HOUSTON – Before his death made him a catalyst for global protests, George Floyd mentored young men at the Cuney Homes housing project in Houston’s Third Ward, urging them to quit violence and seek a better life.
When Tiffany Cofield, then a teacher at Hope Academy charter school in the Third Ward, struggled to connect with her most troubled students, she turned to Floyd for help. Floyd, who was 40 at the time, was disarmingly soft-spoken and listened to Cofield’s complaints and aspirations for the kids, she said.
More importantly, her students listened to Floyd. One boy was a talented football player struggling to keep his grades up. After Cofield recruited Floyd to talk to him, the student’s grades suddenly improved. He graduated high school and went on to play football at a junior college, Cofield said.
“There were times he had more of an impact than their own parents,” she said of Floyd’s relationship withher students. “They didn’t want to disappoint him.”
Memorials in Houston this week honored Floyd, 46, who died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. The former police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during the arrest was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, and three other officers on the scene were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
Outrage over Floyd’s death unleashed worldwide demonstrations, including mostly peaceful protests in every state in the U.S. Last week, memorials were held in Minneapolis, where Floyd last lived, and North Carolina, where he was born.
Monday, Houston hosted a six-hour public visitation. Tuesday, a private funeral service was planned. Floyd is to be buried alongside his mother at Houston Memorial Gardens in Pearland. Al Sharpton is to deliver the eulogy.
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To his friends in his childhood hometown of Houston, Floyd was remembered as a musician, a former student athlete and a loving brother and father.
“He was Third Ward,” Cofield said.
South of downtown Houston, the Third Ward has been home to freed slaves since the end of the Civil War and site of important landmarks such as Jack Yates Senior High School, the city’s second African American high school, and Emancipation Park, the first park for black Houstonians.
Floyd grew up in the neighborhood’s Cuney Homes, also known as “The Bricks,” a housing project flushed with gang violence and crime. Known as “Big Floyd,” he put out rap mix tapes with the influential hip hop collective Screwed Up Click in the 1990s and was a standout athlete at Jack Yates High School. By the time he left high school, he was 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He was known as someone who used his formidable size to break up fights.
Monday, residents and bystanders flocked to a mural of Floyd spread across the back wall of the Scott Food Store, across the street from the Cuney Homes. Some dropped balloons or lit religious candles. Others took selfies or dropped roses, their stems crammed into plastic water bottles.
Eva Fulghum, 37, touched Floyd’s likeness, made the sign of the cross, then wiped his face with a small red towel. “Wiping his tears,” she said.
Fulghum said she grew up with Floyd and knew him and his mother well. She said she hopes people will celebrate Floyd as much as mourn him.
“I don’t want people to grieve,” Fulghum said.
Bevan Walker, 50, was bicycling through Houston’s Third Ward Monday morning when he stopped at the mural on Nalle Street. He snapped a photo of it with his phone.
“There’s something special about his life and his family,” Walker said. “His name is going to be synonymous with justice for generations to come.”
An adjoining wall was filled with more than 200 names of people who have died in Houston’s Third Ward, many of them because of street violence.
Crowds began gathering Monday outside the Fountain of Praise church hours before Floyd’s memorial and public viewing. First in line was Jessica and Ricardo Mondragon, who left Austin with their son Lionel, 6, at 5 a.m. because they wanted to show respect for Floyd.
“He created a movement now, and everyone has to come together to show that police brutality is not right,” Jessica Mondragon said. “We all need to come together and be as one community, and we have a common enemy … police brutality.”
Also near the front of the memorial line were Marcus Brooks and Anthony Joubert, who, like Floyd, attended Yates High.
“We’re paying our respects, but there’s no respect for the black man,” Brooks said. “The kids are worried about whether they’ll be the next George Floyd. I’m worried about being the next George Floyd.”
Once inside, mourners staying about 6 feet apart and wearing face coverings streamed past Floyd’s open casket to pay their respects. Some knelt, some nodded a greeting and many bowed their heads before stepping aside. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott bowed his head for more than a minute before the golden casket.
Charlene Rosette drove in from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to attend the viewing. She said Floyd helped change hearts across the U.S.
“It took George Floyd to die on camera,” said Rosette, 55. “But George Floyd changed the world.”
James Teal, a deacon at the Fountain of Praise, lived through the unrest of the 1960s. That, he said, was when America should have met the challenge of racism head on.
“We didn’t heal the problem then, and now the problem is right now,” said Teal, 72, who greeting mourners as they filed in to the church. “This police brutality has to come to an end.”
