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Sandra Bland Mourned From Illinois to Texas

On both ends of the path that marked Sandra Bland's 28-year life — the western suburbs of Chicago where she grew up, and the Texas town where she died — family, friends and supporters Sunday took time to remember, honor and demand answers.

Sharon Cooper speaks at the memorial for her sister, Sandra Bland, at Hope AME Church in Prairie View, Texas, on July 19, 2015.

LISLE, Ill. — Sandra Bland began her Facebook videos by greeting viewers as "kings and queens." Those close to her believe she truly meant it.

“She talks to us as kings and queens,” one of her sisters, Shavon Bland, said outside the family's church in Illinois on Sunday. “That’s how she went around the world speaking. From here to Chicago to Texas — wherever she went.”

On both ends of the path that marked Bland's 28-year life — the western suburbs of Chicago where she grew up, and the Texas town where she died — family, friends and supporters continued to raise questions Sunday about her startling death in the Waller County jail as they took time to remember, honor and reflect.

With clasped hands and bowed heads, hundreds of congregants of the DuPage African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Lisle filed slowly out of the sanctuary and held a prayer walk around the church grounds, wearing white ribbons to honor Bland, who had worshipped there with her family for 18 years.

More than 1,100 miles away, in Prairie View, 100 or so gathered for a similar service at the Hope AME Church, including two of Bland's other sisters and several Texas elected officials.

Sharon Cooper, who traveled to Texas for the service, bade her younger sister goodbye when she left for a job at Prairie View A&M hoping Sandra would find welcome in Waller County. 

“When you send your baby sister to a place that’s far away from home, you hope that people will open their arms and embrace her,” Cooper said.

Bland was found hanged on July 13 in a Waller County jail cell, her death ruled a suicide. She had been pulled over three days earlier outside the Hope AME Church by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper for an improper lane change, and arrested on a charge of assaulting a public servant. 

Multiple agencies, including the Texas Rangers and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have announced investigations into her death, and Waller County officials have promised they would hide no information from the Bland family. 

A Prairie View A&M graduate, Bland had returned to take a temporary job with the school's extension service. 

In the wake of her sister’s death, Cooper said her family has found support in the Waller County community. 

“I can’t tell you how connected we have become to you all throughout this last week,” Cooper told those at the Prairie View prayer vigil. “Until we were able to physically be here, the people that were our voice and our ears and our eyes were from this community.”

Several Texas officials, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, also made appearances.

“We’re just here to pay the respects that you pay to any family that has suffered a loss, regardless of where the facts go,” Patrick said. “No one should jump to any conclusions. Wait for the investigations to be completed and then see what the facts have to say.”

At Bland’s home church, located just outside of Chicago, many in the congregation knew her, taught her in the Sunday school, sang with her in the choir or participated in youth programs together.

Though she had been sad to leave her sisters, friends and family said she was excited about new opportunity in Texas. They described a woman who saw greatness in everyone and was determined to see them succeed whether they were an aspiring artist or a single mother. 

Preston Miller and Juwan Mass, who grew up with Bland, said she demanded that her friends “aggressively pursue what they loved,” and noted she and her sisters made sure the boys at their church stayed out of trouble and avoided incarceration.  

“We all have college degrees, and we all have pursued our dreams to the highest degree possible,” Miller said.

“That’s all thanks to her,” Mass added. “It would be selfish of me to say that she wasn’t influential.”

Church members questioned the circumstances of Bland’s death, echoing the sentiments of those who have been protesting in Texas and posting on social media. The DuPage AME Church created a petition asking the U.S. Department of Justice to begin an independent investigation of her death. 

At a service before the prayer walk, the Rev. James F. Miller acknowledged the racial tensions surrounding Bland’s death. In an impassioned sermon, Miller asked the congregation to honor Bland’s legacy, her activism and desire for equality.

“Stand up. It’s time to get busy. It’s time to do something,” he yelled to an overflowing sanctuary. “Sandy is still speaking. Are you listening?”

In her “Sandy Speaks” videos posted on Facebook, Bland called for action on injustices ranging from police brutality to racism. She once spent hours at a shopping mall collecting signatures for a petition to reinstate the championship title of a Chicago Little League team that investigators said used ineligible players.

Roughly 200 people gathered Sunday evening on the Prairie View A&M campus to share memories of Bland and encourage the community to continue to push for answers in her death. Some students recited poems about racial oppression, and several of Bland's friends from the university spoke about the energetic young woman they remembered.

"I've only seen Sandy cry twice. She was such a strong spirit, such a strong presence," said Carlesha Harrison, one of Bland's friends from the college marching band. "She had a strong faith in God, and she wouldn't let anything tear her down."

Bland was passionately outspoken, her friends said, but also exceedingly kind.

“She was never disrespectful to any of us who were her mentors in this church,” said Terri Norman, who had known Bland since she was young. “How often can you say a person in her teenage years was never disrespectful?”

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