Honoring Lenny Harris

Honoring Lenny Harris

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

Jubilation filled the city council chamber Saturday after Alexandria’s top elected officials unanimously agreed to rename Braddock Field for slain activist Lenwood “Lenny” Harris.

The room’s usually formal atmosphere gave way to bittersweet joy as friends and family remembered Harris, who championed youth, the city’s minority population and the impoverished. Harris, 53 when he died, was murdered in 2011.

“I think we’ve all heard the kind of tremendous impact this extraordinary man had,” said City Councilor Del Pepper. “I think that the naming of this field is really going to remind people that his spirit does live on, and the kind of person that he was and the kind of dreams that he had for everyone will live on.”

Harris founded Operation Hope (which has become the Lenny Harris Legacy Corp.), a local organization that supported youth programs and ran the annual One Love Festival. The Del Ray family man also was known for tackling contentious community disagreements head on.

Just months before his death, Harris organized a neighborhood get-together after tensions between Chatham Square residents flared up. Reports of lawlessness in the mixed-income community in north Old Town had left the neighborhood’s public housing and minority populations shamed and outraged.

Harris hoped to bring residents of the traditionally black community together with their new neighbors. But in September 2011, Harris hopped into his car and vanished into the night.

His disappearance stumped police and worried family and friends. From the beginning, they believed the longtime activist was in danger.

Though authorities quickly located Harris’ discarded phone and circulated images of a tattooed man attempting to use the activist’s credit card, a big break in the case eluded investigators until January 2012.

That’s when an anonymous tipster led Prince George’s County police to a well situated on a vacant lot at the 11900 block of Old Fort Road. Harris was shot and killed after the abduction, and his assailants later dumped his body.

Three men were quickly charged in connection with the slaying: Linwood Johnson, 49; Tyrone Lewis, 26; and Ivan Newman, 20. A Prince George’s County jury found Lewis guilty last month on a slew of charges, including first-degree murder, robbery and kidnapping. He will be sentenced November 1.

According to prosecutors, the trio hoped to steal enough money to bail out another friend.

But those who knew Harris did not dwell on the circumstances of his death Saturday. Instead, they recalled his legacy and good deeds.

Tony Suggs, a motivational speaker and one-time top boxer, remembered how Harris pulled him out of a downward spiral following the death of his young daughter.

“When I returned home, I was greeted by a bunch of drug dealers, drug users, people to get me high because nobody knew how to deal with a loss or tragedy like that,” Suggs said. “But then I met Lenny, who taught me how to grow up, be a man, to face life’s situations. He was my sponsor, my mentor, my friend — you know — my brother.”

More than honoring Harris, naming the park after the activist will serve as an inspiration to the city’s youth, said his brother, Harold Harris.

“This is much bigger than Lenny, and I think about the youth, especially our black American youth. When they grow up, one of the questions we always ask is what do you aspire to be? And a lot of our black youth do not have any aspirations,” Harold Harris said. “[The] youth that pass this field and see Lenny’s name, they can say, ‘Oh my goodness, I knew him. I can aspire to help someone out like he did.’”

It was a theme others touched upon, including Mayor Bill Euille, who described Lenny Harris as a mentee and mentor in the years they knew each other.

“Lenny certainly had an impact on each and every one of us and will dearly and sorely be missed,” Euille said. “But he left us with something; he left us with an inspiration. He left us with hope. He left us with a desire to continue his legacy — and that’s important.”