Teal, a Vietnam veteran who raised five sons, said any one of them could have met a fate similar to that of Floyd. And now he worries about whether the same could be said for his 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“None of us (is) better than anyone else,” Teal said. “God made us all.”
Those close to Floyd turned to their personal memories of his time in Houston. ZsaZsa Floyd, his older sister, remembers Floyd rushing home after his first day at Yates High. As a ninth grader, he made the varsity football team, a squad stacked with some of the best players in the city. A year later, he would co-captain the basketball team, she said.
“He came home yelling, ‘I made it made it! I made varsity!’ ” ZsaZsa said. “He was so excited. His face just lit up.”
Floyd also had a spiritual side, attending church and spreading the gospel, she said. As a young man, he would drop to his knees in the middle of a grocery store, giving glory to God, Zsa Zsa said. “He had a good spirit,” she said.
ZsaZsa said she can’t believe she’ll never hear her brother’s voice or bellowing laugh again but trusts he died for a reason.
“God does a lot of things, but he doesn’t do mistakes,” she said. “He had a mission for my brother.”
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Floyd had several brushes with the law. Starting in 1997, he was arrested on various drug and theft charges, according to Harris County District Court records. In 2009, he went to state prison after pleading guilty to charges of armed aggravated robbery. When he was released in 2013, he returned to the Third Ward, determined to steer youth away from the same decisions that stole so many years from him.
Chris Johnson, a minister at Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, got to know Floyd while hosting twice-a-week outreach programs at Cuney Homes in 2013. Floyd showed up to the meetings every Tuesday and Wednesday at the housing project’s community center and helped Johnson connect with the youth.
Floyd had the double-barrel street cred of being a former student athlete and budding rap artist who rubbed elbows with homegrown artists such as Cal Wayne and Trae tha Truth, Johnson said.
“Just having his presence there really helped solidify things in the neighborhood,” he said. “He helped a lot of conflicted and confused people.”
Eventually, Floyd felt he needed to leave Houston and get a fresh start, Cofield said. He found it when he learned of a minister who was helping troubled Third Ward residents relocate to Minneapolis.
Floyd reveled in his new surroundings. He hung out with Houston friends who had relocated to Minneapolis. He liked how nice people were and enjoyed the pro sports teams the Twin Cities offered, Cofield said.
“He liked Minnesota because it was an opportunity to start over,” she said. “He kept telling me, ‘You have to come out to Minnesota to visit.’ “
Cofield said she hopes people reflect this week on the “gentle giant” that Floyd was and remember he was a brother, dad and friend to many people. Floyd left behind a daughter, Gianna, 6.
One of his dreams, Cofield said, was rereleasing rap tapes he recorded in the 1990s, maybe recruiting some popular rappers to join him. Floyd reminded Cofield – or, “Stiff,” as he called her – of this aspiration during a chat in June 2018.
His goal wasn’t just monetary – he wanted to influence the younger generation with a message of steering away from violence and bettering their lives, Cofield said.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Man, Stiff, I’m going to change the world,’ ” she said. “I didn’t know he meant that literally.”
Wayne, one of the Third Ward’s best-known rappers, was Floyd’s next door neighbor growing up in the Cuney Homes. When Wayne was 12, his mom went to prison and he moved in with Floyd and his mother, sparking a lifelong friendship.
Floyd became Wayne’s earliest supporter, encouraging him to keep rapping and recording. When Wayne landed in prison in 2014 on drug charges, Floyd visited him frequently, urging him to stay humble and retrieving a $20,000 advance owed Wayne from an independent Houston label.
“He really helped me get through it,” said Wayne, who will be one of Floyd’s pallbearers during Houston services this week. “I wish the world knew him the way I knew him.”
Three days before Floyd was killed, Wayne was driving with friends from Houston to Minneapolis to surprise Floyd with a visit. When Floyd didn’t answer his phone, they turned around and headed back to Texas.
Wayne said his heart sinks to think about losing his friend – and the way he died, pleading for breath and his mama. He finds some solace in the protests spreading from Seattle to Sydney.
“Damn, you shook the world, Big Floyd,” he said.
Sheila Masters, Wayne’s mother, said Floyd promised her and his mother to “one day take us out of the hood.” Masters, 59, said she hopes people don’t ease up on protests after Floyd is buried.
“Please don’t stop fighting. Please don’t marching,” said Masters, who wore a “Justice for George Floyd” mask. “Change hasn’t come yet. Change has to start with us.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
Contributing: Chuck Lindell and Jonathan Tilove, Austin American-Statesman and John Moritz, Corpus Christi Caller-Times.