The Ancestors Summon Michael Moses Ward, 41, The Only Child Survivor of The 1985 MOVE Bombing in Philadelphia
This is a really sad story. On September 20, Michael Moses Ward drowned unexpectedly during a family vacation cruise on the ship Carnival Dream. He, his father’s family, and several extended family members were on board celebrating several wedding anniversaries, while sailing to Cozumel, Belize and the Dominican Republic. According to his father, Michael was not in poor health and was physically fit. But it is not unlikely that Michael (born Olewolffe (Arabic for “prince”) Momer Puim Ward in 1971, and later known as Birdie Africa) died from the heat of the hot tub, or from an undiagnosed heart problem, or from taking some drugs—legal or otherwise—that did not agree with him or from all or even two of these possibilities. Or that it was an accident—he may have slipped, hit his head, and sank under the surface. He may not have known how to float or swim and struggled before he drowned. Or worse, he committed suicide. This last surmise—I hope not.
Until we know what happened from the toxicology reports some three to six weeks down the line, this is an unexplained death. If people are seeking a conspiracy theory or an assassin that slipped him a lethal mickey, what kind of threat did Michael Ward present? From all indications, this man simply wanted to forget what happened to him after his mother died, and he was given back to his father, Andino Ward.
Ward was the only child to survive the siege and bombing of the MOVE Organization‘s compound along the 6200 block of Osage Avenue on May 13, 1985.
The radical group, which broadcasted anti-government rants from loudspeakers in the home at 6221 Osage Avenue, engaged in a day-long armed standoff with police after officers tried to serve arrest warrants.
Police eventually dropped an a bag filled with C4 explosives from a helicopter into a fortified bunker on the home’s roof. The resulting explosion ignited a fire that spread to 61 adjacent homes.
Then 13-years-old and injured with severe burns, Ward was pulled from the home by two Philadelphia Police officers. He was living in the compound along with his mother. An adult, Ramona Africa, was also able to escape.
First of all, what was MOVE? From Wikipedia:
MOVE was founded in 1972 as the “Christian Movement for Life” by John Africa, a charismatic leader who, though functionally illiterate, dictated a document describing his views known as The Guideline to community college professor Donald Glassey. Africa and his followers (the majority of them African-American), wore their hair in dreadlocks and advocated a radical form of green politics and a return to hunter-gatherer society while stating their opposition to science, medicine and technology. As John Africa himself had done, his devotees also changed their surnames to show reverence to Africa, which they regarded as their mother continent.
The MOVE members lived in a commune in a house owned by Donald Glassey in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. MOVE members staged bullhorn-amplified, profanity-laced demonstrations against institutions which they opposed morally, such as zoos (MOVE had strong views on animal rights), and speakers whose views they opposed. MOVE made compost piles of garbage and human waste in their yards which attracted rats and cockroaches; they considered it morally wrong to kill the vermin with pest control. MOVE attracted much hostility from their neighbors. Their actions brought close scrutiny from the Philadelphia police.
Michael Ward was undersized and undernourished for his age. He was 4’7″ and weighed less than 100 pounds at the time he was pulled out from under the MOVE compound. In other words, he looked exactly like a seven- or eight-year-old child as in the photograph above. Most of the MOVE children ran around naked and ate raw, rotting vegetables (considered “pure” food by MOVE) and scraps from the adults, who were afforded hearty home-cooked meals. They even managed to scavenge food dropped by other neighborhood children or from neighbors’ garbage cans.
The children slept on the roof naked in all weather until they were six. John Africa, the MOVE messiah, formerly known as Vincent Leaphart, also decreed that the children not attend school, or develop relationships with other children. Toys were forbidden, so the children stole what they could and buried them in the backyard so that they could play with them later. When John Africa got wind that the children were planning to escape, they were told that if they attempted an escape, they would be tracked down and killed.
“I’m still afraid of them, of MOVE,” he said. “Some of the things that went on there I can’t get out of my head, bad things, things I haven’t told anybody except my father.
“But I’ll tell you this: I didn’t like being there. They said it was a family, but a family isn’t something where you are forced to stay when you don’t want to. And none of us wanted to stay, none of the kids. We were always planning ways to run away, but we were too little. We didn’t know how to get away. And we were scared.”
But that was the life he had always known. His earliest memories, he said, were of growing up at a MOVE commune in Virginia.
He said his mother tried to leave MOVE, but threats to her and him made that impossible. Instead, they lived in fear of everything: police, the neighborhood, MOVE founder John Africa, and anything else that came their way.
“The only regret I have is about me being hurt and my mom dying and the other kids,” he said. “I feel bad for the people who died, but I don’t have any anger toward anybody. See, I got out.”
“The Miracle of Birdie Africa” is a story one has to read to believe. It reads like something out of the slave narratives. Or from the memoir of a concentration camp survivor who is returning to everyday life, but still has to deal with the past.
