For Torrence and Tyrone Shaw, Dominique Gray and T.J. Grant, a friend they never imagined losing was taken away in a heinous act of violence.
Most of us have that one friend: the one we vow we could never live without.
For Torrence and Tyrone Shaw, Dominique Gray and T.J. Grant, that friend was suddenly taken away from them in a heinous act of violence. The youngest victim of the shooting at Charleston, SC’s Emanuel AME Church, TyWanza Sanders, was an integral member of their band of brothers. On June 17, however, Sanders’ life would be claimed along with eight other innocent people – Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lance, Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson and Susie Jackson – leaving his group of friends without their source of positive reinforcement.
A 26-year-old Allen University graduate, Sanders was killed while trying to shield his aunt, Jackson, from the attacker. His effort would not, sadly, save him or the 87-year-old from succumbing to their tragic fates. Just feet away, Sanders’ mother Felicia would survive the unthinkable ordeal by faking her own death, as her son lay in his final moments. This was not just a horrific news story that rocked the nation; these were heartbreaking losses that fragmented families.
In remembering their fallen comrade, Gray, Grant and the Shaw brothers collectively described a young man filled with ambition, promise and a genuine interest in helping people. They have come to know these qualities after over a decade of friendship, spanning from the preteen novelties of middle school to college maturation. A renaissance man of sorts, Sanders’ friends recall a young man with a wide – and seemingly peculiar – array of interests. From poetry, to playing the keyboard, to acting, to skateboarding, to cutting hair, there were no boundaries their “brother,” whom they affectionately called “Wanza,” couldn’t surpass.
Echoing the sentiments of his closest friends was also Charles Hickman, who served as student body president during his and Sanders’ time together at Allen.
“He was just a very smart, very quiet, but also very humble guy,” Hickman recalled. “TyWanza was also known as the guy with all the jobs. He had more jobs than anybody I knew. He worked at a department store, he also cut hair, he worked on campus, and he had a fourth job. We would just go places, and everywhere we went, we would see him, and we’d be like, ‘Oh my God, you work here too?’”
This was the TyWanza his loved ones had known for quite some time. Now faced with the task of keeping his legacy alive and commemorating the life of their newly-acquired guardian angel, his friends are working to raise funds for a scholarship in his honor. The TyWanza Sanders Scholarship, a previous effort by local non-profit organization Race 4 Achievement that was renamed in Sanders’ honor, will be awarded to a student from his James Island Charter High School alma mater. Also contributing to the fund is A. Bevy Inc., another non-profit organization founded by a friend of Sanders. The scholarship serves as a fitting way to acknowledge his penchant for contributing to the advancement of others, and they ensure that Wanza would not have it any other way.
VIBE spoke with Sanders’ closest confidants about his life and how they intend to carry on in the face of their loss. Here, they revisit their oldest memories together, and discuss the social context in which their friend’s life was tragically cut short. – Iyana Robertson
Who TyWanza was: He’s one of a kind. There’s no other TyWanza Sanders. He was very genuine and had a lot of ambition. One of his favorite quotes was, “Ambition over adversity.” There was nothing he couldn’t do. If he put his mind to it, he’ll do it. He just had a drive that I’ve never seen anybody else have. You couldn’t tell him that he couldn’t do something. He’ll motivate you to want to do stuff. It was like a radiant light, it gave off him and it makes you be like “Shoot, if he said we could do, then we could do it.” No if’s, and’s or but’s about it.
My favorite TyWanza memory: We played football in high school, and TyWanza, he wasn’t the most athletic person ever. He came to practice one day, and he was asking the coach, “How can I get faster?” In the coach’s head, he knew Wanza wasn’t that athletic either. So the coach was like, “Well, uh, TyWanza… I don’t know how to answer that question.” [laughs]
TyWanza’s many talents: He was very talented at writing poems, he used to go to poetry night. A very talented barber, too. Any style you wanted, he’ll put it in your head; he was very talented with the clippers. He even skateboarded. He did it all,man. He played the guitar, he had a piano. He was just doing it all.
