By Sylvester Brown Jr.

For years now, Terran Rome has grappled with a consistent fear.

“Man, our people are last on every important list.”

That fear went into overdrive in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic struck the globe.

“We’re already behind and this is really going to hurt us more,” Rome said.

It took almost a year, but Rome was able to craft a program that he feels will prepare young people for a very challenging but opportunity-filled future. It’s called Legacy Institute, a Saturday mentoring program primarily for boys and young men (ages five to 24). For 10 weeks youth attend classes from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m, where they are exposed to a litany of subjects including chess, Black history, politics, journalism, technology and Credit 101.

The name, “Legacy” serves an acronym: “L: Leaving, E: Economic, G: Generational, A: And C: Collaborative information to our Y: Youth.”

“COVID gives us the opportunity to recreate ourselves and be more efficient in what we need to do next and not what we can’t do.”

Terran Rome, Executive Director of Legacy Institute

As a kid, Rome joined Herbert Hoover Boys Club (now …” Boys & Girls Club”) on Grand Blvd., not far from his home on Sullivan and Vandeventer Avenue. There, he learned important lessons such as individual leadership skills, team sports and how to compete athletically. Rome was involved from the age of 8 to 15 and feels that the organization helped him pave his own path to success.

After a stint in the armed services, Rome went into the music, entertainment, and event-hosting industry. In the early 1990s Rome said he pioneered the first African American comedy show and later, the first rap concert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis featuring comedians Dion Cole, Cheryl Underwood, Lavell Crawford and Corey Holcomb. He went on to produce the Missouri Sister-to-Sister Expo and host music concerts and events featuring artists and celebrities such as Chico DeBarge, Jessie Powell, Malik Yoba, Blair Underwood, and the late Susan L. Taylor of Essence magazine. In 2000, Rome entered the real estate world as an investor before starting the “Fresh Start” real estate agency that he’s operated for more than five years.  

Rome’s personal success was marred by the troubling fact that many of his old Herbert Hoover Boy’s Club mates were no longer around.

“I lost a lot of friends to gun violence. A lot of my boys didn’t make it,” Rome recalled sadly.

“I realized that once we grew up there weren’t a lot of things we could do mentally. And I was no better. I was just lucky enough to get through college and keep moving.”

Rome to come up with something that might counter the epidemic of hopelessness, poverty and prison that far too many young black men encounter.

“COVID got me thinking, ‘God, our people can’t afford to get further behind. Where will our babies go?’ Rome explained. “It showed me the importance of doing things differently and better. Without COVID, I don’t think I would have increased my efforts to get this program up and running.”

For almost a year, Rome said he floated the idea of an all-encompassing weekend program for youth to people he knew professionally with no takers. It was a frustrating endeavor until Rome met with Anthony “Tony” Thompson president, CEO, and founder of Kwame Building Group Inc.

“Tony was already doing things in the community. He saw that my plan made sense. So, since he doesn’t have as much time as I do to implement things, we decided to collaborate, and it was put in my hands to make it happen.”

Karen Helm the Community Development Officer for Montgomery Bank teaching a financial literacy class during the Legacy Institute Sat. April 9, 2022. For ten weeks youth attend classes from 9am to 2pm where they are exposed to a litany of subjects including chess, black history, politics, journalism, technology and Credit 101. Photograph courtesy of Wiley Price/ St. Louis American.

Every Saturday, Legacy Institute students meet at Confluence Academy near the main library downtown and partake in subjects designed to prepare them for future obstacles and opportunities.  Some essential subjects, Rome stressed, aren’t taught in regular school settings.

“I always wondered why they don’t teach us about credit literacy in school, especially before kids go to college,” Rome pondered. “And what about chess? I learned how to play chess when I was 8 years old, and the game always stuck with me. Chess made me think and learn different moves to make to win the game.”

On its website, Legacy lists several of its academic programs with brief descriptions. For example, there’s “Banking” designed to help students understand the economic, financial, technological, and ethical aspects of banking. “Black History” courses help students “gain a sense of deeper meaning and self-worth.” The “Civics and Politics” classesprovide “a practical knowledge and understanding of government” and its connection to citizens. Coding courses are designed to help students understand the complex world of computer coding while “Credit 101”covers issues like establishing, building credit, and maintaining a good credit score.

These are just five of the more than 20 introductory courses that also include technology, debate, engineering, entrepreneurship, food and nutrition, real estate, journalism, music/entertainment management and production and more.

Harkening back to his Herbert Hoover experience, where many kids were lost after aging out of the club, Rome noted that Legacy students aren’t abandoned after 10-weeks of tutoring. Graduating students, he said, become “alumni” members who are counseled, tracked, and directed to scholarship, internship, financial aid and other educational or career-building opportunities.

All the courses, Rome added, are designed to help youth expand the legacy of “Blackness.”

“We must leave our youth in a better position than we were in. It’s hard to create a legacy if you don’t know you have a legacy,” Rome said. “We must create a legacy that makes sense for them so they can move it forward. If we guide them properly, if we coach them properly, if we re-tune and refigure things properly, they will get it properly.”

COVID, Rome said, motivated him to finally address concerns that had been gnawing at his consciousness throughout his successful career.

“COVID will cost us, no doubt. But it also gives us the opportunity to recreate ourselves and be more efficient in what we need to do next and not what we can’t do.

“We’re determined to let our kids know that they don’t have to be a part of the system…they can run the system.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.