of her children were born. She knows the temperature of the crisp morning she met her husband.
Thomas is a woman known for her sharp memory of minor details. But when asked about the morning she found out her son was murdered, it was the first time words did not instantly roll off her tongue. After a long pause, she remembers what an officer at the New York City Police Department’s 34th Precinct on West 179th Street told her that January morning in 1991. "Your son didn't make it."
"Make it from where? Make what? What are you talking about?" she responded to him.
Thomas remembers leaving the room, refusing to believe what the police had said. As she stepped into the hallway of the station, she glimpsed a body in the morgue, which was a few doors down. When she allowed herself to look, she saw bloodied clothing – the outfit her son was wearing the night before, the last time she saw him alive. Rufus Antonio Middleton was shot in the back of the neck outside his apartment in Harlem, she recalled police telling her. It was the night of his 21st birthday, Thomas said.
Thirty-one years later, Thomas still lives in Harlem a few blocks from where her son lost his life. Almost every wall space in her living room is covered in photos of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She smiled, and tears built up in the corners of her eyes when she pointed out the picture of Rufus, whom she lovingly refers to as “Tony,” to a reporter on a visit in October. It's the same picture she brought to the precinct the night she identified his body.
The only corner of the wall not adorned with family photos is covered in framed awards, including one from the Manhattan Borough President’s Office honoring Thomas for her work “counseling grief-stricken parents who have lost a child to gun violence."
Since 2007, she has been on the executive board of Harlem Mothers & Fathers Stop Another Violent End (or S.A.V.E), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing youth gun violence. Every member has lost a family member (usually their child) in a gun-related incident.
When Thomas joined 25 years ago, she was one of four members. Now, there are almost 70 active members. The group's growth is a constant reminder that the problem of gun violence is far from being solved. So far this year, there have been 1,461 shooting victims, down 15% from the same time last year when there were 1,721, according to the NYPD.
At the time she joined the nonprofit, Thomas had just lost her second son to AIDs. She was also undergoing treatment for depression at the time. Thomas had originally come to know the organization after turning on the local news one morning and seeing the face of Jackie-Rowe Adams, the founder of Harlem Mothers & Fathers S.A.V.E. She knew of Adams from the neighborhood and shortly after Thomas saw the commercial, Adams called her.
“She couldn’t believe I had buried two sons like she had buried two sons.” Thomas said. “So we got together and fast forward, this is where we are now.”
On the corner of West 128th Street is the nonprofit’s office, a low-rise building that consists of a single room. Inside, it’s cluttered with tables and chairs, and stacks of event flyers. The walls are filled with photos of mothers at gun violence protests and shaking hands with elected officials. A sign is covered in birthday cake stickers, each with a member's birthday on it.
What stands out is a bulletin board with "Rest In Peace" written at the top of it. Below it are pictures of the deceased sons and daughters of the nonprofit’s members. Many of these pictures are of young, Black men. City data shows they are 88 times more likely to be shot than white men in New York City.
On the first Monday night of every month, all of the members meet at the office with a psychologist who listens as everyone goes around the room and tells their stories. Some mothers in the room lost their children 20 years ago; some planned funerals as recently as last week. Some of the other mothers sometimes ask Thomas if it ever gets any easier. "I tell them it was just like yesterday," she said.
A desk overflowing with paperwork is nestled into the corner of the office where Joyce Rivers is almost always sitting. As one of three office managers at the nonprofit, her most important task is monitoring the office phone for when the NYPD or a concerned citizen calls about deadly gun violence, usually involving a child or teenager.
That’s when Rivers dispatches one of the organization's responders who goes to the home of the grieving parent, gives them the nonprofit's phone number, and tells them they are not alone. "The most important part (of our work) is that we are here for those who have lost their children," she said.
Some parents immediately join Harlem Mothers & Fathers S.A.V.E., others take months or years to come to the organization. According to members, about nine out of 10 parents usually come. "We know firsthand how they're feeling, and they need hope," Rivers said.
Sometimes, Thomas and other members find it challenging to keep the hope within themselves, too. "It looks as though the more work we do, the worse it's getting," Thomas said. Several members of the organization say they often feel forgotten and advocate for increased NYPD surveillance on dark street corners, plus more protective services. But in a divisive political climate, there are endless opinions on what’s driving the gun crisis in New York.
"What we aren't doing right (about gun violence) is everything," said New York City Council Member Kevin Riley, who sits on the Youth Services Committee. Two-thirds of the city's shootings occur in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
As a Bronx native, Riley's childhood had many close calls where he had "a gun in his face," – and there were moments when he considered retaliation. "But the reason why I did not do that is because I always had a safe space to exert my anger," said Riley. By safe space, Riley clarified that people in community groups – such as the Harlem Mothers & Fathers S.A.V.E. and their outreach, were vital for him to understand as a youth that there were other options than choosing a violent life.
"People within the community who could relate to the youth in the community, who know what they're going through … and give them options," he added.
The mothers work to keep kids off the street by placing them in after-school jobs around the city. Rivers herself hires many to help her around the office. "We want to do preventive work, not just aftercare." Rivers said. However, there is still a lot of aftercare to be done.
Earlier this fall, members of the nonprofit along with relatives of gun violence victims from throughout the city gathered at City Hall for a day of remembrance walk.” The Sept. 25 march through all five boroughs was held to protest gun violence and included a stop in Mclaughlin Park in Brooklyn, where 15-year-old Unique Smith was fatally shot on Sept. 7 while on his way home from school.
The day after the march, a small, somber crowd gathered back in Harlem on West 128th Street to commemorate the National Day of Remembrance for Homicide Victims. Parents of victims stood underneath a banner that read: "We Remember … National Day of Remembrance For Victims of Murder." Each parent clutched in their hands a photo of the son or daughter that they had lost and spoke about the losses they had suffered at the hands of gun violence.
Onlookers included surviving sons, daughters and others in support of grieving parents.
"Our children lived here. Their blood was spilled here. We carried and nurtured them, but that was not enough," said Eve Hendricks, whose 17-year-old son Brandon was murdered in a drive-by shooting in the Bronx in June 2020.
Thomas at the event read the names of every son, daughter and family member murdered by gun violence since the event started seven years ago. She recalled she had never lost her composure – until that moment. As she read her son's name, Tony, she looked into the audience and locked eyes with her last surviving son, Lyron Middleton, but it was not Lyron who she saw.
"When he looked at me, it was Tony in his place," she said.
Thomas finished reading the names and began sobbing. Her son rushed to her side and helped her back to her seat. There was no media coverage of the event. "The only time the media is present is when someone gets killed," one woman said.
That lack of attention adds a sense of urgency to the nonprofit’s mission – to be there for the victims' families when the news cycle and public sympathy move on. And after two emotional days, it was time for the organization to get back to work.
Laura Marie Esposito is pursuing a Master of Science at Columbia Journalism School.