Let a second generation of courage issue forth.
For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people’s pockets and needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own;
For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;
For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
the dark of churches and schools and clubs
and societies, associations and councils and committees and
conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
false prophet and holy believer;
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
rise and take control.
– an excerpt from “For My People” by Margaret Walker
Nine days after a drunk driver rampaged down New Orleans’ Esplanade Avenue, an iconic, oak-lined boulevard that spans from Bayou St. John to the Mississippi River, and terrified a city that had been reveling in Carnival season, hundreds packed the pews of St. Peter Claver, the largest African American Catholic church in Louisiana, to pay tribute to Sharree Rose Walls.
Walls, 27, was one of the two people struck and killed while biking back from the Krewe of Endymion parade; the other was 32-year-old lawyer David Hynes of Seattle. Seven more were injured.
Although Sharree, a transplant from Illinois by way of Pennsylvania, may have not been well-known to the general public, she was widely considered a rising star among civic and nonprofit circles. In a city far too accustomed to tragedy, the news of her death reverberated through New Orleans in a way not experienced since the passing of Deb “Big Red” Cotton, the award-winning writer and cultural ambassador who died in 2017, four years after she was seriously wounded in a mass shooting on Mother’s Day.
Similarly, the impact was of Sharree’s death was felt immediately and viscerally.
The Krewe of Red Beans (in which she served on the board of directors) quickly changed plans for their annual Lundi Gras parade to include a tribute to her. A GoFundMe page was started to provide financial support to her family and loved ones (as of this writing, it has raised $56,300 from 948 donations over the course of six days). A few days ago, hundreds participated in a mass bike ride to celebrate Sharree’s life and legacy and to call attention to the need to address bicycle safety policies and to better protect parade attendees from drunk drivers.
In her eulogy, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell noted of Sharree that “every single day she gave everything she could to New Orleans” and that she “gave selflessly to make the city better.”
Mayor Cantrell was among the many speakers who praised Sharree’s parents for sharing their daughter with the city, and for raising her to be such a remarkable woman. “You raised a woman of grace,” she said, thanking her mother and Sharree’s father, Cardies Walls, on behalf of all the citizens of New Orleans.
“She is a daughter of the City of New Orleans,” the mayor said. Like Sharree, Mayor Cantrell was not born in New Orleans, but both women found their homes here.
State Rep. Royce Duplessis read a resolution he intends on filing with the state House of Representatives, honoring Sharree on behalf of the state of Louisiana.
Sharree’s mother, Lois Benjamin, noted in her remarks at Sharree’s funeral that though she came to New Orleans with the intention of never again returning to the city her daughter died, the outpouring of love from the community was so dramatic that ultimately the family decided to lay Sharree to rest here.
“Sharree was not afraid to shake things talents and positive energy were indicative of her limitless potential; we have all been robbed of her future, as her leadership and contributions made all of New Orleans stronger,” EPNO Board Chair Dr. David Robinson-Morris wrote in his statement on Sharree’s death, currently shared on the EPNO website.
“Mighty, in a gentle way.”
The dramatic show of love that moved Ms. Walls’ family to embrace New Orleans and what it meant to Sharree despite the tragedy that occured on Esplanade Street, was no more than she’d earned. Though her time on earth was short, it was packed with impact. A life well-lived, for, as her cousin Krystal Johnson stated at her funeral, “When she did something, she went hard.”
This quality, combined with her astonishing range of interests lead to a list of accomplishments that is nothing short of extraordinary: she was the first person from her high school to attend an Ivy League university (the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a full scholarship). She studied abroad in Brazil and spoke Portuguese fluently. She was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority (whose members, of all ages, lined up to pay tribute to her at her funeral). She graduated Magna Cum Laude. She moved to New Orleans. She founded and ran Solace Space LLC, an “online home decor company.” She worked at the YMCA of Greater New Orleans.
The list of her activities and accomplishments could go on and on. But ultimately, the volume of the work she did — though it is indeed somewhat mind boggling– is not what filled the pews at her funeral. Rather, it was the light and passion and joy she brought to each and every one of her endeavors that inspired so many to celebrate and honor her.
A statement from her family emailed to the Bayou Brief, notes that “Sharree’s friends remember her as ‘mighty in a gentle way’.” A version of this comment also appears on the program handed out at her funeral. Indeed, such a list of achievement is in and of itself, proof of her mightiness. The evidence of her gentleness is in the deluge of loving tributes that recall her smile, her warmth, her tireless cheerleading for her friends.
The fact that she challenged the status quo, and, leading by example, inspired others to do the same.
Giving, Every Single Day.
Professionally, her last career move was into the role of Executive Director of the Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans (EPNO), an organization committed to, among other things, teaching people to contribute and serve effectively. Her work in this role left “an impact to last a lifetime,” said state Rep. Royce Duplessis. Rep. Duplessis characterized her as a go-giver: a person who is less focused on personal attainment than community impact; who recognizes giving as a “seed we sow.”
Sharree’s decision to take on the challenge of leading EPNO, which before her tenure had been an entirely volunteer-led organization, aligned perfectly with her personal history of civic-minded generosity.
Following her funeral, crowds streamed out of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church on to St. Philip Street for a second line to honor Sharree’s life. Neighbors came out of their homes and construction workers stopped to watch as the horse-drawn carriage carrying her casket rolled by, followed by Mardi Gras Indians and a brass band kicking up noisy, joyful tribute to Sharree, and all she accomplished in the 27 short years of her life.
Additional reporting by Lamar White, Jr.