Hurricane Katrina: A Black Chess Player’s Story
by Glenn Bady
Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore New Orleans producing 110 + Kt winds, flooding 15-20 feet above normal. August 30, 2005 levees “broke” in New Orleans and water pours in covering 80% city and raising 20 feet in some areas. Fortunately, during these events, René Phillips and family was in Sulphur, Louisiana. René was playing in the Louisiana Blitz Championship, where he just finished second place.
René lost everything when the Category 4 Hurricane Katrina came ashore in S.E. United States. René’s family had to start over and rebuild. While in Sulphur, René attempted to rebuild a stable life for his family. He solicited local schools in an effort to find employment as a chess coach and educator.
René’s credentials are exceptional: former SWAT team member, national chess master, math teacher, and champion power lifter. However, he was received callously by local employers.
“I showed them that I was a former police officer and my family needed assistance. I just wanted to work and rebuild. They were unresponsive and not interested in helping us. I felt like they were racist and I knew we couldn’t stay there.”
~René reflecting on the desperation after Hurricane Katrina
The Philly Connection
René was thinking about a place to relocate his family when his mother-in-law informed him that the mayor of Philadelphia, John F. Street, was taking in one thousand displaced residents from New Orleans. René and family traveled by car to Philly, unsure of the true conditions that awaited them. They arrived in Philly September 16, 2005 and was grouped with other evacuees of New Orleans.
The situation was an uneasy one for René because he noticed there were people in these groups that he had arrested while serving as a police officer in New Orleans. “That was a very awkward situation because we were both running from the same thing.” René contacted the Black Police Association and informed them of his situation. Shortly thereafter, René’s family was moved to the Embassy Suite, 18th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Show of Brotherly Love
I first read about René’s story on The Chess Drum (www.thechessdrum.net) where Dr. Daaim, one of our brilliant shinning stars in the black chess community, reported on René’s whereabouts. A couple of weeks later FM Norman Rogers (Pete) called me and said he is having a fund raiser for René’s family and asked if could I bring sodas.
We met at Pete’s building on 6200 Race street on 25 September 2005 at 6:00pm. The atmosphere was joyous, but competitive. There were grilled food, snacks and fast music. The music was loud and soulful, full of melodic drum beats. Nearly everyone was playing blitz chess, each player has one minute or five to complete a game. As the position became critical, each player tried to jive talk their opponent into making a mistake.
As the player raps, the music is thumping with drum beats similar to the player’s tempo: one cries, “get up,” a next, “fish,” still another, “I need competition over here!” It’s rough playing blitz chess in Philly.
I asked Pete who idea it was to have a fund raiser and he said it was expert Jefferson Johnson (Jeff) who lives in Delaware, but is an integral part and leader in the Philly’s Black chess community.
Where else but to gather support but on the 64 squares, expert Larry Pugh set the tone of donations by flipping out $100.00 on a chess board, the board had an interesting position on it, and said, “come on we need a match.” Experts Shelly Mays and Jeff Johnson chipped in with matching donations. Pete usually is quiet and soft-spoken but that night he acted like Les Brown, motivation speaker. Pete was encouraging brothers as he joined the $100.00 plus group, and if his position was not already winning, he sacrificed a television and a microwave to bring the full point home. The brothers all joined in by flipping money on the interesting position of the chess board.
Fernwood Jones, President, and Leroy Hurley, secretary, presented a cash donation to René and son. If you’re in Philly you must check out their club, speed chess environment, located at 45th Locust. You can spar with them every Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 7:00pm and 12:00am.
Once the fund raising were completed, I asked René how his family is holding up. He said “good” and added, “We will be moving into a house in Southwest Philly and our rent will be paid for by the city for one year.” René also wished to thank all the brothers who came out to support his family. He echoed all of our views about The Chess Drum, “The Chess Drum is a life line for Black chess players.” René also thanked the black chess players of Philly, “Out of all the places my family and I could reside, we landed in a sea of brothers”.
The Philadelphia black chess community warmly welcomes René’s family and with the addition of a National Master we are all stronger.
August 29, 2005
After hearing of Hurricane Katrina, I thought of the chess players I knew in New Orleans and fired off an e-mail to René Phillips… not expecting an immediate response. To my surprise he responded the next day and I maintained contact (via e-mail, Yahoo Messenger and cell phone). After losing everything he owned, he told me of the anguish he and his family had endured in Sulphur, Louisiana. After contemplating moving to Houston or Dallas, he finally told me he was heading to Philadelphia. I assured him that there were chess brothers who would help him to settle in. Philadelphia’s Black chess community has been the most supportive of The Chess Drum (without fail) since its 2001 inception. I had 100% confidence that they would welcome him. I contacted “Pete” Rogers and provided him with René’s contact number. When I talked to René later that day, Pete had already called!
Later in the week, both Pete and Elvin Wilson went to René’s hotel, welcomed him, met his family and played a few games of blitz. He said the games were a big relief. I believe it was either René or Elvin who told me about an upcoming fundraiser. During the fundraiser, Herb Carswell called me from his cell phone and I could hear the joy and revelry in the background. I was told brothers were “droppin’ hundreds.” I asked to speak to René. René got on the phone and was absolutely overwhelmed at the outpouring of support. His brought his son and was glad that he could see this act of kindness. He again thanked me for my moral and financial support. Glenn Bady got on the phone with excitement in his voice and reflected on the atmosphere and warmed my heart when he told me that René said The Chess Drum was a ‘life line.’ I wish I could’ve been there. This was certainly an example of what can happen when we support each other in times of need. Thanks to all of those who sent René and his family well-wishes and financial support.
Dr. Daaim Shabazz, The Chess Drum
Blitz Battle! René Phillips (near left)
What’s this Mike, a Four Pawns Attack??
Nice shirt Bruce!
Larry Pugh peeling off a handsome donation.
The Philly chess community comes through as always!
René Phillips (the big guy) with Philly players.
Fernwood Jones making presentation to René & and his son.
Finally, Jeff Johnson, the mastermind of event
Good afternoon Rene,
My name is Nate Cowan and I am a senior at Tulane University writing a journalistic article about Chess in New Orleans for a Creative Writing Workshop class. My article will be about the personal impact of Hurricane Katrina on prominent figures in the Greater New Orleans Chess scene and I believe you would be a fantastic source for my piece. I would love to set up a time to chat (either in-person or over the phone) so I can learn more about your story (perhaps over a game of chess if you would be interested). Please feel free to reach out to me by email at email@example.com or by phone at 216-401-0779. I look forward to hearing back from you and hopefully meeting you in person!