When Tracy Wilson Mourning was booked last year on a drunken-driving charge, she insisted on one thing: to be in the same cell as the other women spending the night at the Dade County Jail.
“They wanted to put me by myself, and I said, ‘No! That’s going to defeat the purpose of why I believe I am here,” said Mourning, the wife of former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning and founder of Honey Shine, the mentoring program that has transformed the lives of hundreds of girls since she created it 14 years ago.
Mourning is “so fine” with talking about what happened that night, she said recently over lunch, wearing her trademark straw fedora banded with an island-blue scarf. It was 3:53 a.m. Feb. 8, 2013, when a Miami-Dade police officer caught her 2010 Porsche Panamera speeding near Old Cutler Road and San Servando Avenue, just off the Cocoplum Circle (48 mph in a 20 mph zone, according to the police report). She was arrested and charged with DUI, handcuffed, and transported in the back seat of the squad car to the jail, near Jackson Memorial Hospital. (Prosecutors eventually dropped the charge and reduced it to a careless driving citation.)
To Mourning, God led her to that jail cell.
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“I said to the arresting officer, ‘You and I may not agree on why I’m here, but let’s agree that when two or more come together in a name that’s bigger than yourself — let’s agree that whatever I learn from this I’m going to share, and I’m going to teach.”
Indeed, she has.
Mourning has gotten involved with LEAP (Ladies Empowerment and Action Program), a 5-year-old program that teaches women at the Homestead Correctional Institution how to start a business, seek employment and develop skills so they can succeed when they leave the prison walls behind. She has met with the women, donated $1,000 to seed an entrepreneurship fund and has even brought her 81-year-old mom, Hannah Jean Wilson, to talk to the prisoners. And she will be the keynote speaker on May 29 when 12 women will graduate. (All told, 75 women have graduated, with only one of them returning to prison.)
“The ladies love her,” said Gemma Betancourt, who co-founded LEAP five years ago with two others after working in the international prison ministry program, Kairos. “She talked a lot about overcoming obstacles; she shared her own experiences. The ladies are always very inspired by her stories. Many of them can identify with some of the situations that Tracy described.”
One of those situations Mourning openly talks about is the difficulty her mother had when she decided to marry a black man, Mourning’s father, as a white woman in the early 1960s. Her mother lived in Kentucky. She met Herman Wilson at the General Electric plant in Cincinnati, where they both worked. Her mother had divorced her first husband, who was white and abusive, and had custody of their three children, two girls and a boy — Judy, 14, Donna, 12, and Charles, 7.
When her first husband learned she had married a black man, he sued her for custody. In 1964, in Kentucky, it was illegal for a white woman to marry a black man. She lost her children.
“And the judge says — and I have the court papers that say it — 20 years from now, it is not going to matter,” Mourning says of the judge’s decision. (An article in Jet magazine in 1964, headlined “Court Takes Children Because Mom Married Negro,’’ quotes the judge as saying, “The pressures that are exerted on these children are enormous. These are pressures our society rightly or wrongly puts upon a relationship such as this.”)
The judge granted custody of the three children to the father, who promptly stood up and told him: “I don’t want ’em, I just don’t want her to have ’em,” Mourning said. Wilson’s parents offered the judge and their daughter a deal, Mourning said: “We’ll take them if you get rid of the one you’re carrying. Then you can have them back.”
Wilson, who confirmed her daughter’s story, didn’t end the pregnancy. Mourning’s sister, Lisa, was born in January 1965. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law prohibiting interracial marriages, in effect nullifying all such laws. In 1970, Tracy was born.
“Nana,” as Wilson is known, has carried the pain of that court decision for 50 years. When her only son, Charles, died in a motorcycle accident on April 13, 2001, Tracy saw her mother cry for the first time.
“I said, ‘Mommy, I have never seen you cry.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘That Christmas, when I lost the kids, I left every tear I had on that Christmas tree.’
By 1971, Wilson moved to Perrine to follow her husband, who wanted to start a mortuary school. Shortly after they moved here, however, he left, leaving her with two girls — Lisa, 6, and Tracy, 1. He returned after four weeks but wasn’t exactly welcomed: “I told him he had no home to come to anymore,” Wilson said.
