Their Hearts on Their Sleeves
La’Nard Wilcher might have lived if the police had looked harder for him. It was a Saturday night in February 2016, and the 16-year-old had been walking with three friends beside the railroad tracks near Miami’s Liberty City Elementary School. Just before midnight, for no clear reason, several men began shooting at the boys and they scattered. Two of the boys escaped unharmed; the third was shot in the back, through the liver, but he made it to a nearby car and asked the driver for help. County paramedics and police arrived soon afterward and rushed the boy to emergency surgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center, about five miles away, where the U.S. Army trains its surgical teams to treat gunshot wounds in battle zones. In the chaos, neither the boys nor police realized La’Nard had also been struck, and so they didn’t search two blocks away, where he was bleeding out beside the tracks. By the time a motorist reported seeing his body the next morning, on Valentine’s Day, half a day had passed.
“The carnage continues in Miami-Dade,” the county’s school superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, tweeted after learning about the death of the young man, who was a sophomore at Miami Central Senior High School. La’Nard’s murder was one of 231 homicides in Miami-Dade County in 2016, and the circumstances of his death were reported with a tabloid’s grim facelessness; “Dead teen went unnoticed for more than 12 hours,” the Miami-Herald reported the day he was found.
Three years later, La’Nard’s murder remains unsolved. “My sister calls the detectives every three months,” says his aunt, Keisha Richburg, 26, a former Miami Northwestern Senior High track standout who recently graduated from Florida International University. “They either say they’re working on it, or they just don’t pick up the phone.”
Though he has faded from the attention of media and law enforcement, La’Nard’s presence is still ubiquitous among residents in the neighborhood where he lived and died, part of a snaking stretch of urban sprawl and working-class homes unclaimed by any city government, known to most visitors simply as Unincorporated Miami-Dade. His youthful face, framed by a gray hoodie, is still seen in the crowds at church and at family gatherings, even as far away as Atlanta, where his aunt Keisha has settled. He is forever memorialized on their T-shirts.
In the weeks after La’Nard’s murder, his aunt Keisha, who works as a police officer in Atlanta, wanted to order several dozen memorial T-shirts to distribute to friends and family just before and after his funeral, as well as at a candlelight vigil, a few weeks after what would have been his 18th birthday. Keisha went to Lavish Printing, a screenprinting and embroidery kiosk located inside Village Flea Market, a closed-air marketplace about a mile from where La’Nard was murdered. The shop’s proprietors offered her simple designs: shirts in various colors including black, gray, red, and white, emblazoned with different photos of La’Nard alone and with his family, his birth and death dates printed below: “7/15/99” and “2/13/16.”
Every South Floridian has grown up seeing rear-window decals, murals, billboards, and T-shirts memorializing lost loved ones, with their birth and death dates: children, grandparents, school friends, even a beloved pet. It’s not an uncommon way to mourn, and local printing shops like Lavish—there are dozens across Miami-Dade alone—have long offered tangible, shareable mementos for the grieving and those left behind. For victims of violence or untimely passings, an artfully done R.I.P. shirt tells a simple, important story: This happened. It meant everything to us. And we are not going to forget.
“I wear mine still,” Keisha says, who returned to Lavish to order more T-shirts, as well as memorial jerseys, pants, and socks. In February 2019, during the week of the third anniversary of La’Nard’s death, each day she wore a different shirt with photos of her nephew. On these shirts, La’Nard smiles in old family photos—an obedient, eager-to-please child. “He’d always say, ‘I love you, auntie,’ ” she says. “People who didn’t know ’Nard will see the T-shirt and ask about him.” Then she tells me, “They ask me who made it.”
You have to really want a T-shirt from Lavish Printing to find it on this hardscrabble stretch of 27th Avenue. The drag comprises much of West Little River, a neighborhood that had been part of Miami before the city rolled back its borders during the Great Depression. Just south of Lavish’s flea-market kiosk lie the neighborhoods of Gladeview, Brownsville, and Liberty City, developments planned for white families in the 1920s that housed middle-class black families in the 1940s and 1950s to maintain geographic color lines in segregated South Florida. Through the late 20th century, the neighborhoods declined in status and stability as low-earning residents fled there from inner-city Miami. Today, a neighborhood like Liberty City is 94 percent black, with a median household income of $27,519. (Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who grew up in Liberty City, filmed the 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight nearby in the neighborhood’s Liberty Square housing project.)
