Eldridge “Skeeta” Smith, father of four, a former Charlottesville High School basketball standout and an active member of the B.U.C.K. Squad, a group dedicated to ending gun violence and deaths, was about to go to work on the night of Jan. 28.
He never made it. As he sat in his car near Fifeville Park, not far from the University of Virginia, Smith was shot multiple times, his body riddled with bullets. Smith, the peacemaker, father and fiance, was dead at 36.
Friends and family who knew and loved Smith are still reeling from his death, which they said is not only a loss to them but to all of Charlottesville. It’s hard to fathom, they said, that someone who had been such a positive influence on so many young people and who worked to end street violence could instead be a victim of it.
“When I met him, he became a brother,” Kelly Richardson, one of Smith’s best friends, told The Daily Progress on Saturday. “He was one of a kind.”
Enough people wanted to play in a memorial basketball game for him on Saturday that the game’s organizers had turn some people away. Hundreds of people turned out, and organizers raised more than $2,000 for Smith’s family.
Charlottesville police arrested Tadashi Demetrius Keyes and later charged him with second-degree murder in connection with Smith’s death.
As the community and those who knew and loved him grieve their loss, activists in Charlottesville said they hope that Smith’s death leads in some way to less gun violence in the city. Since September, 2022, 21 people have been injured and nine killed by gun violence in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. That includes a shooting Saturday night, Feb. 18, near the Dairy Market.
“Even in tragedy, there are opportunities for us to talk about how we successfully promote peaceful solutions to issues, about how we respond to negative situations,” Wes Bellamy, a former city council member and close friend of Smith’s, told The Daily Progress.
Loving father, hoops star
Abigail Williams knew Smith for so long that she said she can’t remember first meeting him.
“He was always around,” Williams told The Daily Progress.
Williams, Smith’s fiancee, had been in a relationship with Smith for the last 12 years. They got engaged last year. On their first date, he picked her up in his mom’s blue Mustang and they rode around. The car “kinda” impressed her, she said.
He had four children with Williams (three girls and one boy, who range in age from a year old to 11 years old). A star on the Charlottesville High School basketball team, Smith volunteered to coach boys’ basketball.
“He was a legend on the basketball court,” Charlottesville vice-mayor Juandiego Wade told The Daily Progress. Wade mentored Smith from the time Smith was in fifth grade until he graduated high school as part of a program through the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha.
Wade keeps a binder full of photos from the mentorship program. He has a copy of the dinner menu from Smith’s graduation from the mentoring program (they ate key lime pie for dessert) and pictures of Smith in a baggy white t-shirt and jeans. When Smith made the All Central Virginia basketball team in 2005, Wade asked him to autograph the photo of him that appeared in The Daily Progress.
“He just never missed a moment with the kids,” Williams said.
Smith loved to fish and would knock on people’s doors to see if they would let him fish in their backyards. He would take his kids on drives outside of town so they could see the country. He took them to see their grandmother.
He had been planning to take his oldest daughter to a father-daughter dance, the first she would go to because previous dances had been canceled because of the pandemic.
“There’s this narrative that Black men aren’t good fathers, they aren’t in the homes,” House District 54 candidate Bellamy Brown told The Daily Progress. Brown is Williams’ cousin and knew Smith growing up.
“Skeeta obviously was in the home,” Brown said.
Bucking up, and mentoring
His devotion to other people didn’t end with his family, Wade said. Smith’s work on the B.U.C.K., or Brothers United to Cease the Killing, Squad and the way he acted as a role model for the boys he coached helped make him a pillar of his community.
“We need brothers like that, that’s out there willing to make a difference,” Wade said.
Smith was dedicated to Charlottesville, Wade said.
Smith was such a talented basketball player that someone suggested he think about going to play for a private school. With Smith’s mother’s permission, Wade took him to the Blue Ridge School in Albemarle County. Smith spent the day talking to teachers and coaches and students.
“I asked him, well, what are you going to do Eldridge? And he said, ‘I think I want to remain a Black Knight,’” Wade said.
Wade said that the mentorship program that allowed him to meet Smith would take in boys who had started misbehaving. They identified boys who were skipping school or getting into fights with their parents and taught them how to handle conflict. The boys in the program would do service projects, such as tending to an elderly person’s yard. They also took trips. Wade has photos of Smith with the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis and the rapper Lil’ Romeo.
Over the years, “he just grew,” Wade said.
One memory of Smith stands out in particular to Wade. He, Smith and other Charlottesville High School students in the mentoring program had stopped at a CVS. The manager started following them around the store.
“It really, really upset Eldridge,” Wade said. “One of the things I tell them is that we’re Black men. There’s an extra burden that we have, that we get followed around in stores.”
Wade told Smith and the other boys that they needed to learn how to decide when it was worth it to say something about their mistreatment and when they should leave a store.
Later, Wade took his majority white youth group to Fashion Square Mall. Some of the kids took clothes out of an American Eagle store to show their friends. When Wade told them not to do that, the manager insisted it was fine, Wade said.
“I just think this happens probably hundreds of thousands of times over someone’s lifetime. I think of the impact that that might have on an individual,” Wade said.
Wade said Smith internalized the lessons he taught him.
“He must have been listening,” Wade said.
Stopping the violence
Brown and Wade said they want to make sure that Smith isn’t just another Black man killed by gun violence.
For Brown, that means addressing the Fair Sentencing Act.
The bill was designed to end racial sentencing disparities for distribution of cocaine and crack cocaine. Keyes, the man arrested in connection with Smith’s murder, was sentenced to life in prison plus 120 months. He was found guilty for conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine and possession and use of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime in 2004.
Judge Norman K. Moon reduced Keyes’ sentence to 280 months in March 2022. He cited the Fair Sentencing Act as part of the reason.
In Keyes’ petition to have his sentence reduced, he told the court that his actions were “not that of a violent agitator who poses a continued risk to public safety,” but “someone simply trying to survive in remarkably dangerous environments.”
“The act itself required the court to suspend its judgment and its concern that he was not wholly committed to rehabilitation,” Brown said.
Brown said that while he supports the act’s goals, he thinks it may need to be reformed.
Wade said he is trying to find ways to prevent gun violence in Charlottesville. Localities lack the ability to restrict access to guns, but he said the city council could fund measures that keep people from wanting a gun in the first place.
“Something I can do is to give young men, like the one that Eldridge was trying to help … give them options and opportunities,” Wade said.
He said that Smith, even in his death, was going to be part of his work.
“I think Eldridge is definitely going to be part of that blueprint,” Wade said.
Daily Progress staff photographer Mike Kropf contributed to this report.
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