A Son of Music Royalty, Shot in New Orleans
Cheldon White went to a Mother’s Day second-line parade. He almost didn’t come home.
May 14, 2013
By Keith O’Brien
The musician’s son knew how he was supposed to feel. Cheldon White has been to more second-line parades than he can remember. Hundreds, probably. So as the brass band started playing and the parade lurched forward in New Orleans last Sunday, White, who was standing amid the crowd, expected to find his feet dancing.
But for some reason, he wasn’t feeling it. He tried to do a little step — nothing. Then the Mother’s Day parade turned off a four-lane thoroughfare and onto a one-way residential street in the 7th Ward, one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. The crowd of roughly 200 people filled space, like water rushing into a hole. And with nowhere to dance, even if he could find his groove, White threaded his way to the front.
Up ahead, according to police, Akein Scott, a teenager with a criminal past, was waiting with a gun in hand, preparing to open fire, perhaps to settle a beef. Within moments, 19 people, including two children, would be injured in a storm of bullets. And White, a 21-year-old photographer, was walking right into it — for one reason: “I wanted to dance,” he says. “I needed some space, so I could dance.”
Music is part of the cultural fabric in New Orleans, an ethereal idea that draws tourists from around the world. But for Cheldon White, it’s a matter of simple genetics. White’s parents met at a second line more than two decades ago. He was raised in the Treme, the son of a seamstress and a trombone player. And that trombonist isn’t just anyone; it’s Stafford Agee, one of the stars of the Grammy award-winning Rebirth Brass Band: musical royalty in New Orleans.
The boy, unlike the father, was never much of a musician. “It wasn’t really for him,” his mother Cheryl White recalls. But from the beginning, the boy and the father shared at least one thing: a love for the second line. Young Cheldon followed the parades that passed his stoop in the Treme and later across the city, seeking out his father who, more often than not, was leading the crowd with his horn. “I used to like to dance next to him,” White recalls, “like next to the band.” Because if the boy had learned one thing from his father, it was that there was power in brass band music. And especially when that music was played on a street, with a crowd of people untethered by their workaday worries. “It’s spiritual,” Agee says. “You release yourself into the moment. In life, that’s all we have: moments.”
This particular moment — the Mother’s Day second-line parade — had been in the works for months. The annual parade is the signature of the Original Big Seven Social Aid & Pleasure Club. Edward Buckner, the club’s president, says members had probably spent $60,000 in all to secure the permits, police detail, drinks, and costumes necessary to make it happen. There was one scheduled wardrobe change — the men would go from cream suits to canary yellow — and the party, which started just after 1 p.m., was expected to last into the night.
Then, just six blocks in, after the turn and Cheldon White’s push to get to the front, police say Scott began firing his gun. White tried to run, diving behind a parked car. But something struck him. “It felt like somebody took a flaming rock, and hit me in the back,” he says. Cheldon went down. Got up. Tried to walk. And then stopped. He made it less than a block before he found himself on a woman’s porch, bleeding from a hole in his lower right back while the woman, a stranger, applied pressure to the wound with a wash cloth. “God’s got his hands on me,” she assured him. “And I’ve got my hands on you.”
Less than 15 blocks away, back in the Treme, Cheryl White was preparing for her Mother’s Day party when she got the phone call. There was to be boiled crawfish and gumbo, baked macaroni and ham. Forty people were coming. But now the mother was going, racing to the scene of the shooting.
“Don’t cry, mama,” Cheldon told her when she got there.
But she cried, anyway, loading her son into a friend’s car and barreling back past the Treme for the hospital, which seemed faster at that moment than waiting for an ambulance. Cheldon would survive. The bullet only grazed his lung, family members say, and he was discharged from the hospital late yesterday.
White isn’t sure if he’ll return to second lines. But he is expected to make a full physical recovery. And the same is expected of the second lines themselves. Parade organizers and city officials say the second lines will go on, too culturally important to be derailed by one alleged teenager with a gun. “This isn’t some universal event,” his father, Stafford Agee says. “This is one person, maybe more, who took it upon themselves to act irresponsibly.”
It’s a refrain that has sounded in Newtown and Boston, other cities recently touched by mass violence. But the New Orleans shooting is different in at least one important way. Residents of the neighborhood say it’s not an anomaly, like a deranged school shooter or two angry bombers, but rather the frightening everyday norm that, only this time, managed to get people’s attention. “I’m tired,” said Brenda Van Pran, a 60-year-old woman who lives one block from the parade shooting. “I really am tired of this.”
In recent years, bullets have struck Van Pran’s house, her cars, and her windows, pocking both the refrigerator in her kitchen and the lilac-colored siding of her two-story home. Still, she’s been luckier than Cheldon White, who left the hospital yesterday with both a scar and a souvenir. The bullet that shot him remains lodged near his right lung, at least for years to come, perhaps forever.