Family, church grieve missionary killed in Buffalo race massacre as community remembers victims

Ruth Whitfield served her church for more 50 years

Garnell Whitfield Jr. the son of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield who was killed during a mass shooting at Tops market speaks during a press conference with attorney Benjamin Crump and members of his extended family by his side on May 16, 2022, in Buffalo, New York.
Garnell Whitfield Jr. the son of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield who was killed during a mass shooting at Tops market speaks during a press conference with attorney Benjamin Crump and members of his extended family by his side on May 16, 2022, in Buffalo, New York. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

NEW YORK — The family and church community of 86-year-old missionary Ruth Whitfield, who was the oldest of 10 mostly black people executed during the racially-motivated massacre at Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo by an avowed white supremacist on Saturday, is grieving her as a strong woman of faith who was the glue of her close Christian family.

“She was a member of this church for over 50 years. She did it all. From the choir to missionary work, a loving, gentle giant in the faith who we are proud of. [She] Lived a very great and gracious life. We will miss her,” Rev. Kevin Coakley, senior pastor of Durham Memorial A.M.E Zion Church, told The Christian Post on Tuesday.

“We are saddened. We are hurt. We are just devastated, distraught, but we are powerful people who trust in God and we will pray for added strength to aid this family … and other families in buffalo who are suffering from this heinous act of crime and terrorism and act against humanity."

The list of victims of Saturday’s massacre released by the Buffalo Police Department shows that all but two of the dead were New York State residents. Eleven of the victims were black and two were white. The majority also lived in Buffalo and, like Whitfield, were older adults likely not fast enough to escape during the attack.

Among the other dead Buffalo residents are Roberta A. Drury, 32; Margus D. Morrison, 52; Geraldine Talley, 62; Celestine Chaney, 65; Heyward Patterson, 67; Katherine Massey; 72; and Pearl Young, 77. Others killed are Andre Mackneil, 53, of Auburn, New York; and Aaron Salter, 55, of Lockport, New York.

Victims who survived non-life-threatening injuries during the attack include Zaire Goodman, 20, of Buffalo; Jennifer Warrington, 50, of Tonawanda; and Christopher Braden, 55, of Lackawanna.

Payton S. Gendron, 18, was charged with first-degree murder on Saturday. A release from the Erie County District Attorney’s Office alleges that he drove from his home over 200 miles away in Conklin, New York, to the market dressed in tactical gear and armed with an assault weapon.

Police say Gendron, who had been held for mental health evaluation last year after threatening his high school, chose the destination for the attack on account of its large black population and reportedly conducted a reconnaissance trip in March.

At approximately 2:30 p.m., he shot four people in the grocery store's parking lot, and three of them died from their injuries.

The gunman then entered the store and exchanged gunfire with an armed security guard and retired Buffalo Police Department officer, Aaron Salter, who died. The man allegedly shot eight more people inside the store, killing six. Police say that the gunman planned to attack multiple locations. 

Coakley said that despite Whitefield's age, she had been a “very active, stoic member” of Durham Memorial A.M.E. Her entire family worshipped at the church with her. The pastor called the gunman's actions a “crime of hate against the Kingdom of God." He believes justice for the death of Whitfield and others “will prevail.”

“Not only is this an act against humanity, but it is a crime of hate against the Kingdom of God," Coakley said. "All people are God’s people, so we just want to lift up that. She was a beautiful person of the faith and we believe that justice will prevail."

At a press conference at the church on Monday, Whitfield’s extended family, who appeared with their legal team led by civil rights attorney Ben Crump, expressed their pain through tears and sobering speeches.

It was revealed that Whitfield had visited a nursing home to care for her husband on the day she was killed. She was on her way home on Saturday when she stopped at Tops.

"When she didn't feel like it, she did it, and she didn't feel like it on this past day either, but she did it anyway," her son, former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr., said about his mother’s daily visits to see his father. "She left there to get groceries on the way home, and she encountered this evil, hateful — she didn't deserve that. ... Nobody deserves that."

Victims of the Buffalo race massacre in New York.
Victims of the Buffalo race massacre in New York. | Screenshot/Today

In a clip from the press conference that has gone viral on social media., Whitfield Jr. questioned how America could allow its history of racist killings to repeat itself.

“We’re not just hurting. We’re angry. We’re mad. This shouldn’t have happened. We do our best to be good citizens, to be good people. We believe in God. We trust Him,” Whitfield said.

“We treat people with decency, and we love even our enemies. And you expect us to keep doing this over and over and over again — over again, forgive and forget,” he continued. “While people we elect and trust in offices around this country do their best not to protect us, not to consider us equal.”

Crump urged federal lawmakers to pass an anti-black hate crime bill, similar to the anti-Asian hate crime legislation that President Biden signed into law last May that is stalled in Congress.

“[Whitfield's] family will define her legacy, her family will remember her for the love that she instilled in them, in this community, and in this world," Crump said. "Her legacy will be a legacy for love, not hate."

Whitfield Jr. said his father has not yet been told that his wife is dead.

"How do we tell him the love of his life — his primary caretaker, the person who kept him alive for the last eight years — how do we tell him that she's gone?" he said. "Not just that she's gone, but that she's gone at the hands of a white supremacist, of a terrorist, of an evil person who's allowed to live among us and keep perpetuating this mess. How do we tell him that?"

A friend of 32-year-old Roberta Drury, who was the first to be killed in the massacre, told CBS that she was just hoping to get some snacks.

“She gave me a hug and told me she loved me like she always do,” the friend who asked not to be identified recalled about their last interaction. “She walked around the corner. I heard gunshots. I started seeing everybody run out of Tops.”

Drury was shot dead outside the supermarket.

“She was a beautiful person. Her wanting some snacks that day got her life taken,” the friend said.

The friend believes that the supporters will "celebrate what he [shooter] did." She thinks the way the shooter was taken into custody after surrendering sends the message to other potential "right-wing" extremists that they can "walk out, drop their weapon, get not a scratch on them."

Drury’s boyfriend Tremaine Bryce told CBS he is hurting. He said he watched the video of her being gunned down on social media.

“She is the first victim. Saw that with my own eyes,” he said, tearing up. “I’m hurt. I won’t see my baby no more. I’m hurt. All over a racist act.”

Celestine Chaney’s sister, Joann Daniels, remembered her as a beloved grandmother. Daniels said they were shopping for strawberry shortcakes at Tops on Saturday when the shooting began.

“The people was running in,” Daniels recalled. “They running in and I guess they ran over her and I reached down and tried to pick her up and she said ‘go ahead, go ahead. I’m coming.'”

“I thought she was behind me, but she wasn’t,” Daniels said, struggling to contain her emotions. “She saved my life because I was going to stay there with her.”

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