Death of a Lieutenant: The Spirit of Richard Collins' III lives on
2nd Lt. Richard Collins III wanted to be the next Colin Powell.
“He thought that there was no limit to what he could do. We had conversations and he said, ‘Mom, the world is going to know my name,’” remembers Dawn Collins of her son.
But on May 20, 2017, the 23-year-old Bowie State University student was stabbed to death by a White supremacist while waiting at a bus stop at the University of Maryland. The person accused of his death is 24-year-old Sean Urbanski. He remains behind bars, facing first-degree murder and hate-crime charges. The attack was unprovoked. Police have said that Urbanski, who is White, was affiliated with a Facebook page called Alt-Reich: Nation.
Collins was only a few days from graduation.
“Trust me, this is a pain that is like no other,” says Collins from her home. “I didn’t lose my son; he was taken away. So I’m a part of a group that you never ever as a mom want to be a part of.”
It is not easy to crack into the private life of Richard Collins III. His mother is a gracious woman with a warm laugh. She has chosen to speak out about her son when it would have been easier to collapse into her pain. It’s clear when speaking to her, however, that she has already decided where she draws the line when she speaks about the son she loved and nurtured for 23 years before he was killed.
“When I refer to my son, I will call him Lt. Collins, 2nd Lt. Collins because he was passionate about his military career and he earned that right,” Collins says over the phone. “So in the public eye we, my husband and I, will always refer to him as Lt. Collins.”
Black mamas have always had to protect their babies in a special kind of way — knowing that their lives could be snatched away at any time by someone who only saw their skin color. It’s part of their duty, then, to ensure that the public knows that they were loved, and good and cared for.
In the two years since her son’s tragic death, Collins and the rest of a close-knit group that includes the immediate family, close friends and supporters, have protected 2nd Lt. Collins’ name and image. Search for Collins’ name and you’ll find the same photo of him — an impossibly young, handsome, brown-skinned man smiling, looking strong and confident in his uniform.
"This was not a thug," the Collins family’s pastor, the Rev. Darryl L. Godlock of Calvert County Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., told members of the media shortly after Collins’ murder. "This was a very caring individual. He was highly intelligent and he was at the peak of his career. He loved his family, he loved people that he came in contact with, and more importantly he loved his God."
Racial tensions have always been high in the United States, but Collins’ murder came at a time where hateful rhetoric was becoming bolder and more violent. Just four months before Collins was killed, President Donald Trump was sworn into office. Trump’s election to the highest office in the land was heralded by White supremacists like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and White nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Two months after Collins’ death, a White woman named Heather Heyer was killed after a Neo-Nazi struck her with a car during a race-fueled clash in Charlottesville, Va. Although the FBI has declined to call Collins’ death a hate crime, statistics from the agency show that hate crimes rose 17 percent from 2016 to 2017. A 2018 study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found that hate crimes were up in America’s 10 largest cities. And according to an analysis by researchers at the University of Texas, hate crimes rose 226 percent in counties where Trump held campaign rallies in 2016.
Four days after Collins’ murder, Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown took to the floor of the House of Representatives to condemn the attack and call on the Trump administration to act quickly in the wake of his death.
“Today, I’m calling on the administration — that has repeatedly failed to denounce the hate crimes directed at Jews, members of the LGBT community, or immigrants — to denounce the hate-fueled killing of a Black soldier, 2nd Lt. Richard Collins,” Brown said. “In the absence of real change, we take to the streets. We protest. We hold vigils. But Richard Collins deserves better. Our children deserve better.” A Leader Among Us Collins’ mother says that her son was so much more than the night he was killed. She describes him as a unique thinker, someone who was always striving for more, always wanting to be the best. Mrs. Collins said that she and her husband took parenting both of their children (they also have a 23-year-old daughter) very seriously. They believed that education was the key to their children achieving their dreams.
“Education is something that we taught our children from a very, very young age. Once you have that education no one can ever take it away from you. And that is how you make your mark on this world,” Collins says. “My son had aspirations of being the next Colin Powell.”
She says her son always knew he would serve in the military. His father, Richard Collins II, and grandfather both served in the Navy.
“That was something that was talked about in the house and that was something that Richard strived for. He wanted to be an officer. He wanted to be the best,” Collins says of her son.
