The transition of Sen. Jamilah Nasheed: From an unconventional childhood to holding an elected office — part one of two
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — While picking at a plate of fruit and moving around a few bills and amendments stacked on her desk, she said, “I have a very nonconventional background.”
A Democratic state Senator from St. Louis City, conventional has just never been Jamilah Nasheed’s forte, but she is alright with that.
From growing up in the projects of south St. Louis City, where she was a member of a small, self-proclaimed gang, to days of being an activist and shutting down an interstate, Jamilah’s life story before her time as an elected official exceeds that of most people in her position.
Now, she continues to fight for urban development, education and other issues that hit close to home for her as a high school push-out — not drop out, she emphasizes — but now she does so with legislation.
A former self-proclaimed “politician maker,” she now sits in her Senate office with a pin on her lapel, willing to share the story about her transition from the projects to the Capitol.
A brief, interrupted childhood
Jenise “Niecy” Williams — Jamilah’s name before she changed it as an adult for religious purposes after converting to Islam — had it rough straight out of the gate. At a young age, she saw the reality of the drug and gang life growing up in the projects, which included seeing a dead body—not the childhood memories that most of her fellow legislators might have.
“I moved [into the projects] with my grandmother and my siblings because at the tender age of 25, my mother fell into a deep stage of depression,” Jamilah recalled. “She fell into a deep depression because of my father.”
Getting up from her desk, Jamilah opened the window of her Senate office to cool herself off and to calm down, all the while muttering how she did not think she’d still get so upset by retelling this story.
After “escaping” the Vietnam War, her father was killed in a drive-by shooting while gambling near the Pruitt-Igoe, a housing development downtown that was later demolished in the late 1960’s. The untimely death of her father happened while her mother was still pregnant with her and her twin brother.
Her mother’s depression worsened and she ultimately committed suicide shortly after the twins were born. Jamilah was about two years old when her mother came home from her nursing class and asked her older son to bring her purse to the bathroom. There, after her son went outside to play, she shot herself in the stomach while lying in the bathtub.
“She lived for two days in the hospital after that,” Jamilah explained. “Rumor has it she didn’t want to live and kept trying to pull the plug on herself.”
Their grandmother, Evelyn Williams, who lived in the Darst-Webbe housing projects in south St. Louis City, took in Jamilah and her three brothers. The family subsisted on government assistance programs. The Darst-Webbe housing projects included five brick buildings, each with nine floors and four or five apartments on each “porch,” or floor. There was no landscape, just dirt where grass should be. Everyone in the projects lived below the poverty level, Jamilah said. It was 1980, and, according to the U.S. Census, the federal poverty level at that time for a four-person home was less than $8,500.
“Living in the Darst-Webbe housing projects, many people really believed that you were doomed to fail,” Jamilah said.
In passing, without dwelling too long on the memory, Jamilah mentioned that two of her three brothers fell “victim to their environment.” The third — her twin, Jason — found “a way out” through football, graduating high school and going onto college on a scholarship to the University of Tennessee — Knoxville.
Currently a school administrator in St. Louis, the two remain close. Jason recalled when he and his sister were young and witnessing things that a lot of adults will never see.
Jamilah described herself when she was younger as disturbed.
“Imagine growing up in a world where you’re motherless and fatherless,” she said. “I didn’t realize I was without a mother and a father until I was 8 or 9 [years old], when all my friends called on their mom and dad and I called on my grandmother.”
Jamilah said she remembers that situation finally triggering anger and leaving her feeling abandoned, especially after having a conversation with her grandmother about both her parents being gone.
“I took it out not only on myself in terms of my destructive behavior, but I took it out on society,” she said. “I was very, very ruthless. I didn’t believe in God. You never want to run across anyone that doesn’t think they have anything to live for. You don’t want to run across a kid like that.”
