President praises Baltimore native at commencement

If Baltimore native Leland Shelton had bothered to check his email in the hectic day before graduation, he might have avoided a shock during commencement.

There he was, one of 500 men in a black cap and gown this week at Morehouse College in Atlanta, soaking up the words of the speaker — President Barack Obama — when the commander in chief called out his name.

"Where's Leland?" Obama said, and Shelton's mouth went dry. "I was floored, I was momentarily paralyzed," the 21-year-old said.

He respects Obama and identifies with him. They're both African-American men who were raised by their grandparents. Neither had fathers in their lives. And each was accepted into Harvard Law. Obama graduated in 1991, and Shelton will start there in the fall.

But he never expected the president to return his adulation.

"[Shelton] plans to use his law degree to make sure kids like him don't fall through the cracks," Obama told the crowd, which included Shelton's wife of nearly three years and his grandfather. "He'll understand what they're going through. And he'll be fighting for them. He'll be in their corner. That's leadership. That's a Morehouse man right there."

Sitting in Shelton's email inbox at that moment was a message from one of the president's speechwriters, giving him a heads-up. But perhaps it was better that he didn't know. The genuine mix of pleasure and humility — evident in his expression, which was captured in a photo that appeared on the front page of The New York Times — might not have happened any other way.

"It was really an emotional moment," Shelton said.

That day, he realized a dream he'd had since he was 7 and in the third grade at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in South Baltimore. The class had watched an animated film about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who attended the historically black men's college, and Shelton decided that he too wanted to be a Morehouse man.

More than half of his brief life up until then had been spent trailing after his drug-addicted mother from halfway house to recovery house to shelter, until his grandparents retrieved him when he was 4, like they'd already done with his three older siblings (two younger brothers, not yet born, would follow later).

If he were a Morehouse man like Dr. King, young Shelton thought, he could help kids like him in Baltimore and beyond.

Shelton's mother made bad choices. He blames drugs.

"I only know it was a habit that formed recreationally and started to progress and progress — she has a disease — and at a certain point, it took over and she fell into that trap," Shelton said Tuesday, after driving all night back to Baltimore.

His mother has been convicted of stealing multiple times and is now serving the end of a nine-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup for attempted robbery. Shelton talked to her by phone the morning of graduation.

The woman who raised him, his beloved grandmother, died in 2010.

"She did everything she could for him," said Shelton's 82-year-old grandfather, James Jones. "When he walked over that stage, I can just imagine seeing her [beam]."

Margaret Jones was an ordained minister and a skilled seamstress who made prom dresses and tailored garments to make ends meet. James Jones worked in an ice cream factory, bringing home damaged boxes of decadence every Friday, to his grandchildren's delight.

He remembers Shelton as a typical little boy, friendly, athletic and maybe a little quiet, with his nose in a book. Folks at their family church, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Rosebank, thought he would grow up to be a preacher, Jones said.

Shelton sang in the youth choir and was an active member of the church's NAACP youth council. Church member Cecil Payton, now a retired administrator for Morgan State University, took him under his wing.

"He's like another son to me," Payton said, praising Shelton's "perseverance and resiliency."