Birdie had lost 17 1/2 pounds, down to 77 1/2, in the hospital. Amal (his stepmother) let him snack on raw vegetables. Putting weight on him seemed too important to quibble about how it got there.
But to Andino, uncooked food was his son’s strongest connection to MOVE. So on Sunday, June 2, when Amal took the girls to church, Andino stayed home. He was running the bathwater when Birdie asked for a sweet potato.
“I thought, There’s no time like the present to start rearranging his thought processes,” Andino said. “I told him, ‘No, you cannot have a raw sweet potato. That’s over. You did that in MOVE. . . . You’re going to have to eat normal foods like everyone else.'”
Andino was astonished at his son’s reaction. Bandaged and weak, hobbling on burned feet, unable because of scar tissue to move his left arm, Birdie attacked.
“He became violent, trying to hit me, and I had to restrain him,” Andino said. “He tried to run out of the room and I grabbed him and we went down on the floor. We wrestled hard for 20 minutes.”
Andino felt as if he were wrestling with a dead John Africa for the very soul of his son.
“I held him and I pinned him and I said, ‘There’s going to be no more raw sweet potatoes.’ I tried not to hurt his burns. I said, ‘I can fight you all you want, but you’re going to get tired before I do.'”
Birdie tried to go out the front door. Andino stopped him. He hobbled into his bedroom and started to climb out the window. Andino stopped him again. He said he was going to leave and “walk back to MOVE.”
“No, you’re not going back to MOVE,” Andino said. “MOVE is gone and you’re here now and you’re going to eat normal foods like everyone else.”
When the fight was over, Andino gave his son time to cool down. Birdie watched television in the living room. “It’s a new life now,” Andino told him, “and this is the way it’s going to be. They’ll be no raw food.”
Birdie stared stonily at the TV. When Andino called him for his bath, the boy refused to come.
“I let him sit there and watch the Three Stooges,” said Andino, “and suddenly he was crying and I said . . . ‘It’s OK for you to cry, but I want you to understand I’m your father, and this is the first thing on a list of things we’re going to deal with.'”
Birdie looked up. “I don’t care if you hate me at this point,” Andino said. “I still love you and the reason I’m doing this is I love you. I don’t care how much we fight, I’ll still love you.”
Birdie said nothing. He just looked at his father and kept crying.
Forty-five minutes later, Andino got the bandages ready and freshened the bathwater.
“I was frightened,” he said. “I was taking a calculated risk and praying to God it would work. I came up to him and said, ‘OK, son, it’s time for your bath. ‘ I was ready to pick him up physically and put him in the tub, pajamas and all, if he resisted. I thought, here goes the next fight.”
Andino was surprised once again.
“He got up. I was thrilled.”
In the bathtub, Birdie “screamed more than usual that day. His rage and grief came out. . . . It was like a large child crying and ranting – throwing a temper tantrum. When the tantrum was over, I told him, ‘Now that you’re done, I want you to know I still love you. It’s going to be this way. It’s a new world.'”
Birdie Africa never asked for uncooked food again.
It took years of rehabilitation for Michael to recover physically because he sustained burns over 20% of his body—on his abdomen, arms and face. But the mental and emotional scars? I would not be surprised if he also suffered from PTSD; I hope that he was being treated for this. It also took years for Michael to reintegrate into modern American society and even to get used to his father’s new family, consisting of his stepmother Amal and his half-sisters Sophia and Tatiana. He did not know his letters. He did not know how to count. He did not know how to tell time. He did not know how to brush his teeth or to use toilet paper or to bathe properly after his burns healed.
“I have a hard time getting close to anybody, feeling anything about anybody,” Mr. Ward told The Inquirer. “It has to do with the way I was brought up.”
He added: “It’s not even so much the fire. I had some bad dreams about the fire when I was little, but not anymore. The things that bother me most are the things I remember about Move before the fire. There are some things that happened that I can’t talk about.”
Because he was also illiterate, he was initially enrolled into special education classes. Nevertheless, he played as a tailback and cornerback for the North Penn High School football team in Lansdale, PA in Montgomery County. In 1991, Philadelphia reached a settlement with Michael and his father over his injuries. They were awarded $840,000 up front and each received a monthly stipend of $1,000 per month (with escalating payments) for life. His father, Andino Ward, said that legal fees took most of that award. Michael Ward also insisted years later that he and his father were not enriched by the settlement.
After he graduated from high school in 1992, Michael reportedly earned a barber’s license. Or perhaps he was a natural barber and learned on his own. And while he never opened a shop, or was hired by a shop, it was said that he cut friends’ hair on the side for nominal fees.
