Hank Winchester: How this boy's story of racist bullying changed me, 5 years later

Bloomfield Hills teen attending Howard University

I first met Phoenix Williams when he was 13-years-old and in eighth grade.  

At the time, he was scared and a bit shy. I quickly understood why. His mother had contacted me (through a mutual friend) and shared a story about her son that stopped me in my tracks. And few things made me stop in my tracks -- but his story did.  She told me her son was being bullied.  

She told me kids were calling her son the “N” word, and she told me her son told his teachers, but no one would believe him.  

She then told me she had proof.  

You see, Phoenix decided to do something to prove he wasn’t lying. He wanted the proof that he was a target. He used his cell phone to record two boys taunting him and teasing him. Surely this would cause everyone to stop and listen to this boy.  

It didn’t. No one really seemed to care.  

The district said the issue was handled but the kids were still on the same bus, and the school wasn’t addressing a problem that had been whispered about all over campus.  

When I first met Phoenix, I knew he was special. I knew he was gifted and wise beyond his years but I also knew he was hurting.  In the moment, I knew we had to help.

I was worried at first, sharing such an important message and sharing such a story could make him a target. I spent a lot of time talking this over with Phoenix and his mom. In the end the goal was to bring about change and we decided the right thing to do was to share his story.  

In the weeks that followed, I was stunned by the reaction. Students who had only heard bits and pieces of the story suddenly rallied around Phoenix. The NAACP reached out to support him and he received calls and letters from around the country.  

Phoenix became the face of a small local movement and it was working.  The school ended up offering diversity training, the students were suspended and at least one student had to deal with legal ramifications.  

His goal was change and he accomplished that goal.  He wanted to make sure the next black student in the vastly white Bloomfield Hills district would have a smoother road. I’m confident because of Phoenix, that is true.

A few weeks ago he invited me to his high school to watch him sign his letter of intent to play tennis at Howard University. I’m not an emotional person by nature but seeing this moment brought a tear to my eye.  

I was so proud to see what this young man had accomplished. I know his family, friends and so many educators made this moment possible.  

After the ceremony I hugged him and asked him his plan for Howard. He told me I inspired him to study broadcast journalism. He said he saw how sharing his story helped others and he want to share stories of others who are facing challenges. It was a moment.  

I told him that I was flattered but at the end of the day, he is the change maker. He is the one who inspired me. Yes, I realized I learned so much from a brave 13-year-old boy. He taught me to love yourself first. to stay focused and to always believe in yourself.  

Phoenix, thank you for sharing your story. I look forward to being by your side at your college graduation, too.