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Spending time with a former Columbus gang member

Last week, I interviewed Muscogee County Recorder’s Court Judge Mary Buckner for a piece that ran Sunday in the Ledger-Enquirer.

Buckner, 68, described growing up in the Dawson Drive area when it was rural and outside city boundaries. That was in the 1950s, before Columbus had a consolidated government.

Buckner said it was like a little village where children grew up with an appreciation for family, education and community.

“Look at all the teachers who knew you,” Buckner said about growing up in a tight-knit black community. “They knew your parents. If you were not performing to the extent that they knew you could, they would report it to your parents.”

Buckner said things are just not what they used to be, and too many children are growing up with no sense of direction. As a judge she sees far too many young black men committing serious crimes, she said, and she finds it very disturbing.

As Buckner spoke, I began to think about Eugene Thomas, who grew up in the same area in the 1980s. By then the community, now known as Northstar Drive, had become an urban neighborhood infiltrated by gangs and drug activity.

Though also from a tight-knit family, Eugene got caught up in the thug lifestyle as a teenager, eventually selling crack on the streets of Columbus. In 1995, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting a man at a drug trap on Winston Road. He spent 21 years in prison for the crime.

Eugene, now 43, was released from prison in 2014. He’s back in Columbus working at Chester’s Barbecue on Veterans Parkway and trying to get his life on track.

I first met Eugene at Project Rebound, a youth empowerment organization, where he is mentored by J. Aleem Hud, a community scholar and organizer.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Eugene over the past few months, documenting his life for a week-long series that will run in the Ledger-Enquirer starting Sunday.

I was accompanied by Ang Li, a videographer who has been working at the newspaper as part of a fellowship program. The series also will appear online as a multimedia package.

The series will walk you through Eugene’s life, from his early years in the Muscogee County school system to his years as a gang member; from his time as a crack dealer to his voluntary manslaughter conviction; from his 21 years in prison to his release two years ago.

As you read the story and watch the videos, you’ll learn not just about Eugene’s life, but also about the beginnings of gangs in Columbus and the impact the crack epidemic had on some Columbus neighborhoods. I hope it also will give you insight into why some young men gravitate to a life of crime.

Much has changed since Mary Buckner grew up in Columbus, and this series gives us an opportunity to explore the reasons why.

So, please, join us on the journey and become a part of the conversation — and don’t forget to share the stories with your friends on social media.

Through Eugene’s story, I hope we can make Columbus a better place to live

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

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