Mwalimu Baba Shango, Historical and Influential Mentor to Local Youth, Passes Away at Age 68
ABOVE: Mwalimu Baba Shango doing what he loved – inspiring and empowering Black youth
Mwalimu Baba Shango, who spent over 25 years serving as Executive Director of SEHAH Youth and Fitness Center in Houston, Texas, passed away on June 21, at the age of 68. He would have turned 69-years-old on July 2.
Mwalimu Baba Shango was fond of saying “if you can see it, you can touch it. If you can touch it, you can grab it. If you can grab it, you got it. It’s yours.”
These and similar words of encouragement inspired several generations of youth throughout Houston, particularly youth in Houston’s Third Ward and surrounding areas of the city.
However, Baba Shango, as he was affectionately called, inspired youth in other places: San Antonio, Dallas, Atlanta, Detroit, Brazil, Belize, Ghana, Tanzania, Mali, Ethiopia, South Africa, and other areas of the African Diaspora. He was the Baba (father) of many children, both biological and adopted children. Adults, too, benefited from his inspirational teachings and practical work on behalf of the global African community.
His life is an example of grit, determination, hard work, struggle, focus, sacrifice, mistakes, corrections, and an undying commitment to the total liberation of African people.
Son of the late Baba Holland Jones, Sr. and Mama Ayodele Dellie Mae Jones, Baba Shango was born in Galveston, Texas on July 2, 1948. For most of his early years, the family resided in Galveston, Texas, and he graduated from Galveston’s Central High School in 1966. As teenagers, Baba Shango and his brothers, Harrold Jones and Aban Shango, worked as drivers for their father’s taxi company. His mother, who was a graduate of Franklin Beauty College and served as a beautician in the community, was well-known for her activism on behalf of children in the public schools of Galveston.
In time, Baba Shango inherited his mother’s commitment to youth and the broader community.
Prior to his mid-twenties, Baba Shango was only superficially involved in the Black Freedom Movement that swept across the United States and the rest of the world during the 1960s and 1970s. He lived during the era, but his involvement, at first, was very limited.
While his parents did their best to guide him by focusing on personal responsibility, community activism, and the importance of moral character, Baba Shango went wayward and made some life-altering choices that found him locked up in prison in 1970. Like Malcolm X and countless others, Baba Shango underwent a revolutionary conversion during his decade of incarceration. His conversion included a near total rejection of the European-centered world view that shaped his early life. He studied African world history and culture. He studied African languages, becoming mildly conversant in Ki-Swahili. Because one of his friends and comrades was a Puerto Rican activist, Baba Shango learned a variety of Spanish words and phrases. He studied the theology and teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and Albert Cleage, Jr. (later known as Jeramoji Abebe Agyeman) and the Shrine of the Black Madonna. He also studied traditional African religious systems, incorporating them into his evolving spiritual thought and practices. In addition to studying history, language, and religion, Baba Shango immersed himself in readings and discussions about worldwide struggles for self-determination and liberation. He prepared well during his period of incarceration. In fact, he earned three degrees while still in prison – a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work, a Master’s Degree in Social Work, and a Master’s Degree in Education.
Along with academics, Baba Shango focused on healthy living, fitness, and self-defense while incarcerated. He changed his diet, exercised regularly, and studied martial arts with his comrades. He was first introduced to Goju Ryu karate. Later, he studied a wide range of martial arts systems, including Wing Chun, Tae Kwon Do, and Tai Chi. However, as his interest in African history and culture expanded and as his African-centered worldview developed, Baba Shango began to explore African-inspired fighting systems such as Capoeira, Shackle Hands, and Kupigana Ngumi. He never wavered in his effort to infuse African culture in the martial arts he studied and later taught. In fact, during the last two decades of his life, he wrote a complete manual that discusses the philosophy, forms, and training methods of his brand of African-centered martial arts, Muntu Science. After nearly a decade in prison, Mwalimu Baba Shango was released on parole in 1979 as a new man.