As you drive down from the north on 27th Avenue, walled housing developments and upscale eateries give way to payday lenders and Dollar Trees. Eventually, you hit the rundown Village Flea Market (“No guns, no hoodies, no alcohol,” says the sign on the door) and head through a maze of half-empty corridors, past a tattoo shop boasting dozens of “305” designs—an homage to Miami’s area code—to an upstairs corner where Lavish Printing co-owners Leon Cobbs, 33, and Geofrey Robinson, 27, design their custom T-shirts.
Lavish Printing is a full-service printing firm and a community fixture; at least 100 clients a week come seeking promotional banners, business cards, football jerseys, reunion shirts, prom keepsakes, and spirit gear. Cobbs and Robinson do custom designs on socks, pillows, and posters, too. But “R.I.P.” T-shirts are an indispensable part of the business, ubiquitous at memorials, rallies, and family gatherings. Orders vary, but most involve 20 to 30 shirts and a complimentary printed banner, for use at services, cookouts, or inside survivors’ homes.
While the mass shooting that killed 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, an hour up the road, has generated a nationwide movement and focused the spotlight on young people killed by gun violence, the violence in these neighborhoods of Miami-Dade has attracted far less media attention outside of the state. A 2015 Miami Herald investigation found that, between 2006 and 2015, an average of 30 teenagers and kids died each year from gun violence in this part of Miami-Dade.
Residents remember living through worse during the bottom of the 2008 recession, and much, much worse in the 1980s and ’90s—when Miami, desperate to protect its tourism trade and fight its carjacking, rioting reputation, erected special directional road signs with easy-to-read logos (sun for the beach, plane for the airport) to keep out-of-towners driving past “problem” neighborhoods “without becoming prey,” as the New York Times reported in 1993.
In 2017, a Columbia University epidemiologist and two University of Miami researchers published a study of nearly 4,547 gunshot victims seen over a decade at Ryder Trauma Center. They concluded that “not only are events of violence clustered in predominantly black neighborhoods” between Liberty City, Overtown, and the surrounding neighborhoods, “but also that patients residing in or participating in violence within these neighborhoods are more likely to die from these violent events.”
The neighborhoods’ arrest and conviction rates are also high: In 2018, a special ACLU review of all Miami-Dade’s adult criminal defendants between 2010 and 2015 found that the county’s black neighborhoods were racked by “collateral consequences” of mass incarcerations, such as depletions of the labor force and disruptions of social circles. “[T]he destabilization of Black neighborhoods because of mass policing and incarceration can actually increase crime in these areas, further perpetuating criminal justice system involvement,” the ACLU report concluded.
Outside interest in West Miami-Dade’s gun-violence victims lasts about as long as a local TV channel’s evening-news chyron. As student and activist Emma González tweeted two and a half weeks after the Parkland shooting, “Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard … the way that we have in these few weeks.”
Dynette “Dee-Dee” Early, 31, a mother of three, just needed to rest after a long family holiday in 2018. “It was late on Christmas night,” her older sister, Lanette Early, tells me, and Dee-Dee was sitting on the porch of her apartment in Gladeview, a neighborhood near where La’Nard Wilcher lived, when gunshots rang out. Two neighbors were grazed, and Dee-Dee was struck multiple times. “Mama! Wake up! Wake up, Mama!” one of Dee-Dee’s children shouted, according to a neighbor. When the ambulance arrived at Ryder Trauma Center, four miles away, Dee-Dee was declared dead.
