A new mural for a child starved to death in a basement in 1997, and a second chance for her brother | Helen Ubiñas
“May this peaceful sanctuary create joy out of tragedy, and remind us to care for one another as a community," the sign read.
The small group huddled under a canopy that was beginning to leak from the heavy rain.
The official mural dedication had been rescheduled to another week after every weather report consulted by organizers from Mural Arts Philadelphia showed it was going to pour. But when they learned how much the guest of honor had been looking forward to the day, they decided to proceed with a smaller, soggier, more personal unveiling.
And there weren’t many others for whom the garden mural at the corner of 30th and Harper Streets was more personal than for Dante Hailey.
Hailey and his sister Charnae Wise were starved by their drug-addicted mother in the basement of a rowhouse just around the corner.
He was 7, Charnae was only 5 when she died in 1997. Their mother told Hailey to put a bag over her dead body, and left her under the basement stairs. Police found her remains about a month later, alongside a plastic blue barrette.
Their mother was arrested and sentenced to 28 to 56 years behind bars.
A mural was erected in Charnae’s honor shortly after she died, an image of her sucking a pacifier drawn from the only photo retrievable from the house.
Hailey, now 29, was fostered and then adopted along with two younger sisters by a loving Montgomery County couple.
Still, he struggled and spent most of his 20s in and out of prison for robbery and drug dealing.
And then in August, fresh from his latest release from a 3½-year stint for gun possession, he read my column about neighbors debating how to replace the fading garden mural bearing his sister’s likeness. When a new design didn’t seem to include preserving her image, neighbor Ancestor Goldsky complained. He and his family lived in the Fairmount house where Charnae was murdered, and for years they had answered unannounced knocks on his door from other siblings who came to remember and pay tribute to their sister. He was worried, and angry: What was he going to tell them when they returned and their sister’s image was gone?
Dante was surprised, and touched, that people still cared about his family.
His adoptive father had brought him and his sisters by the old mural years ago. There are pictures of them there, but he barely remembers the trip.
His visit on Tuesday, though, he won’t soon forget. After more discussions between neighbors, the artist and Mural Arts, Charnae’s likeness was returned to the mural on a parachute cloth permanently affixed to the wall. The words Charnae Wise Memorial Gardens are written across a colorful background. A large sign with the same photo from the wall would be placed near the fence: “May this peaceful sanctuary create joy out of tragedy, and remind us to care for one another as a community," it reads.
Representatives from Mural Arts and a few neighbors — some who returned for the gathering after long moving away — toasted the mural and Dante, the little boy they remembered, the man they were now rooting for.
“You’re a model of grit and resilience, and you’re an inspiration,” said Jane Golden, executive director for Mural Arts.
Hailey was honored.
“It’s beautiful,” he said, promising that he’d prepare a longer speech for the official dedication scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 29. Charnae’s image might not be as prominent as it was in the old mural, but between the new image, and the sign, Hailey was happy.
He apologized for being late. Turns out, it had been a busy day, he later confided.
He and his mom, Sybil Hailey, had been in Harrisburg meeting with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Brandon Flood, secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.
Fetterman, a staunch advocate of second chances as the chair of the board, had read about Hailey, and wanted to help him get one.
At the meeting, they talked about Hailey’s life, his criminal record, and his plans for the future. When Flood asked him what he wanted to do as a career, Hailey told him that with his record, he hadn’t considered one. That resonated with Flood, who, like Hailey, spent years in state prison on drug dealing and weapons charges.
A fledgling mentorship was sparked. They’ve started talking about the process of applying for a pardon. There’s also talk of a possible internship.
Hailey could not stop smiling as he relayed the details of the visit, his eyes fixed on the mural as he spoke.
“It’s a fresh start.”