A single mom, Wilson got a job as a corrections officer at the Dade County Jail and on weekends worked for Walker’s Funeral Home, which had funeral homes in Liberty City and Goulds in South Miami-Dade.
In Goulds, Wilson met Annie Lou Johnson, a beloved babysitter who cared for many of the neighborhood children while their parents worked. Lisa and Tracy would stay with “Miss Annie Lou” during the week and with their mother and stepsister, Donna, now 19, on the weekends.
In Goulds, Tracy picked mangoes, played hide-and-go-seek and learned to shoot dice at the pool hall across the street. She went to Goulds Elementary. One Friday afternoon, Wilson stopped by the school to pick up Tracy, then in the first grade. She watched the teacher, who was white, give the papers back to the children, who were primarily black.
“She would call their names, hold out the paper, and let them flutter to the floor. The kids would scramble for them, like she was tossing candy at Halloween.
“That’s when I said, ‘I’m outta here.’ There was no respect.”
Wilson returned to Cincinnati with her two daughters. In 1980, they moved to Las Vegas to care for Donna, who was recovering from cancer. In Las Vegas, Tracy met Alonzo, who was playing in the Las Vegas Desert Classic, a basketball tournament for star high school students. A friend introduced them.
“We were pen pals our senior year in high school,” Tracy said.
A friend also introduced her to Bill Cosby. (Her friend’s father was in the entertainment business.) Tracy had an interest in becoming a model, but Cosby thought she should go to college. When she told him her mother couldn’t afford it, he met her mother and they struck a deal: He would pay for Tracy’s tuition at Howard University; her mother would pay for her room, board and living expenses.
“If he was willing to help me, I was willing to go halfway,” Wilson said. “That’s how it went.”
Alonzo, meanwhile, had committed to play basketball at Georgetown University, not far from Howard.
Alonzo began his NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets. He and Tracy moved to South Florida in 1995, when he joined the Heat. They were married in 1997 in Anguilla and now have three children: oldest son Trey, 17, a senior at Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, who will play basketball at Georgetown; Myka, 13; and Alijah, 4, whom Tracy calls her “special vacation baby.”
When Tracy moved back to South Florida, she would visit her old babysitter, Miss Annie Lou. They would sit on the front porch at her Goulds home and reminisce.
“I would see groups of girls walking around the neighborhood, no direction, nowhere to go,” she recalled.
She says she easily could have been one of them, if not for the people who pushed her — her mother, Miss Annie Lou, Cosby. “My mother would always say, Tracy, if they can keep you uneducated and poor, they can control you.”
Watching those girls led her to create Honey Shine, which has worked with more than 1,500 girls since the program’s inception in 2000. Honey Shine mentors the girls, holds workshops, provides tutoring, meets with parents and guides them, and the students through the college admissions and financial aid processes. Many have gone to top colleges and universities.
On Tuesday, Honey Shine will host its 12th Annual “Hats Off’’ Luncheon at Jungle Island, a fundraiser that also showcases the girls’ talents.
“What Tracy has done is put before these girls wonderful role models,” said Sister Suzanne Cooke, headmistress at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove, which hosts a six-week summer camp for the Honey Bugs, as they are known. “She is just saying to the girls — there is no end to your possibilities. You can imagine a future, and you can make it happen. And she’s making it happen for them.”
One of those girls is Catherine Jenkins, a sophomore at Miami Country Day School. Catherine’s sister, Sherdavia, was killed while they were playing on the front stoop of their home on a Saturday afternoon in July 2006. She was struck by a bullet during a shootout at the Liberty Square public housing project. She was 9 years old.
The family moved to Miami Shores, and Catherine joined Honey Shine shortly thereafter.
“When I first joined, it came up a lot, because stories were still going on,” said Catherine, now 15. “They made me feel better, and they really helped me through it.”
And “Miss Tracy?” as she calls her. “She’s really nice. She wants the best for everyone. She’s a phenomenal lady.”