Grudges, gangs and growing up
Jamilah became part of a gang called ‘Eal-Control’ at age 12. It was her and 11 other girls who spent all of their time together, dressing alike and fighting together to protect their turf: the Darst-Webbe housing projects.
“Fighting was a big thing for us girls in the projects,” Jamilah said with a slight shrug. “We didn’t have anything else to do, so we’d go around and wreak havoc.”
The group never got into vandalism, she said, but was just “a tough group of girls” who wanted to prove to other teenagers that they would protect their turf.
Life moved more quickly for Jamilah than for most teenagers. And at this point in her life, not believing in God or having respect for authority got to be too much. The only people the girls had to look up to in the projects were drug dealers or women who used their paychecks to take care of themselves, buying expensive clothes and looking nice first before feeding their children.
Soon, the 13-year-old “Niecey” Williams stabbed another girl her own age at a downtown recreation center one night — a stand-off between “Eal-Control” and girls from the Peabody housing projects.
The turf war with girls who lived just across the street from one another had reached a tipping point. When both groups showed up at the recreation center, it boiled over into a brawl. Jamilah remembers the girl hitting her in the neck with an iron bat, and, in retaliation, she stabbed the girl in the chest, just inches from her heart.
Jamilah said she has long-since apologized to the woman, but keeps the court summons from her arrest — a reminder of how far she’s come.
She characterizes the stabbing as “what I was supposed to do” at the time, describing how each gang member had a role and a weapon ranging from brass knuckles to baseball bats.
“It was just bad,” she recalled. “I’m not glamorizing this or bragging about this. I really played the cards that was dealt to me in the projects.”
With a few decades separating Jamilah from that point in her life, she described part of the problem for her and the other girls as having never seen anything outside of the projects. There were no trips to Six Flags or to the Zoo — nothing to take away the negative energy or the chance to turn it into something positive.
Jamilah spent a week or so in juvenile detention for the stabbing, which would be the first of two stays in the detention center — the other for fighting. Her actions concerned the authorities, who wanted to take her away from her grandmother. Jamilah remembers her grandmother pleading with the state social workers, vowing that her granddaughter was “going to get better.”
The then 13-year-old Jamilah was referred to a psychiatrist by a juvenile court order. She recalled him coming to her home twice. She refused to speak to him the first time. But then he came again.
“I basically looked at him while he was asking me all these questions and I started asking him questions,” she said, laughing before turning serious again. “I asked him: Have you ever lived in the projects? Have you ever seen a dead body with eyes rolling around in its head? Have you ever been really hungry and gone from house to house asking for bread and sugar to make sugar bread? I said, ‘look, my mind is sharp. You will never be able to understand what I am going through if you’ve never walked in my shoes.’”
He never came back.
“I felt bad for my grandmother,” she recalled. “She was just an old lady and I was running all over her. She felt sorry for me because I didn’t have a mother or a father, and I took advantage of her. But she really tried her best.”
The Darst-Webbe housing projects had a “three strikes, you’re out” protocol for residents who got into trouble. Jamilah said she reached that point somewhere between 13 and 14 years old. The landlord, however, proposed a solution to the family: If Jamilah could get a set amount of signatures from the building residents who supported the family staying, they could.
“Maybe that’s where I started my political career,” she said, smiling, remembering how she then went from door to door collecting support to match the landlord’s deal.
A few weeks later, she got in trouble for fighting again.
“They put my grandmother’s stuff on the street and I just felt so bad.”
The family was never able to return to Darst-Webbe, and was forced to move further south in the city to a two-family flat rental property, a slight step in a better direction than their former home.
Now, Jamilah’s grandmother, Evelyn Williams, is a few months shy of 90 years old. She lives on her own and Jamilah takes care of her weekly shopping. For Jamilah, some moments from the past have become blurry. But Williams remembers that her granddaughter as a child “always had to be the queen.”
“Why didn’t you give me up when I was acting so bad?” Jamilah asked her grandmother.