It fell to Lanette, 34, the family’s eldest sibling, to design the T-shirts for Dee-Dee’s New Year’s Day memorial service and the family gathering afterward at a nearby park. “I got over 60 shirts made,” she says—more than twice the usual number Cobbs and Robinson are asked to do, which is indicative of just how deeply Dee-Dee’s passing shook her friends and family. On the front of the white shirt is a recent photograph of Dee-Dee on a breezeway in Miami’s open-air Bayside mall, wearing an LA Gear crop top and jean jacket. Angel wings and a halo surround her from above, and below an inscription reads, “Sleep in Peace: Sunrise, 9/30/87. Sunset, 12/26/2018.”
When Lanette and I speak, it’s been nearly a month since her sister’s murder. Police say Early was not the suspects’ target but was killed by stray bullets. Using nearby surveillance video, they went searching for the two men who exited a nearby car and opened fire; they found and arrested one suspect, 16, who remains in custody, awaiting trial in May; the second suspect is still unidentified and at large. Lanette, a stay-at-home mother, says the family hasn’t put the shirts away and doesn’t plan to anytime soon: “We wear them on the regular.” At one point, Lanette tells me that Dee-Dee had sickle-cell anemia. “We would have had a little peace and understanding if she had passed from her sickness,” she explains. “I never thought that I would see my sister on a shirt this soon.”
It’s around noon at Lavish Printing, and Geofrey Robinson is at a computer, manipulating a Photoshop template for a Paw Patrol–themed child’s birthday T-shirt. He explains that the process of designing a wearable memory for the bereaved should take no more than five or ten minutes. (“Time is money,” he says.) Robinson moves quickly through Adobe Photoshop as he works, before turning to the printer. He’s been working in printing and shirt shops since he was 13, and drawing his own designs as long as he can remember. “As businesses go, it’s elemental,” he says. “You buy basic supplies, you add your creativity.”
Cobbs and Robinson met at another printing company over ten years ago and decided to start a business together because “we both had the same business minds for it,” Robinson says. They started with R.I.P. shirts and then branched out. Thursdays and Fridays are the busiest days for these sorts of orders; families want to be able to pass them on for weekend viewings and services. (Turnaround time is usually same day or next day, depending on the order size and how busy the shop is). Some customers rely on Cobbs’s and Robinson’s graphic skills; others come with specific visions of their own designs. Years ago, at Fresh Press USA, the North Miami shop where Robinson first learned his trade, the family of a young man shot by cops ordered R.I.P. shirts that said FUCK THE POLICE on the back. After seeing them on the street, he says, police pressured the shop not to print any more, and the shop quietly complied.
In this business, Robinson explains, you get good at working with grieving loved ones. “You try to think for them and move things along a little faster” without bogging them down with aesthetic details and questions at a trying time, Robinson says. “Try to take their mind off it, make them laugh, especially if it’s a parent.” Much of his company’s work involves serving returning clientele, often initially brought in by word of mouth or through school and church ties. “They do everything for my family,” Keisha Richburg explains, repeating a familiar refrain: after ordering R.I.P. shirts, a family often returns for happier business—party banners, business cards, prom keepsakes, spirit squad shirts. Life goes on, memories are made, and the printers become a part of that life. “I went to school with Leon,” Lanette says. “His mom was actually my teacher. He gave me a discount for the family.”
Tesia Hunter lost the third oldest of her eight children, 16-year-old Ralph Hemingway III, in a still unsolved drive-by shooting in 2015. The teenager, who’d had dreams of being a professional football player, was struck while playing outside his house and died in his older brother Delquan’s arms. The yard to their house became a crime scene, cordoned off by the time Tesia, 41, heard the news and rushed home. She wasn’t initially allowed inside the cordon. “That’s what hurt me the most,” she says. “I wasn’t able to see him that last time.”
Tesia was old Facebook friends with Leon Cobbs, and when he heard the news of Ralph’s death, he surprised her with a memorial banner, a collage of online photos of Ralph striking poses for the camera above the teen’s family nickname, “Lil Man.” He never asked for payment. “It was very unexpected,” Tesia says. “I saw all of my baby’s pictures, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so generous.’ ” She ended up ordering from Lavish: shirts, buttons, even a life-size banner of Ralph on the second anniversary of his passing, which she hung in a local community center. “Whatever I need, I say I need it, and they get it done,” she says. She has different banners made each year, which she hangs in her home.
