DC foreman builds Sankofa Park — and a new life

Charles Slay has come a long way.

After spending 27 years in prison, Slay is now an electrician and a foreman on the premier Destination Crenshaw project, Sankofa Park, taking shape in South Los Angeles.

Slay is proud of his current station in life. It’s evidence of the dedication and determination it took for him to reinvent and elevate himself from his former circumstances, and start anew.

He lives only a couple of miles from the construction site, but he leaves his house every morning at 5:30 a.m. to be on time for the scheduled 7 a.m. arrival time.

“I’d rather be two hours early, than two minutes late,” he said.  “As the foreman, I go over the prints for the Destination Crenshaw project and make out the tasks that people have to do each day. I go in early so I can get my thoughts together.”

Slay, 57, was hired onto the Destination Crenshaw project through 2nd Call, a community-based organization dedicated to reducing violence by helping high-risk individuals. As Jobs Coordinator for DC, 2nd call helped formerly incarcerated people, parolees, and others on the margins of society, develop careers in trade unions. Destination Crenshaw partners with 2nd Call to supply the project with skilled construction workers and to conduct monthly meetings to fill our pre-apprentice pipeline. Slay’s early arrival practices come from the organization.

“This is not a job, it’s a career,” says Charles Slay, of his work as foreman and electrician on the site of Destination Crenshaw’s anchor attraction, Sankofa Park.

Destination Crenshaw, he said, referring to the entire project, a 1.3-mile-long, outdoor gallery that will showcase world-class art, murals, architecture, and community spaces, dedicated to preserving the history and culture of African Americans in South LA, is what the community needs. 

“I think it’s a great project,” said Slay, a native Angeleno. “When it’s completed, I’m looking forward to going on the observation deck and looking out.”

While there is a lot to admire about the project, what he most appreciates, is Destination Crenshaw’s commitment to employing local hires – of which he’s one.

“Local hires is a kind of stimulation to the community,” he said. “Young kids can see people who look like them working. I’d like some of the local schools to walk through the area and see us working. It could inspire them.”

Slay enjoys the work, the camaraderie, and the knowledge that he’s contributing, in a positive way, to a historic project that is designed to revitalize and improve the area.

“This is not a job, it’s a career,” Slay said. “It makes me know I can, if I put my mind to it, be whatever I want to be. Stay within the rules. I can deal with individuals outside my norm. Even people from different backgrounds.” 

Slay, who is also employed on the LAX ConRAC (Consolidated Rent-A-Car) tram, also praised the work of 2nd Call. “It’s doing our community a great service,” he said. “We are taking guns out of people’s hands and putting tape measures in their hands.” 

Skipp Townsend, who founded 2nd Call in 2006, has known Slay since they were teens. It was Townsend who first told the foreman about Destination Crenshaw.

“We met in 1979,” Townsend said. He remembers, vividly, the kind of person Slay was back in the day.

“He would tell us whom to fight. We would patrol the area like the Lords of Flatbush.”

“We were out there ‘in traffic’ not doing anything nice,”  Slay said, using slang to refer to street life.

Years later, in 1984 Townsend would run into Slay at the LA County jail (Twin Towers Correctional Facility). Both were inmates.

Slay says life began to spiral out of control when he was nine years old and his mother died.

“She was the one I depended on. She always gave me good advice. I was mentally and emotionally disconnected. That’s when things went left.”

He started by stealing candy from a store. Then he got introduced to gangs. “They became my family,” he said. “We were robbing and shooting. I was scared to death when I joined the gang. Scared of what I was doing to people. But I used to think it was justified.”

“I’d like some of the local schools to walk through the area and see us working,” foreman Charles Slay says about students who may not be aware people in the community are building Destination Crenshaw. “It could inspire them.”

Then a close friend was shot in a gang-related homicide, and Slay, who was 20 at the time, retaliated. 

At the time, he was already on bail for an assault with a deadly weapon/attempted murder case. Also, his girlfriend was pregnant.  He asked the judge if he could have a 90-day extension to turn himself in – so that he could be present at the birth of his baby girl. His request was granted.

Halfway through his extension, Slay turned himself in for the assault case and received a four-year sentence. 

“When I was waiting to be taken to prison, they found the first-degree murder connection,” Slay said, referring to the gang-related homicide.  

Soon, Slay stood before a judge and heard the words, “25-to-life.”

“I thought my life was over,” he said. “I thought I was done. It seemed like “Buck Rogers” time. I was thinking about everything I’d done.  I told myself to ‘stop being a bitch. You knew what you were doing. You knew what you signed up for. You knew the lifestyle.’ I manned up. I became somebody I created. I knew the consequences. I never thought I’d get 25-to-life.

Twenty-seven years later, on December 15, 2012, Slay came home from prison.

 “When I came home the first year, it was mandatory that I take anger management classes,” said Slay, who was a facilitator for young people while in prison. “There were four classes a week. Later, I heard Skipp [Townsend] wanted to talk to me.”

“I didn’t hear from him at first,” said Townsend. “I think he thought I wanted him to fight somebody. He’s famous in the jungle of Harvard Park. They called him ‘Little’. I wanted to call him because I had to show him what I’m doing at 2nd Call.”

“He wanted me to be a part of it,” said Slay. “The energy at 2nd Call – everybody was talking a language I understood. Everybody was taking responsibility. I was being refueled. At 2nd Call, I felt emotionally safe. It keeps me grounded. I can give and receive. I feel emotionally secure.”

Townsend calls Slay dedicated.

“He stuck with the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), which isn’t easy. It’s an eight-month process. He’s gone beyond five years. He’s now a foreman in charge of a small crew.”

A changed man, Slay said he’s learning a lot about himself. One regret? That his father, who died while he was in prison, never saw his changed life.

When he gets off work, he goes home and listens to old-school R&B, reggae, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and old-school rap like the Sugarhill Gang.

“I’m sharing a dwelling with my aunt who is 89,” said Slay. “She had my back the whole time I was down. I sit and talk to her and soak up all her knowledge. I find solace in my room. I’m doing me. Just being alive and being free.  That’s enough for me.”

Slay, a father of four, grandfather, and great grandfather has learned that his lot in life wasn’t “predestined.” Now, he sees, that he always had choices. 

“I had to make changes to gain moral fiber,” he said. I’ve been getting myself together. It takes time and effort. I’m just happy to be free. I was disconnected from humanity.  I had to reconnect. Reconnecting with my children, grandchildren, and great-grandson, plus working on the Destination Crenshaw project, helps me do that.”

— By Darlene Donloe