I ♥ Anacostia

An Unofficial Mayor With a Helping Hand on MLK Avenue

Jimmie Benbow, 62, held up an all black T-shirt that read “I ♥ Anacostia ” in big white letters.

“D.C. means everything to him,” said his oldest daughter, Edith LaVerne Grant, 44, of Moon Township, Pennsylvania.

Grant added that she has been trying to get her father to visit her.

“He acts like D.C. is gonna close down” if he goes to Pennsylvania, she said.

Benbow has lived in D.C. all of his life. He is a vendor who sets up shop seven days a week selling colorful pure oils, socks, scarves, hats, thermal under shirts and pants, black soaps and black hair and skincare products on Martin Luther King Avenue. His business cards read “Jimmie Benbow Enterprise: A Cocoa Motion Company, featuring products to beautify the body.”

“What you need young brother?” Benbow asked a young man as he stopped to check out the merchandise.

Benbow has been vending for 42 years, and he uses it as a way to reach out and help the residents of the Anacostia community. He hopes to help them even more by running for Ward 8 Council Member in 2012.

A couple with three children approached Benbow’s table-filled-with merchandise. The woman sifted through the array of $5 scarves and socks.

It was a brisk, sunny February afternoon and the children, two girls and a boy, were without hats.

Benbow pulled out a tote from underneath the table.

“Would you like a hat?” he asked the children. The entire family grabbed hats free of charge.

“It’s not always all about making money. You have to give something back to the community,” Benbow said. “They give to me; I have to give to them.”

He makes sure that he has a full stock of winter apparel to donate to children, especially those coming from the public assistance office at 2100 Martin Luther King Ave.

“You’ll find kids with no gloves and no hats and things like that, and I always make sure I have them here for that,” Benbow added.

Evangeline Cole-Thompson, also known as Mama Cole, owner of the Anacostia Restaurant & Catering at 1918 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., has known Benbow for more than 10 years. She described him as a good friend, adding that he has helped her out during times of financial hardship.

“He has always been supportive of me,” Cole said. “He always has a shoulder to lean on, an ear to hear and a heart just as big as he is.”

Standing 6 feet tall, Benbow sported a President Barack Obama hat and matching apron underneath a black knee-length bubble jacket.

Benbow also feeds the homeless. On numerous occasions Cole said that Benbow has sent people to eat at her restaurant and he paid for their meals.

“When people say they are hungry, it is instantly ‘yes,'” he said.

“He’s always looking out and doing something for somebody,” Cole said. “He’s that way all of the time, not looking for nothing in return. That makes him a good man.”

Photo: Vendor Jimmie Benbow on MLK Avenue

“Jimmie,” shouted his brother Lonzo who sat behind the wheel of a small red car.

“Hey soldier,” hollered another man, walking across the street past the 19 and a half feet tall and 4,600-pound “Big Chair,” at the center of Riverview Plaza. The older man saluted Benbow by raising his right hand to his forehead.

Benbow joined the army at the age of 17, immediately following his graduation from Anacostia Senior High School . He served in the military during the Vietnam War, for 12 years in airborne aviation and as a national guard.

Today Benbow sported a black and gold military cap, which read “Purple heart” and “Combat wounded” in gold letters with two military pins attached.

The military saved his life, he said. “Had I not gone in the military, the whites would have hung me from a tree somewhere. That’s how militant I was,” Benbow said. “I was along with the Malcolms and the Martins. I believed in their philosophy of freedom.”

Benbow was born and raised in D.C. He grew up with 15 brothers and sisters in LeDroit Park, which was a black community in the 1940s and 1950s. As a young man, he would protest against racial discrimination in places such as Woolworth, which he said did not let blacks sit down. For fun he would hang out at the Howard Theater near Seventh and U Streets.

It was in the military where Benbow said he learned about the importance of teamwork and how the whole team is necessary to win. The military also helped him to calm down.

Besides vending and the military, Benbow has also worked within the D.C. public school system as an investigator of corporal punishment, theft and assault.

As an investigator, Benbow was able to build relationships and provide advice to young people.

“When he worked at the D.C. public schools, those kids were like his own,” Grant said. He would help disadvantaged children and those going through familial hardships. “That was his calling.”

Grant said her father wanted to have a “direct effect” on the young generation adding that he is always trying to connect them to people who can have a positive influence on their lives.

Benbow said that he was there for professional basketball player Brian Chase when he needed some advice or a listening ear as a student at Dunbar High School . Chase played for the Miami Heat in 2007 and 2008. Now he plays for Le Mans Sarthe Basket, a Euroleague basketball team.

“I’m interested in what the people are thinking,” Benbow said. “A lot of them have major problems at home. I encouraged them to keep their head held high and do what you need to do to survive. You don’t need to get out here and sell drugs or knock somebody in the head or go in somebody’s house and all that. I understand it’s hard. No one is going to give you anything. You have to get out there and take your part of the world. It’s called schooling first.”

An advocate for education, he urges young and old to finish high school. He talks to young people about the importance of an education every chance he gets. Benbow urged his youngest daughter, Deven Benbow of Forestville, Md., to return to high school to get her diploma. She has plans to attend the University of the District of Columbia.

“He tries to be a role model for kids who don’t have fathers,” Deven said.

Willie “B.J.” Smith, a hair stylist at Salon Exquisite, has known Benbow, who works on the same block as the salon, for three years. “He cares about our people,” Smith said. “He oversees all of us out here when he’s out there, and he really is a good guy.”

When “unwanted traffic” would enter the salon, Benbow would check in on the situation and, if need be, escort them out, Smith said.

Benbow’s love for his community, especially those in Anacostia, runs deep.

“It’s so much that we need over here,” Benbow said.

Benbow hopes to make a difference in D.C. public schools by bringing in more revenue for programs dedicated to providing an alternative, such as job skills programs like shoe and car repair, carpentry or sheet metal working those who are not college bound. He wants to provide the police officers in Ward 8 with quality equipment and personnel.

Benbow would also like to help parents who did not complete high school get a diploma or General Educational Development. “If kids see that their parents are trying, then the kids will try.”

Vending in the community allows him a platform in which he can get his point across to residents. He hopes to bring back the “village” concept of community to Ward 8. The “village” community is one in which people looked out for others as one big family.

“He is a nice person,” said James Bunn, executive director of the Ward 8 Business Council. “He would make a good candidate. But this is not easy.”

Bunn added that Benbow would have to reach out to other neighborhoods in Ward 8 and attend Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings. Benbow said he attends the meetings on occasions.

“Within his area, he knows a lot of people but he’ll have to figure how to reach out and touch others,” Bunn said.

Cole said, “he would get a lot of support just because of who he is in the neighborhood.”

Grant described her father as an “unsung hero, a true Washingtonian,” whose “community is everything.”

Benbow said that he’s done nothing special. “If people need help, then I help them,” he explained. “It’s just something I enjoy doing.”