As part of his parole, Baba Shango had to demonstrate that he was a reformed man, and he demonstrated that by keeping a steady job, working hard, and giving back to the community through service. Somewhere along the way, his mother asked Baba Shango if he was aware of Deloyd Parker and S.H.A.P.E. Community Center in Houston. Baba Shango visited S.H.A.P.E. to meet Deloyd Parker, and their initial meeting turned into a lifetime of brotherhood that was full of constant struggle on behalf of African people. While working with S.H.A.P.E., Baba Shango focused on counseling and martial arts. For hundreds of S.H.A.P.E. Center youth, Baba Shango was the father they never had. For others, he complimented the work of their biological fathers who were present, but perhaps needed assistance with raising their sons and daughters. Baba Shango taught them self-confidence through the martial arts. He also taught self-pride, self-respect, and self-determination. His martial arts students traveled to various cities to participate in tournaments. One group traveled to Mexico to train and study. They took their training seriously, hoping to compete one day in the Junior Olympics.
Baba Shango, a man of many talents, also wrote and produced a short film that featured his martial arts students at S.H.A.P.E. called “Inspirational Magic: Shape of Our Lives,” which was broadcast on public television in Houston for a short time, mainly as an afterschool program.
After several years of work at the S.H.A.P.E. Center, Baba Shango decided to venture off on his own. He began by visiting local schools in Houston and teaching African history and martial arts, and also offered counseling services. Several schools benefitted from Baba Shango’s in-school programs, including Foster Elementary, Cullen Middle School, Ryan Middle School, and Jack Yates Senior High School. He also established afterschool and weekend programs at local recreation centers and churches. Many of these students requested additional instruction, especially martial arts instruction. Without a building of his own, Baba Shango began teaching martial arts classes at home, in public parks, and wherever else he could teach.
In 1991, the National Black United Fund opened its facilities to Baba Shango, and he began offering classes in a small garage on their premises on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Cramped and with no windows, martial arts students – young and old – crowded into the garage for classes on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. Soon, it became obvious that more space was necessary. That same year, Baba Shango applied for a small grant, and with Cileita M. Wells, he founded SEHAH Incorporated, a non-profit, tax exempt community based organization dedicated to strengthening the community through culture, counseling, fitness, health, academics, and martial arts. With the support of Cleo Glenn Johnson and the Black United Fund of Houston, as well as other organizations and individuals, they were able to establish their headquarters within a separate section of the building occupied by the Black United Fund.
SEHAH, which stands for Survival, Education, Health, and African History, began to attract neighborhood families. Their programs included a full range of afterschool and weekend activities, including academics, counseling, martial arts, swimming, chess, and camping, all tied to African liberation in one form or another. During the summer months, SEHAH offered 8 weeks of all-day activities. SEHAH continued to grow, and eventually outgrew the available space at the Black United Fund. In 1994, Baba Shango and Cileita M. Wells searched for a new home for SEHAH, and they received assistance from several organizations and institutions, including Good Hope Baptist Church and Southside Community Center. In 1994, Baba Shango, still focused on his mission to establish a fully-functional youth center, was able to secure property at 5110 Martin Luther King Boulevard. Like Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Baba Shango worked side by side with youth as they tore down the old one-story home and began beautifying the property. They completed the demolition work themselves, and with the aid of local construction workers, a moderate community center emerged. Baba Shango was living his dream, but the potential for the center was limitless. Eventually, the one-story home was transformed into a modern, two-level facility that includes a full parking lot, open floor gym, kitchen, community garden, computer room, and three offices.
SEHAH Youth Center, now SEHAH Youth and Fitness Center, is a concrete example of a lifelong commitment to pursuing a dream, a vision. That vision can be traced to a young man searching for direction.
Over the years, Baba Shango traveled with family, friends, and students to Zimbabwe, Namibia, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, South Africa, Egypt, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and other African countries, each time adding to the number of people who traveled with him. He also took groups to Jamaica, Belize, Brazil, and other areas of the African Diaspora. The purpose of the trips was manifold. On the one hand, he sought to expose youth (and others) to tangible African cultures; that is, the living cultures of African people that offered more than a textbook discussion. He also sought to establish pan-African connections, linking African communities in the United States with those abroad. On a more practical level, the trips were designed to build self-confidence and to equip youth with the ability to travel independently, from purchasing their own tickets, packing their bags, and navigating the airports and the world on their own.
Baba Shango often said that “practice is higher than theory.” He was a man of action, teaching and leading by example. “In the end,” he explained, “we will be judged by our deeds.”
The Forward Times proudly celebrates the life of Baba Shango and the legacy he leaves that will also be carried forward by his extended family, especially his brothers and sisters in the Afrikan villages of Houston, Texas, as well as the countless children he taught over the past thirty-five years through programs sponsored by SHAPE Community Center and SEHAH Youth and Fitness Center.