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Falaka Fattah to be honored as a force against youth violence in Philadelphia

When Falaka Fattah was a teen growing up in South Philadelphia, she said she once told her mother she wanted to be a missionary abroad.

Falaka Fattah, a founder of the House of Umoja, who helped end the gang warfare in the 1970s, marks her 80th birthday. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)
Falaka Fattah, a founder of the House of Umoja, who helped end the gang warfare in the 1970s, marks her 80th birthday. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)Read more

When Falaka Fattah was a teen growing up in South Philadelphia, she said she once told her mother she wanted to be a missionary abroad.

"I was religiously inclined," said Fattah, who with her husband, has operated the House of Umoja, an "urban boys town" in West Philadelphia for more than four decades, noting that her grandfather had been an Episcopal priest.

"I told her that I wanted to go off to some foreign lands," Fattah recalled. "It was one of the only times I saw my mother angry. She said 'Look, you don't have to go anywhere if you want to do something to help people. You can help people right where you are.' "

"That was wisdom," Fattah said of her mother's comments.

Through their work at the House of Umoja, Fattah and her husband, David Fattah, have helped guide more than 3,000 teen boys through the dangers and vagaries of adolescence and into productive adulthood during nearly 43 years.

Today, Fattah will be honored on her 80th birthday with a "Celebration of Courage, Commitment, and Compassion" in the Mayor's Reception Room at City Hall.

Fattah, with her husband, is credited with helping to end the scourge of youth gang violence that gripped the city in the early 1970s.

"She has been an extraordinary figure in the life of Philadelphia for decades," said her son, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.

"The thing that people haven't noticed as much is that for more than four decades, she's been over there in West Philadelphia helping to raise young men, literally thousands of young men who call her 'Mom,' not as a matter of courtesy, but as a true statement that she has been a mother, and my dad, a father, to thousands of young men who needed a home," Fattah said.

In 1973, 43 of the city's homicides were linked to gang warfare. The next year, 33 youths died in killings labeled gang-related.

A year later, the House of Umoja (Swahili for unity) held a Gang Peace Summit, inviting hundreds of gang members. That year, 30 gangs agreed to a truce. In 1975, the House of Umoja reported a sharp drop in gang violence citywide.

The House of Umoja received state, federal, and private funding.

Before working to help at-risk youth, Fattah had been a journalist, writing for the Philadelphia Tribune. She also did public relations for entertainers, including soul crooners Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.

Fattah, then known as Frankie Davenport, went on tour with Redding in 1967. When the tour went to Harlem's Apollo Theater, she decided to come home to Philadelphia and catch up with the tour later.

"During that course of time, Otis was killed in a plane crash," Fattah said. "It shook me up terribly."

While attending the National Conference of Black Power at North Philadelphia's Church of the Advocate in 1968, Fattah was "drafted" to examine the image of African Americans. Under a conference resolution, she published Umoja Magazine.

"Readers wrote letters to me trying to find out why was it that in this city that children killed each other," Fattah said.

She said she asked her husband "to do some background checking and tell me what the problem was about. He came home and told me that one of my six sons, Robin, was a gang member. That's when things changed."

Fattah said she learned that her son's gang was fighting two other gangs. She said the three gangs had a total of more than 500 members.

"I was thorough," Fattah said. "I just wanted to find out who was responsible. I said 'I'm the one responsible for my child. What am I going to do?' That's the birth of what people now know as the House of Umoja. That's when I invited Robin's gang to live with us. I just needed to understand what it was about."

She said that Robin, a former construction worker, is disabled after suffering a stroke about five years ago. He is living in West Philadelphia, raising his four children. Fattah said Robin did much of the construction work on the House of Umoja.

She estimates that more than 3,000 boys came to live at the House of Umoja over the years, which grew to a string of rowhouses on Frazier Street at Master Street.

The House of Umoja ended its residential program in 2010, Fattah said. This summer, the group started what it calls a Peace Garden in the 1400 block of Frazier Street. At-risk youth cultivated the garden, which yielded an abundance of vegetables, in a program that aims to help teens turn away from violence and crime. Fattah said the garden program will be expanded next year.

One of the early residents of House of Umoja was Fourth District City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who is the host of the celebration at City Hall.

Jones said Fattah was "the spearhead of a movement that recognized that Philadelphia actually had a gang problem."

Asked if he had been a gangbanger, Jones laughed and said, "I thought I was. I wasn't very good at it."

Jones, who lived at the House of Umoja in 1974, said Fattah, "in an effort to save her own children, wound up saving hundreds of us, if not more.

"She opened her home up and taught us family values of treating others as brothers as opposed to combatants," Jones said.

Mayor Nutter, who grew up in West Philadelphia, hailed Fattah as a force against violence in the city.

"Queen Mother Falaka Fattah has individually saved more lives of young men in this city than possibly any other person over the last 40 plus years," Nutter said.

"She along with many others helped to end gang-war violence and killings in this city when I was a teenager and has continued on that mission ever since."