Collins remembers the day her son told her he wanted to be a part of the U.S. Army’s Airborne, meaning he’d become a paratrooper who’d be called on to jump out of airplanes.
“Being his mother, I had to take pause,” she says, laughing. “He said: ‘Mom, this is what I want to do. I will be successful at it.’”
Collins says her son was always nimble and quick to pick up anything, so she knew what he said was true.
“He would say ‘I’m going to run the fastest. I’m going to jump the highest.’ So he had that self-confidence about himself. Always. Always,” remembers Collins.
Eartha Govan, Bowie State’s professor of military science of the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) remembers that confident young man. Govan says Collins became a great leader in the Corps of Cadets.
“The other cadets looked up to him and would follow his guidance and tutelage,” Govan said via email. “I will always remember that he was a selfless young man who put the needs of others above his own needs and without hesitation.”
Just two days before Collins’ death, Govan had attended the young soldier’s commissioning ceremony and had spent time with him and his family at their family gathering. She was speechless when she learned of Collins’ stabbing.
“I couldn't process the tragic news in my mind,” Govan says. “I didn’t want to believe it.”
Govan was heartbroken, shocked, devastated.
“I felt betrayed by society once more. I felt cheated by a society again where African Americans worked hard and did everything right to make our dreams a reality only to have our life and dreams stripped away because of the color of our skin,” said Govan.
“There is no mistake about the truth of why [2nd Lt.] Collins is not with us today,” Govan wrote. “He was murdered by a coward and a criminal who viewed Richard as unimportant and less than a human being. When in fact, 2nd Lt. Collins was an African-American man, not just the average African-American man, but also, an Army officer and a gentleman. Richard was cheated out of his life and dreams of continuing to become a productive citizen in society. He was on his way to make his dreams a reality.” A Lasting Legacy Collins says that the Bowie community, led by Bowie State University President Aminta H. Breaux, has been a constant source of support and encouragement. It was the school, Collins said, that ensured that her son was “ready for launch.”
In a written statement to The Crisis, Breaux said the Collins family would always have a home at Bowie.
“From everything I’ve heard about [2nd Lt.] Collins’ character, his warmth and humor, it’s clear that he was a bright star with incredible potential to become a great leader and officer in the United States Army serving our country,” Breaux wrote.
Breaux also noted that Collins’ death reverberated on Bowie’s campus: “[2nd Lt.] Collins’ senseless death had a far-reaching impact on our campus community, and that remains so today. He will always be a part of our history as we remember the young man whose life was cut short. As Maryland’s first historically Black university, we have to continually remind ourselves of where we started as an institution and recognize our special duty in today’s world to talk about issues of race and inclusion to help create an environment where everyone can feel safe, respected and valued.”
Two years after her son’s death, Collins says that the pain that she and her family endure is immeasurable but the work they do in Richard’s memory helps.
In November 2018, the Collins family announced the creation of the 2nd Lt. Richard W. Collins III Foundation on his birthday. The foundation will help support ROTC cadets at Maryland’s four Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Bowie State, Morgan State, Coppin State and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The first funds will be awarded in the fall of 2020.
“The foundation is something that we feel is important because that is our gift back to the community, for someone who wants that education but may not have the money,” Collins says.
Maryland state Sens. Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and Douglas J.J. Peters co-sponsored legislation to make the $1 million fund a reality.
“My charge ... to the future officers who will be commissioned, is to let the spirit of 2nd Lt. Richard W. Collins III, [his] family and friends, live through you by looking at their example of sound moral character,” Peters said at a special ceremony honoring Collins and announcing the foundation.
Collins says that one of the most painful things about her son’s death was that he was fiercely anti-racism. The foundation will provide both moral and financial support to students.
“That’s my get back. That’s what I know I have to do to further who my son was,” Collins said. “If I sit and cry, then who am I helping?
“My son believed [that] bigotry of any kind should not be tolerated. My son had friends from every walk of life; that was just the person he was. Didn’t matter if you were of like mind, he didn’t care.” Learn more about the 2nd Lt. Richard W. Collins III Foundation at: www.2ltrichardwcollinsfoundation.org. Lisa Snowden-McCray is a freelance writer in Maryland.