In June 1968, two months after his death, the Francisville community of North Philadelphia named what they boast to be the world’s first monument for Martin Luther King, Jr.
In June 1968, Fred Sneed, who now works for Temple’s facilities management, was a member of the Morrocco’s, a dangerous part of a growing gang community in Philadelphia.
It has made all the difference.
Sneed was born in South Philadelphia in early 1954. He lived with his grandmother, either five or 5 million miles away from his mother in North Philadelphia, depending on whether you were trying to get there by car or by hope. He started young, giving a gun to a friend who killed a rival in 1968. A boy needs to be with his mother, they said. So, Sneed moved north and transferred to Ben Franklin. He ran with a fast crowd based around 18th and Ridge.
“The school wasn’t in our neighborhood,” Sneed said. “We got together to chase out the gangs that were already there, just so we could get there.” He wasn’t yet 15.
Between 1969 and 1985, Sneed never spent more than two years outside of lockup.
“The penitentiary saved me,” Sneed said. “I would have gotten AIDS, I would have been killed, I would have been a beggar, a bum, hopeless.”
Sneed was released in the fall of 1985 and found himself a thirty-something, unemployed ex-convict ambling the streets of Philadelphia. Drugs began infiltrating his life. Addiction came swiftly. Sneed was strung out on crack and heroine by 1987, a trend that continued throughout the decade.
REFORM IN TRAGEDY
Fred Sneed has seen more than his 53 years could ever tell.
Emotion doesn’t seem to register when he talks about the past. He speaks as if he never really met that young black boy who was too scared to be anything but tough, who was too scared to be anything but violent. Too scared to be anything but fearless.
Everyone grows up sometime.
In the early 1990s, his mother wasn’t faring well. Neither was he. She was dying of cancer in a bed somewhere. He was looking for a fix anywhere.
“I wouldn’t let my mother die thinking that her son was a failure,” Sneed said.
They say you have to find rock bottom before you can beat addiction. Watching the insides of your mother be eaten away by cancer and age and poverty and the sight of her son’s devolution into a criminal hooked on crack and recidivism can have a way of motivating you. He found a program. When it closed, he found another. Addiction never was much of a match for his pride and love. He just didn’t know it until then. She died in October 1993. He started living not long after.
Francisville is an old community that formed as a stopover on the Ridge route from the city to the mills and factories of East Falls. There isn’t any industry left in East Falls, and Francisville lost much of its professional population to the suburbs.
“The drug dealers became the leaders,” Sneed said.
He’s going to change all that.
After getting his job at Temple a month before his mother’s passing, Sneed changed everything.
Now as president of the Francisville Neighborhood Civic Association, Sneed does a lot of work through the Police Athletic League on 17th above Fairmount. His neighborhood group has established a successful homework club and is trying to better unite the community.
“Development is coming, which is great,” Sneed said. “We just want to manage it to keep our community.”
Now he is leading a push for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, at 18th and Poplar, in Francisville to be named a national monument. An issue that might not have been much interest to him 40 years ago.
“I changed my condition,” Sneed said. “A lot of other people are not doing their day job for human life.”
Sneed talks sensibly, which shows just how impractical his vision must seem to some. He’s just another reformed gangster trying to change the world.
“God put us here to service each other,” Sneed will tell you a hundred times if you let him. “I’m just doing my part.”
Christopher Wink can be reached at email@example.com.