A small step for Rox, a giant leap for ‘Dudley Dept.’ store
Passers-by peer through the plate glass windows of the Dudley Department store with piqued curiosity.
In neat rows behind a living room set are children’s clothes, housewares, health and beauty products, party favors, handbags, hats — a little bit of everything.
One by one, the customers come in, browse and leave with shopping bags laded with goods.
While clerks and greeters in the store welcome customers, Ulysses Charles is too busy opening boxes and straightening out inventory to observe the reactions of the Dudley shoppers as they evaluate his wares.
The store’s opening in many ways is a homecoming 30 years in the making for Charles, who was cleared of rape charges by DNA evidence in 2002 after spending 19 years behind bars, then waging a protracted lawsuit against the city of Boston to get compensation for the decades he spent behind bars.
A man of few words, Charles has a slow-burning intensity that flashes when he speaks about the injustices of the criminal justice system. He warms up when he speaks of his love for the Dudley Square area where he spent much of his youth.
“I remember Robells,” Charles says, conjuring up memories of the Dudley Square Department store where his mother shopped in the 1970s. “I feel proud that I could do something like this for my community.”
In a shopping district that for years has been host to a near monoculture of hair product purveyors and so-called New York fashion outlets, Charles’ new general goods store has got people talking, according to Dudley Square Main Streets Director Joyce Stanley.
“It fills a void for products we don’t have that residents have identified,” she says. “Two of the things Dudley Main Streets have identified are children’s clothes and economy hardware. This fills the needs.”
It’s been a long journey for Charles, who was incarcerated in 1981. In his 19 years behind bars, his 10 children grew up and one died.
Charles says he never lost hope, though things got rough when he was transferred to a prison in Texas. There, Charles and other Massachusetts inmates were put in solitary confinement for three years and subjected to searches thrice daily.
“I was living in a cage like an animal,” he says of his years in a 6’x4’ cell.
His release date was 2042 and Charles was losing hope. One day, when he refused to allow guards to search him, 12 of them entered his cell and beat him, sending him to the hospital.
He still bears an indentation on the side of his head from the beating.
“Prison changed me,” he says. “It made me into a different person. I can’t even begin to tell you.”
Charles persevered, earning a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and psychology from Curry College while incarcerated. He also studied law in the prison library well enough to represent himself when filing his 2009 complaint against the city of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2009.
A jury of 11 whites and three blacks found in his favor by reason of clear and convincing evidence.
“It’s a very high standard,” Charles says. “Prior to that jury verdict, the district attorney was still claiming I was guilty.”
Charles’ investment in the Dudley community is in many ways an investment in his family. His wife is running a real estate business in another Washington Street storefront Charles has just finished rehabbing. Several of his sons work with him in the store. And he has 16 grand children and three great grandchildren to look after.
“For all the years I was gone, I couldn’t do anything for them,” he says.
The shoppers who enter the store for its grand opening might not notice Charles working among his family members and friends. But they notice the rows of neatly stacked goods. And few walk out empty-handed.
“It’s an excellent addition to the neighborhood,” says school teacher Jessica Cureton, exiting the store with a bag of goods. “Much needed. They have housewares and hair supplies. It’s a win-win.”