A little over one week before Christmas 2018, Tesia lost another child, her second oldest, Delquan, who was killed in a daylight drive-by as he walked with his girlfriend in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. “Delquan hit me the hardest,” she says. “He was on the right track after a year of being in trouble with the law.” Ralph had been “Lil Man,” and Delquan was the family’s “Big Man,” sometimes known as “Biggie.” Three years before, not long after he’d cradled his dying brother in his arms, Delquan had been shot seven times and survived; this time, he was pronounced dead on arrival at the trauma center, with two wounds to the head. “Soon as I try to heal up a little with Ralph, Delquan gets killed,” Tesia tells me. “Nobody’s supposed to bury their children.”
The community was there for Tesia’s family—including Lavish Printing. Deep in the throes of her grief, Tesia ordered more shirts and banners for Delquan, leaving Cobbs and Robinson to craft the actual design: An image of the young man with his mother, topped by the words LONG LIVE BIGGIE. Now, each time there’s a holiday or family event—birthdays, death anniversaries, Christmas—there’s a new round of shirts featuring different photos of the boys, so that they’re always present; so far, Tesia says, she has four different shirt designs for Ralph and two for Delquan. For Delquan’s birthday in February—he would have turned 22—Leon created another life-size poster of both the boys, and Tesia is appreciative, but not in a rush to see it. “I’m just not ready for that yet,” she says.
But she’s buoyed by the support she receives from people when she wears one of the shirts in public, from Walmart cashiers to passers-by in parking lots who recognize her from local news coverage of the rallies for answers and justice. “Oh, my God, you’re that lady from the TV,” they’ll tell her. “How can I help you?” It makes her feel that her family is known and loved. Last month, she spotted a child she’d never met before in Delquan’s shirt. (Many of Lavish’s designs, once complete, are available for individual sales to extended circles of friends.) “My little son asked the boy, ‘Did you know my brother Biggie?’ ”
“No,” the boy replied, “but that’s my dog.”
“Everybody knows Delquan,” says Tesia. “It tells me he was good to people.”
It’s hard to explain the appeal of R.I.P. T-shirts to someone who hasn’t lived in Miami, where they’re ubiquitous. Going to school on the literal wrong side of the tracks in Pompano Beach, a neighborhood that is close to Douglas High on the map but closer to Liberty City in its realities, I took for granted the local murals devoted to the memory of kids taken too soon; the car-window stickers “in loving memory of” siblings and aunts and uncles who passed unexpectedly; and heavily airbrushed multicolor T-shirt tributes to Biggie and Stretch, or Tupac and Seagram.
That street-graffiti style of shirt memorialization persists from here in Florida to Chicago and far beyond, but it strikes a lot of middle-class white people I’ve met and worked with as strange somehow. Perhaps in tonier neighborhoods—where monuments to the dead might include street names, hospital wings, college dorms, or parks—T-shirts with images of the departed seem provocative. But perhaps that’s part of their appeal to lower-income and minority communities: the shirts can jar you, artistically and thematically, into thinking about death and society in a far more visceral, personal way.
“No culture bases so much of its identity on the persistent rehearsal of commemorative conduct as does African America,” argues Duke professor Karla F.C. Holloway in her 2003 study Passed On: African American Mourning Stories. In other work, Holloway has argued that women and people of color constitute “private bodies” but “public texts” onto whom a society’s dominant beliefs are inscribed. Within this framework, a R.I.P. T-shirt can be seen as a disruptive inversion, “specific evidence of the racialized violence done to black bodies,” as Holloway puts it. Fine, the wearer seems to say, this is a public text, and you had better see it.
But perhaps it’s also simply about establishing a dead loved one’s continued presence in the most mundane, and most enduring, settings: at school, at play, at work, in the neighborhood. Holloway calls it “the emotional power of the presence of the deceased.” Tesia Hunter, who has had six shirts designed to memorialize her two sons, calls it simple common sense. “Keep your kids as close as you can,” she says.