By John-John Williams IV
The Baltimore Sun.
Three weeks ago, Toya Graham was a recently unemployed single mother of six and grandmother of one struggling to scrape by in West Baltimore.
Today, she’s the beneficiary of a growing GoFundMe page, and a scholarship fund has been established for her 16-year-old son.
She’s fielding job offers, she said, from BET, Under Armour and St. Joseph’s Hospital.
“I told them all yes,” she said. “I know I can’t work all of those jobs. But, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.”
Graham’s newfound opportunities are the result of one indelible moment: She confronted her son with a barrage of slaps, just as he was poised to throw rocks at police officers by Mondawmin Mall. Captured on video, it was one of the unforgettable scenes from the unrest related to Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man who died as a result of injuries sustained while in police custody.
The clip catapulted her to overnight fame, with whirlwind appearances on almost every major news network and on shows such as “The View.” She even received a call of support from Oprah Winfrey.
The change in fortune brings her to tears.
“It’s really overwhelming,” she said, sitting in a couch in her living room, where framed pictures of her family and religious scripture adorn a glass table atop paneled wood floors. “When you have struggled for so long, you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. It means a lot. … I’m grateful that they heard me say I was struggling.”
But prior to April 27, Graham’s experiences were not atypical for West Baltimore: going to church, getting by, raising her children in a neighborhood that can echo with gunshots. While one daughter aspires to be in uniform, her son resents the police; Graham fears his story ending the same way as Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray.
After moving her family from Park Heights to a larger rowhouse in West Baltimore, the 42-year-old health care worker injured her back on the job; she eventually lost her position as a caregiver. She made ends meet with the help of her significant other and an older daughter. Graham also enlisted the help of social services.
To compound matters, Graham said, past legal trouble kept her from getting new employment.
“If you have any criminal background it is hard to find work,” she said. A court records search showed Graham was charged with second-degree assault in 2002, but the case was dismissed.
The number of people seeking work who have such records in their background is so widespread in Baltimore that last year the City Council passed “Ban the Box” legislation that would force employers to wait until they have extended a conditional job offer before checking an applicant’s criminal history.
Graham declined to elaborate on that history but added that “no one wants to work with anyone with a record. Sure, you can get hired at McDonald’s. But you can’t if you want to work as a nurse or as a caregiver with a criminal background. I’m saying this from experience.”
Even while Graham struggled, she never lost sight of her faith and her family. The youngest of five, she was raised by her parents in a close-knit family in Park Heights.
“Growing up in Baltimore, everyone had a mother and father in the household. Parents were strict. I had to do chores, go to school. We respected elders,” she said.
She was devastated when her mother died in 1996. “It was hard for me,” she said. Her voice lowers to almost a whisper as she describes family gatherings at the gravesite. “We go up there with blankets and talk to her,” she said.
Graham has a “strong connection with the church,” she said. Her faith helps her cope, along with a closeness to her father, who often hosts Sunday fish-fry dinners.
She has served as an usher in Berean Baptist Church, where she has been a member for years, she said. Her daughters have been part of the dance ministry there.
Perhaps it is Graham’s stern background that comes through in the video that shows her hitting and pushing her son while yelling and cursing at him.
The images stirred sharp emotions, drawing praise for Graham as “Mother of the Year,” as well as condemnation for her violence against a child. There were cheers of approval, then a backlash, then a backlash to the backlash.
Graham said she doesn’t want any labels. She just wants to keep her children safe.
“I know I’m not alone out there,” she said. “It’s just that the cameras caught me on TV that day. I was trying to get my son out of a bad situation.”
Graham stands 5 feet 2 inches tall. She’s always been called “shorty,” but her presence is commanding. On the day of the interview, she wore a sparkly “Boss” necklace that accented her black dress.
The way she has handled attention since the video makes her oldest daughter, Tericka Tate, proud.
“People are recognizing what she’s done for me in my 24 years of living,” Tate said. “She’s done the best she could.”
Graham’s father, Robert, echoes the praise.
“She adopted what I was teaching,” the 68-year-old said. “To me, she was raising them in the order I tried to raise them.”
Robert Graham lives in Westport and works laying tile and marble. He does not view what his daughter did as wrong or abusive.
“I was proud of her for catching him from getting into trouble,” he said. “Those were the things I would do to them growing up. I would go to school to check on them.”
Graham has avoided social media and Internet stories about herself.