“I never put anybody in no orphan home,” Williams insists. “I tried to keep you all together. I didn’t think you were supposed to be in no orphan home and I never did approve of it.”
Williams said she remembers Jamilah’s gang involvement.
“There was a little heartache,” she said recalling the past, describing how Jamilah used to “cry all the time.”
Jamilah admits that although some memories remain blurry, she thinks her grandmother has come to understand what was behind her childhood anger and bitter resentment.
“I gave my grandmother hell,” Jamilah said. “I’m just so happy she’s still alive and was able to see the transformation of Jamilah from the dark side of the street to the light.”
School, religion and the light at the end of the tunnel
Jamilah remembers a change brewing when she was still in her pre-high school years. After a neighborhood heroin distributor and user approached her gang and asked if they knew they were “playing with someone’s religion,” she recalls being curious. She listened with curiosity as he explained the relationship between “Eal-Control” and the Moors Temple to the girls, giving Jamilah a pamphlet that made an impression on her, though she still can’t explain why.
The pamphlet asked simply worded questions with heavily weighted results, such as “Who made you? …God.” “Where’s the nearest place you can find him? … the heart.”
“I started reading this pamphlet and was very intrigued by it to the extent where it didn’t stop me from being a bad kid, but it was planting the seed,” she said. “I came into the consciousness that there’s a God, even though I was still doing crazy things.”
“They promoted self-love and cleanliness,” she recalls.
After a while, Jamilah said the people in the projects who were interested in hearing the group’s message would start to clean up in preparation for their arrival each week.
“We’d put down our drinks — I drank 40 ounces, like Colt 45 — and we’d wait to hear the message,” Jamilah. “They’d tell us just because you live in the ghetto doesn’t mean you have to have the mentality of the ghetto. I started to learn how to love myself.”
The Nation of Islam enabled religion to become a growing idea for Jamilah. As high school dawned, she said she began to develop self-love and self-worth, but at the expense of her regular schooling.
After lunch most days, Jamilah said she would skip out of the side door of Roosevelt High School, since school wasn’t “intriguing” to her anymore. Instead of going home or causing trouble, she headed to a bookstore in the Delmar Loop called “Progressive Emporium.”
“I started falling too far behind in credits because I would literally leave school and go to the bookstore and just read books, all day,” she said, remembering her turn away from high school classes to the teachings of Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and Malcolm X and Na’im Akbar. “All of these different authors intrigued me.”
She said she was never able to pinpoint why these authors in particular struck her, but remembers finding the shared values of self-love promoted by Marcus Garvey and the Nation of Islam to be something she could draw a connection with. Na’im Akbar, her favorite author, was always interesting to her because of his exploration of the mind.
By this point, Jamilah was being pushed out of the St. Louis Public School District after falling so far behind on credits.
“While a lot of people probably thought I dropped out, I was pushed out,” she insisted. “And that’s what’s happening to many of the kids today.”
That experience motivated her to make education her top priority once she became an activist and an elected official. She said she remains concerned about those students still being pushed out of public schools — those who don’t have the proper support or motivation. Before being elected, Jamilah helped found a program that still stands today which helps to bring public school students back to the classroom to get their diploma.
Another prompt in her transformation happened over gambling and drinking, once she started attending a mosque on Grand Avenue.
“Then, I made a 180, not a 360,” she said. “I just stopped doing everything all of a sudden. Everything.”
Jamilah was empowered to improve her life.
Using her passion for books and the help of her Islam brothers, Jamilah, just shy of 18 years old, opened a bookstore. And the transformation continued.
This is part one of a two-part feature on Sen. Jamilah Nasheed’s life. Part two will encompass her time as a bookstore owner, an activist and her political career. Part two will publish in the May 13 issue of The Missouri Times.
To contact Ashley Jost, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter at @ajost.
Ashley Jost is no longer with The Missouri Times. She worked as the executive editor for several months, and a reporter before that.