When I heard the news: My other best friend called me, and he was like, “You heard what’s going on in Charleston?” And I was just like “Yeah man, that’s pretty sad.” And then he told me TyWanza got shot. I was like, “What?! Whoa, whoa, whoa. I ain’t hear nothing like that.” He was like “Yeah, one of his cousins called me and told me that he was at the church when it happened.” So we were trying to call his cell phone, and it kept going straight to voicemail. We tried calling his mama, she wasn’t answering the phone. We called the house phone, nobody was answering the house phone. Then finally, we got in contact with his cousin, and he was like “Yeah, it’s true, TyWanza did get shot.” So we were like, “Is he okay? Is he in the hospital?” And he just got real quiet. You could hear his voice cracking, and he said “He didn’t make it.” That right there was it, man. We just broke down. And ‘til this day, we’re just trying to make it.
Our final conversation: I spoke to him the day before this incident happened. He was calling me just to tell me about some of his future plans. He was like, “Yeah man, I wanna go to grad school. I like writing poetry, and I kinda wanna take it to the next level and be a producer, and help write for other people.” He was looking into scholarships. So me and my other best friend were trying to help him with that. He said he wanted to go to grad school in Orlando. He had so much plans, and all of it was just taken away.
Checking in with his mother: She’s very strong. She’s taking it better than I thought she would. She said, “TyWanza always told me that he was gonna be famous. I just didn’t think he’ll be famous this way.” But knowing that he went out trying to save his aunt, that goes to show you that he’s a very caring, loving person. He’ll put anybody before him. He’ll give the shirt off his back to anybody. And him trying to save his aunt in the last moments of his life, just goes to show you that.
The first time I met TyWanza: We met on the football field. He was scared to play football, because we were so small back then and the rest of the guys were so big. And I was like “Man, you might as well go ahead and do it, it’ll be fun. It won’t hurt you. Everything will be alright.” Ever since then, me and him were close.
Our final conversation: We were talking about the t-shirts we were gonna make for my wedding party pictures. I asked him what size he wanted, he told me the size, and then he told me he was about quit his job and go back to the barbershop. And I was just like “Well, if that’s what you want to do, and that’s your passion, go ahead and do it, man.” That was pretty much it. That was Monday [before he passed].
TyWanza’s spot in my upcoming wedding: He’s still in my wedding. The lineup is not gonna change at all. I’m just gonna light a candle, and I’m gonna have his picture right there because at the end of the day, he’s still gonna be there with me, by my side. Physical or not, he’s still gonna be there spiritually.
Who TyWanza was: He was a loving man, he loved his family a lot. He always had a smile on his face. Even if you were feeling bad, he’d put a smile on your face so fast. You’d be shocked, you wouldn’t want smile or laugh, but his jokes and humor made you laugh so much. And the love he gave you and showed you, it was impossible for you not to like him. If you ever told him you wanted to give up, he would say, “Man, don’t give up, you can do it.” He said, “There’s nothing easy in this world. You have to work for it.”
What I hope comes from this tragedy: I just hope people realize that everybody is all the same, trying to achieve the same goals: get ahead in life, have fun with family, and everybody be as one. The world would be a much more peaceful place.
My earliest memory with TyWanza: I wouldn’t say this is the first time I met Wanza, but this was the first memorable experience I had with Wanza. I got off work, and just like any other middle school or high school kids, we’d go to the mall, or the movies with our friends, or the bowling alley. So after I got all washed up and ready to go out with my friends, Wanza pulls up to my house with my friend Martin in what would be the epitome of your first car. We called it “The Toaster.” It was a silver Volvo, with no a/c. You had to manually put the windows down, and there was barely any radio. So he came to pick me up, and I’m like “What did I get myself into?” We were about to go out with all my friends, try to talk to some girls, and we’re in this car. And South Carolina is hot. So you can imagine being in a car that’s already old, and doesn’t have any a/c in 100-degree weather. We were sweating, which gave birth to the name, “The Toaster.” So we all pull up, I think it was at Checkers, our local meet-up spot. And we just all started ragging on Wanza. Then he looked at me and was like “Well, if you don’t wanna ride in my car, you could’ve just stayed yourself on the highway. You don’t have to ride with us.” And that ended it for me, ‘cause I definitely needed to get home.
Our coming-of-age moment: When I graduated. Out of our main, core group of seven friends, only Torrence and Wanza was able to make it, because they were in the Columbia area. I remember seeing how proud he was for me to graduate, and to accomplish my goals, and he saw his coming down the line as well. When we both respectively graduated, he looked to up me and he said that he’s proud to see the man I’ve grown up to be. Which he always used to say, and I thought it was just Wanza talking. He used to always big me up like that.