“People are going to have their opinion,” she acknowledges. She would just rather not read about it.
“I’ve told my girls that if you see anything that is negative about me, don’t tag me or respond,” she said. “I live by the belief that sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
For more than a year, Graham said, she has watched narratives in the deaths of unarmed black youths unfold on television. Her heart ached for the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown.
“It petrifies me to see the different cases on national television,” said Graham, who follows current events closely. “They want answers as to why they don’t have their son.”
Graham didn’t want to become one of those mothers. So when she spotted her son, Michael Singleton, with a rock in hand ready to throw it at police, she jumped into action.
“I wanted to get my son and have him be safe,” she said. “I knew that whole thing was not safe.”
Although she had never known Gray or heard of him before his death, she attended his viewing.
“I was one of those mothers who couldn’t imagine being in that same situation,” she said. “I don’t know him, the mother or no one in the family. But as a mother I thought I should pay my respect.”
Despite the harsh realities of Baltimore, she remains unwavering in her loyalty to her city. Graham lives in a red-brick rowhouse surrounded by boarded-up homes in the Edmondson/Poplar Grove neighborhood. The issues that converged in the Gray case are what she sees “on a daily basis.”
Of the protests, she said, “People just need to understand that we were fed up.”
Shootings are a regular occurrence here, according to Graham. Nearby gunshots disrupted a recent evening.
“Last night, when my daughter was doing my hair, I heard gunshots so I pushed her to the ground,” she recalled. “You don’t know where it is going to wind up.”
That’s why she is determined to keep Michael safe.
“He always wants to be out there with his friends,” she said. “He doesn’t see what I see. He’s mad because I keep him in.”
Since the video, Graham has been even more protective.
“He hasn’t really been out of my sight since this incident,” she said. “It’s best to keep him with me. Everybody who knows me, knows I always have my children with me. I like to know they are OK.”
Life for Michael, a student at Excel Academy at Frances M. Wood High School in Baltimore, has been shifting back to normal since the video aired in late April.
Graham said classmates haven’t teased him about the video, which has garnered more than 8 million views on YouTube alone. In fact, they have reacted with admiration.
“They’ve said: ‘Michael, you are lucky you had a mom like that. She came out there to get you,'” said Graham, who declined to allow her son to be interviewed by The Sun.
The two had a lengthy talk after the incident.
“I pretty much asked him: What was he thinking?” Graham said. “He has a lot of anger for what the police have done to his friends. But two wrongs don’t make a right.”
The message appears to have stuck. In an interview with ABC’s “World News Tonight,” Michael said: “I understand how much my mother really cares about me, so I’m just gonna try and do better.”
Graham and her son discussed his older sister, Tate, an aspiring police officer who lives in Park Heights.
“I told him that could have been his sister,” Graham said. “I asked, ‘How would you feel if they did that to her?'”
Michael and his sister also talked.
“I told him, ‘That is my job. I could have been there.’ He said he didn’t think of it that way,” Tate said. “He understood and thought about it. He said he wouldn’t want anyone hurting me.”
While Graham said support has been overwhelming since release of the video, she was still “shocked” to receive a call from Oprah Winfrey.
“She said she understood why I was there,” said Graham, who talked with Winfrey for about 45 minutes. “She said, as a mother, she would do the same thing.'”
In addition to drawing high-profile names and more than $12,000 in donations on GoFundMe, the video has helped Graham connect to several local employers, including St. Joseph’s Hospital in Towson.
“Like many in our community, we were saddened by the events in Baltimore City,” said a hospital spokeswoman. “When we saw Ms. Graham’s story and learned that she was a recently unemployed health care worker, we reached out to see if we could help.”
The hospital said it was working out details of a potential position; when asked about Graham’s background, a spokeswoman said “all offers are contingent on background checks and evaluation of any findings.”
Under Armour also reached out to Graham.
“After hearing the story of Toya Graham and seeing her courageous act of tough love … we have discussed potential opportunities with her at Under Armour,” said Danielle Cavalli Daly, senior manager, global communications and entertainment.
She has gone to New York for appearances on shows such as “The View” and “CBS This Morning.”
Graham said, she has been deeply touched by the outpouring of support and praise.
“I don’t feel that I am a hero mom,” she said. “It’s just me and my children. To see my son in that same predicament, I had to get out there and do something. I see myself as a regular mom who had to get out there to protect my child.”