It’s not a surprise for me to learn, however, that Michael joined the Army, serving from 1997-2001. The military also provides for discipline and meaning as well as job training and income in an otherwise directionless life. The young man served in Florida, North Carolina and in Germany and rose to the rank of sergeant. He became a photographer and videographer, creating training videos for the Army.
Along with his barber’s profession, Michael later became a long-distance truck driver. He drove an 18-wheeler on hauls in the Northeast Corridor from Virginia to Maine. The Washington Post says that he also lived in Newark, Delaware for some years.
And Michael fell in love and married sometime after high school, and he had two children, Rhonda, now 19, and Michael, now 15. The girl, of course, was named for his late mother Rhonda Harris Africa—but this relationship did not prosper, and they divorced in 2005. His father said that despite this setback his son was doing well and living quietly in the Philly burbs.
Though his life was difficult, Michael tried to live a normal, productive life. It appears that he never gave up.
I think that many blacks—myself included—were appalled at the firebombing of this cult group, which recalled the bombing from the air of Black Wall Street, the Greenwood area of Tulsa, OK in 1921. But Osage Avenue was not like Greenwood. There was something wrong with MOVE that upset the sensibilities of the black middle-class neighbors whose houses were also burned to the ground. The Philadelphia police, of course, felt justified because MOVE adherents shot a police officer during the administration of the reactionary Mayor Frank Rizzo (after a MOVE child was shot by the cops), and I’m sure they wanted a measure of revenge. Nevertheless, strewn garbage and human feces attracting vermin, and constant loudspeaker preaching and rants was no cause for the deaths of women and children. It’s still a mystery why more people were not saved from the burning house.
The other residents of the 6200 block of Osage Avenue are still recovering financially and emotionally from the firebombing 28 years after this catastrophic event. It’s not even over; the past is indeed prologue for them. As one disgruntled resident put it, it was a city-created blight of a once-vital middle-class residential area. Some even speculate that the city wants them to die out or leave after replacing the burned-out homes that were rotting away and falling down within a year of construction. Then, real estate interests could shoe horn gentrification of the area.
Since the May 13, 1985, MOVE disaster, the residents here have been victimized over and over again, their homes destroyed, their community devastated, their lives upended.
But Rice, a petite woman with short graying hair who works part-time at St. Cyprian School, decided long ago – when her blood pressure “shot up” – not to dwell on the ugliness of that day, or the failed redevelopment efforts and legal challenges, or the millions of dollars wasted to rebuild.
She has watched worry rush others to their graves.
“I ain’t going to let it eat me up,” she said. “I can come in my house and close my door and do what I want to do.”
Over a span of 25 years, life goes on. Rice’s four children have married and blessed her with 10 grandchildren. There have been graduations, vacations, and family reunions.
Yet a bitterness remains.
“The blight is really what bothers me,” Rice said. “I would love to see the city open these houses up, do the repairs on them, and either sell them or rent them.”
She pauses. “We didn’t ask the city to bomb us out.”
For other neighbors, the symbolism of a quarter-century carries added weight.
“Twenty-five years later, we still have not gotten closure,” said Gerald Renfro, his face tight with anger. Renfro lives four doors down from Rice and serves as president of the Osage-Pine community association, which last month rallied outside Mayor Nutter’s office, demanding some type of justice. Said Renfro: “We still have not been made whole.”
The Move bombing endures in the national memory as one of the most shameful episodes in Philadelphia’s history.
In an interview on Friday, the filmmaker Jason Osder, who made a documentary about the bombing, said that Mr. Ward’s death “in a strange way has reminded us of the nature of the event itself: it’s tragic that he died young, but it serves as a reminder of the other five children that didn’t even live to age 41.”
Mr. Osder’s film, “Let the Fire Burn,” which is organized around 13-year-old Michael’s videotaped testimony at the official inquiry into the bombing, is scheduled to open at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday and nationwide afterward.
Michael Ward described himself as a Christian who did not belong to an organized religion. I cannot blame him. A sermon might have sounded like a pronouncement from John Africa, no matter what. Yet he certainly believed in himself.
The thing that helps me is I have a drive to better myself,” he said.
When asked in 2005 what he saw himself doing in 10 years, he saw better times.
“Hopefully, I will be retired. I want to own my own business and watch my kids grow up,” he said. “I want to retire when I’m 45.”
I am sorry that he didn’t make with us. Rest in peace, Michael. Come back to us again in better circumstances.
- Scarce Details in Death of Michael Ward Who Survived 1985 MOVE Bombing (atlantablackstar.com)
- Michael Ward, formerly ‘Birdie Africa’ and survivor of 1985 MOVE bombing, dies at 41 (bangordailynews.com)
- Philadelphia MOVE bombing survivor, 41, found dead in hot tub on cruise (pennlive.com)
- Survivor of 1985 Philadelphia MOVE bombing dies (miamiherald.com)
- Survivor of 1985 Philadelphia MOVE bombing dies (thegrio.com)