Obit of the Day: Birdie Africa
On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department was engaged in an armed standoff with 13 members of the radical group MOVE*. MOVE and the police had a history of confrontations dating back almost as far as the group’s founding in 1972. In 1978, Officer James J. Ramp was shot and killed as police tried to remove the group from their home, supported by a court order. Although MOVE insisted that Officer Ramp was shot by his colleagues, 9 members of the group were found guilty of 3rd degree murder.
Note: The four women convicted of murder were never seen holding a weapon and the shooter was never identified. Tried without a jury, the judge in the case sentenced all 9 to 30-100 years in prison — 3 times the normal sentencing period of 3rd degree murder in Pennsylvania. As of 2010 all nine were still in prison.
Seven years later tension reached a peak once again as MOVE - a pro-animal, anti-technology group founded by Vincent Leaphart, who changed his name to John Africa - was the focus of complaints about unsanitary conditions which included rat-infested compost piles, meat hung from trees, and children foraging through garbage cans for food.
The police ignored these complaints until Mother’s Day 1985 when they decided to arrest members of the group for what were minor violations.
The next morning a 90-minute gun battle erupted between the police and MOVE. While the police used semi-automatic weapons and fired thousands of rounds into the home, MOVE fired back with a shotgun, two handguns and a rifle.
Frustrated, Mayor Wilson Goode took a hard line, telling the public that they would evict the members of MOVE by any means necessary. Those means included C-4 which was dropped onto a roof bunker causing a small fire and explosion.
The police and fire department watched it burn. The city’s fire chief insisted that once the fire had destroyed the bunker the PFD could control it. They could not. The fire would burn down MOVE’s house - killing 11 people in the home, including five children ages 9-14.
The fire raged and eventually burned down 60 homes on the block, leaving 250 residents homeless.
Only two members of MOVE escaped the fire: Ramona Africa and a 13-year-old boy, Birdie. Birdie ran from the building badly burned and naked.
Following the unmitigated disaster, Mayor Goode set-up an independent commission to investigate the actions of May 13, 1985. When the hearings ended and the commission released its report it found that “The plan to bomb the MOVE house was reckless, ill-conceived, and hastily approved. Dropping a bomb on an occupied rowhouse was unconscionable and should have been rejected out of hand.”
They also determined that as members of MOVE tried to escape the fire the police shot at them forcing some back inside the building leading to their deaths. One officer even testified that a colleague admitted to shooting a member of MOVE as they attempted to escape with Ramona and Birdie.
Following the 1985 events, Birdie Africa went to live with his father, Andino Ward. The boy’s name was changed to Michael Moses Ward and would live a reasonable quiet life serving in the U.S. Army and working as a truck driver and barber.
Michael Ward died on September 20, 2013 while on a cruise ship celebrating his father’s 30th wedding anniversary, he was 41 years old.
Sources: Philly.com (obituary) and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s brilliant MOVE: 25 Years Later series from 2010
(Image of “Birdie Africa,” later known as Michael Ward, on May 13, 1985 sitting in a police van after escaping from the fire that destroyed the MOVE house, killing 11 people, including five children. Copyright Philadelphia Inquirer/Michael Mally and courtesy of philly.com)
* MOVE was not an acronym.
Birdie Africa’s mother, Rhonda, was killed in the fire. He was not related to Ramona. Thanks to Mark Gatti for the correction.