If I could speak to him one last time: I’d tell Wanza that I love him, and that I can’t wait to see him again, and to please just keep shining. I’m sorry for not fully believing him in every aspect of his life that he wanted to do. His mom told me something that was very telling and brought everything full circle for me. She said “Wanza only had 26 years to live his life. And though you wanted him to fixate on one individual task, he needed to get done everything he had to get done, because God only gave him 26 years to live.” So I would tell him that I respect the fact that he dipped and dabbled in everything that you can possibly think of, and tell him that I’m grateful to have him as a friend for always having my back.
Visiting his home after his death: When I got there, they had his room locked up, but I asked his mom if I could go inside. So, we actually changed the room up. I saw his keyboard, and his mic, and that little beat pad that producers use. I remember when he called me when he bought it, I was like, “Oh Lord, Wanza done got this now. This ain’t never gonna stop. I’ll never hear the end of this.” He had his guitar in there. I remember when he had a ukelele – this man had a ukelele. But it was just Wanza [laughs]; it was what you expect out of Wanza. Think of something random, and Wanza’s doing it, or Wanza did it. I also saw his letter of acceptance to the school down in Orlando to pursue his dream of producing. I didn’t believe it when he called me, but after talking to his mom and seeing the physical document, it really was true. This weekend, he was supposed to be coming down to Orlando to look at apartments.
What I hope comes of this tragedy: I just hope America wakes up. It’s a bigger issue than what everybody’s trying to pawn it out to be. When Obama did his speech, one thing he said was that America needs to look back and reflect on the fact that things like this are not a common occurrence in other advanced countries. And that really hit home with me. We’re all human beings on this earth.
Who TyWanza was: He was the realest. He was a real person. He always had a smile on his face. He didn’t let anything bother him that much. He always had a positive attitude on things. He was the life of the party. Every moment he lived, he had fun. No negativity. He was just that type of dude you would want to have in your circle. He was very ambitious also. He always wanted to do better and strive to do more to better himself as a person and challenge himself as an individual. He liked to see his fellas, his partners, doing good too. If he’s doing good, then everybody else is doing good. He encourages people; he encouraged us to do better for ourselves.
My favorite TyWanza memory: We played football together, also at James Island High. He played defense, he was a cornerback, and I played receiver. Wanza wasn’t the most gifted in athletics. He was just getting used to playing football, he never played football before, so he came out that year and tried out for the team. He made the team, but at practice, the defensive coach would do their defensive back drills, and Wanza wasn’t the type to catch the ball very well. So the defensive coach would throw the ball, and every time he would catch the ball, he’ll yell out “Touchdown Wanza.” He never catches the ball; he’ll catch the ball every once in a blue moon. And every time he did, we’d go crazy. So the defensive coach would always say “Touchdown Wanza,” and that carried on throughout his high school career. It was all fun and games.
Our final conversation: He just went on and told me about the things he planned on doing in the next couple of years down the road, telling me that he’s going to church now. He actually was thinking about settling down too, because he saw me having a child now and starting a family myself, and he said he found himself a young lady. He was talking to the young lady, and he felt like he wanted to settle down with her. I told him to go on and do if he felt like he was ready and not to hold anything back.
If I could speak to him one last time: I’d tell him that I’m proud of him and what he’s done. I’m proud of him for the man he was focusing on being. He just died so young, and he just had a lot going for him. I was just anticipating what he was going to do, and how he was going to do it, because he was going to bring us with him on that ride, no matter what. If I could have that last talk with him, I’d just say “I love you, and I’m proud of you man, for being that stand-up guy that you were.”
Knowing that TyWanza did not die in vain: I just heard today that the guy that committed the murders was actually at the sermon that night, he almost changed his mind – just because of how nice those people were. Allowing him to come in the church, with open arms. I guess it really hit him how nice this race of people can be. I could tell when they showed the video at his bond hearing, that deep down inside, he knew he made a mistake by doing that. I got that sense because when all those families gave him that forgiveness, and I know that ate him alive. Knowing that he’d done such a heinous crime, he’d expect people to retaliate, and his plan backfired in his face. I know deep down inside, in his soul, that he knew he made a mistake. That’s what I get from that. And I forgive him. I really do. Because God doesn’t make mistakes at all. Things happen for a reason, things are meant to happen. Unfortunately, it was my homeboy that was involved in it. But I know now that he left his mark here and his legacy will continue to live.
To donate to the TyWanza Sanders scholarship fund, email TyWanzaSandersScholarship@gmail.com.