David Fattah Sr., 75, a community activist who with his wife, Falaka, created the House of Umoja Inc. to try to end gang violence in their West Philadelphia neighborhood, died Wednesday, Dec. 5, of cardiac arrest at Lankenau Medical Center.
Mr. Fattah, father of former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and grandfather of Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr., was a groundbreaking community builder whose blueprint for brokering peace among gangs attracted the attention of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.
In 1968, when David and Falaka Fattah learned that their second son was a gang member, they invited the gang to move into their rowhouse in the 1400 block of North Frazier Street, and 15 members accepted.
Over the next 50 years, Mr. Fattah acted as outreach worker and patriarch, guiding Umoja’s residents from gang warriors to lives as productive citizens.
What began as a communal living arrangement with 23 people grew to encompass a social contract with firm rules of behavior, a magazine business, and, gradually, most of the houses on the block.
Named for a Swahili word meaning “unity,” the House of Umoja remained unlocked at night. “Often, we would wake up in the morning with another member,” Falaka Fattah said. “We had a sanctuary. Gang members came from all over the city. They were able to cross the boundaries of the local gang.”
Slowly, street tensions eased, and on Jan. 1, 1974, the leaders of 32 street gangs from across the city signed a peace pact authored by Mr. Fattah. Gang-related deaths dropped sharply until 1977, when only one was reported in Philadelphia.
As the blueprint caught on, the House of Umoja earned national and international acclaim for designing and implementing a way to “address many of the key challenges which prevent boys and adolescent males from reaching their full potential,” his wife said.
City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. spent time in his youth at the House of Umoja, where Mr. Fattah was his mentor. Jones compared living in the 1400 block of North Frazier to being in a neutral zone, “like Switzerland.”
“You were not allowed to take out your frustrations on anybody,” Jones said. “That gave you time to talk things out. The Fattahs would feed you first. It’s hard to be antagonistic with a full belly. After they had taken you down a couple of notches, they would introduce the subject matter at hand.
“If people got riled up, they would talk softer and softer, and you’d have to lower your tone to hear them.”
Jones said each Umoja resident was given an African name. His was Majid, which means “teacher” in Swahili. “With that name came a charge – to make the community better than when you found it. Basically, you had to live up to your African name,” Jones said.
Jean Waites-Howard, a Howard University professor and longtime friend of the Fattah family, said Mr. Fattah’s organizing efforts made a big difference in the lives of many young men.
“The House of Umoja was a tremendous support to redirecting vulnerable youth involved in gang activity,” she said.
Mr. Fattah was born David Waters in Philadelphia. When he and Falaka married in 1968, they discarded what they saw as their “slave names” for the surname Fattah, which means “revealer” in Swahili.
He graduated from West Philadelphia High School and over the years earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Temple University and dual master’s degrees in education and administration from Cheyney University. At 75, he was studying for a Ph.D.
Mr. Fattah worked under contract with the Philadelphia School District’s Office of Climate and Safety. He led the House of Umoja’s 20-member safety and support team. He created programs and provided crisis intervention to keep the peace in 15 public schools, many in West Philadelphia.
At times, this meant going into jails to interview gang members. Sometimes, it demanded razzle-dazzle tactics. In one such case, as feuding members of two street gangs faced off, Mr. Fattah swooped in, driving a beat-up police cruiser he had acquired at auction. He sprang from the car and got between the gangs.
“Do not come across that street,” Jones recalled him shouting. Then Mr. Fattah began shuttle diplomacy, going from gang members on one corner to another. “What he was able to do was not only defuse the situation, he may have saved lives that night,” Jones said.
While running the nonprofit House of Umoja and doing crisis intervention, Mr. Fattah also taught special education and coordinated the Saturday Community School for several years. He retired from the Philadelphia School District in 2003.
In 2007, Mr. Fattah was chosen to organize the National Million Father March in Philadelphia under the umbrella of the House of Umoja. Philadelphia became one of 600 cities nationwide to have fathers escorting their children on the first day of school and staying in touch with their teachers.
Chaka Fattah is serving a decade-long prison term after his conviction for diverting federal grant funds, charitable donations, and campaign cash to pay off his personal and political debts. Chaka Fattah Jr., who worked for a company that ran alternative schools with federal funds from the Philadelphia School District, was convicted in 2015 on bank and tax-fraud charges, and is serving a five-year prison term.
In addition to his son, grandson, and wife of 50 years, Mr. Fattah is survived by sons Stefan, Hassan, and David Jr.; three sisters; 12 grandchildren; 21 great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandchild. Sons Jusari and Nasser died earlier. All six sons are the biological children of Russell Davenport, Falaka Fattah’s former husband.