By RACHEL DISSELL
The Plain Dealer
Walk in the front door of 6117 St. Clair Avenue today, and you’ll see an empty space with a patterned linoleum floor and nicked paneling that covers nearly every wall of the two-story brick building.
Samaria Rice sees something different.
The mother of Tamir Rice envisions a warm and energetic space filled with children. They are painting and drawing with pastels. They are beating on African drums and bowing violins. They are performing plays they created in an intimate theater.
The children inside what will become The Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center will be mentored and nurtured and taught how to dissect and participate in political systems, something Rice said she never learned in school but was forced to learn 31/2 years ago to speak up for 12-year-old Tamir after he was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in the recreation center park where he played daily.
For Rice, the center is a gift to Tamir. It’s solid assurance that while he never grew to be a man, his legacy will not fade.
Rice said some people have discouraged her from opening the center, or questioned her ability to pull it off.
The 41-year-old mother may have only an eighth- grade education, but she brushes off those naysayers just like she did the annoyance of someone putting superglue in every one of the locks on the center’s newly purchased building.
“I don’t pay no attention to them,” Rice said bluntly. “They can’t beat me for the simple fact that their child wasn’t killed by the state. I’m going to do it through the grace of God, and I’m going to do it because the city of Cleveland gave me no choice but to do it as far as building my son’s legacy and keeping his legacy alive.”
What some might not understand is that being hands-on with the work of the foundation and the center is an important part of Rice’s grieving and healing process, Amanda King, an activist artist who consults for the foundation, said.
King is the founder of Shooting Without Bullets, which uses photography and performance to allow black and brown teens to process and express their feelings about complex social problems and injustices they experience.
In terms of education and credentials, Rice might not fit the normal mold of an executive director running a foundation, King said. It’s also hard for her to trust others with something as deeply personal as honoring her son.
“It’s wakening a creative energy in her,” King said. “It really is a new life and a new career.”
Next month, Rice is throwing a “Sweet Sixteen” party for the milestone her son can’t celebrate. She’s invited the public to help her honor Tamir with musical and spoken-word performances, and to help raise $21,000 to renovate the more than 3,500-square-foot building purchased in March by the Tamir Rice Foundation.
Built in 1920, the building has good bones but needs some new windows, drywall and a stage for performances. She hopes to complete work and open the center in 2019.
Tickets for the June 14 fundraiser at the Cleveland Museum of Art are $55, and contributions to the renovation also are being collected online.
Rice hesitated initially before deciding to put the center in Cleveland, she said. But her son was born and raised here, and she wanted “to make sure that Cleveland doesn’t try to erase the memory.”
“Nobody is talking about Tamir anymore in Cleveland,” she said. “And that’s sad.” Not council people. Not church pastors.
Some artists have kept what happened to him alive, like Terrence Spivey, a theatrical director, who in 2016 helped create a play that wove together searing monologues that grappled with the community’s response to Tamir’s death. Spivey will be the artistic director for the center’s drama program, Rice said.
Rice created the foundation that bears her son’s name in 2016. Later that year, a judge approved a $6 million settlement of the wrongful death lawsuit she’d filed against the city and the two officers involved. It was the largest settlement the city had paid related to a police shooting.
After lawyer’s fees and costs and payments to other relatives, Tamir’s estate was left with about $1.8 million.