Mike Soderman moved onto the 200 block of Tenth Street NE in about 2004 and met William Outlaw right away. “He was just a friendly gentleman who lived directly across the street from us,” Soderman remembered. A 20-something Soderman would sit on the stoop, sharing a beverage and swapping stories with his new neighbor, a tall, spry man in his late 70s.
“He was one of the most influential men in my life, he and my father,” Soderman said, looking back. “Whether he realized he was doing it or not, he taught through example on giving back to the community, on making sure that the community was inclusive for everybody and that we watched out for each other.”
Outlaw was born, lived and died amongst that loving community on Capitol Hill, a community he built, nourished and loved and that loved him back. He died in his home Jan. 9, 2023, just two months shy of his 96th birthday. People would come and go, but Outlaw, known as the Mayor of Tenth Street, remained a central pillar of the community.
An Uplifting Influence
Outlaw was born on March 2, 1927 to Fred and Carrie Outlaw in the apartment above what is now a dry cleaners at the corner of Eighth and C Street NE. In 1936, Carrie Outlaw died, and the 9-year-old William was sent to live with his father’s sister, Daisy, and her husband George McDowell in a house on the 200 block of Tenth Street NE.
He would live in that house for 84 years.
He moved out for a time in his early adulthood. In 1949 he married Shirley Harrison, welcoming daughter Carolyn Dorothy and son William Henry Jr. before divorcing. Outlaw worked at the Naval Ordinance Station in Indian Head, Maryland, where he trained as an engineer and was on the team that created the first U.S. missile sent into space. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952, he served in the Korean War and worked at the Naval Ordinance Station until his retirement in 1982.
In 1969, he married Pocahontas Swinson. She became “Ma Pokie” to his two children, and after they moved back onto Tenth Street, to the neighborhood.
After retiring, the two opened Outlaw’s Kitchen (917 U St. NW) in 1984. It became a gathering place for the neighborhood at a time when such a focal point was needed. “Regular customers keep track of whether it’s peach cobbler, apple cobbler or banana pudding and plan accordingly,” wrote Phyllis C. Richman of Ma Pokie’s baked goods in the Post’s Metro Menu.
The restaurant closed in 2000, around the time Outlaw suffered a stroke. But after he recovered, he found things to do. He swept the sidewalks along Tenth Street and neatened the alleys around the trash cans. Outlaw would greet neighbors as “gorgeous” or “handsome.” The mannerism was a relic of a childhood incident when his aunt admonished him for calling someone a name and told him he should instead be an uplifting influence in the lives of others.
Outlaw made that message the guiding principle of his life.
The Whole Package
A few years after closing the restaurant, Outlaw took on a project that would occupy him until nearly his final days. The rise in theft of package deliveries that accompanied the success of Amazon in the early 2000s enraged Outlaw.
Soderman remembers the last straw. One day in around 2003, workmen left a stove and refrigerator on the curb outside a home as they retrieved a part. When they returned, the appliances were gone, quickly stolen. “He had basically had enough,” said Soderman. “He took action into his own hands.”
Outlaw threw himself into the cause, telling residents on his block to leave notes instructing couriers to leave deliveries at the Outlaw house. He kept their 100-plus names, addresses and phone numbers neatly in spiral notebooks, calling to arrange pick up when items arrived. Children fought to be sent to collect mail as Outlaw, who adored children, would give them a popsicle, too. His project got noticed and was covered in stories by the Post and Roll Call.
But Outlaw also succeeded in fulfilling his other goals. Residents of the block who might otherwise never have met crossed paths in his front room, building community as they collected deliveries.
Caitlin Rogger moved to the block in 2016. She said Outlaw had a unifying effect on the block, creating a space to interact and engage more than neighbors would otherwise have done. “You’d come in the evening and you’d see Mr. Outlaw, and you’d see your neighbors because everyone was doing the same thing,” said Rogger
Both Outlaws worked to support their community —and the District— for decades. They were members of the John Wesley AME Zion Church. William Outlaw was also a Mason and a clown with the Mecca Temple Clown Club, known as “Swivel Hips” for his distinct dancing as he marched before the band in parades.
Ma Pokie was passionate about registering people to vote, volunteering at her local polling station in Capitol Hill. She volunteered for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to help improve the lives of low-income families and did daily acts of kindness for the neighborhood such as making dishes for those in need.
In 2010, a book by Carolyn J. Koch, “How to Change A Neighborhood,” told Outlaw’s story as a way to encourage children to make change in their communities. Eight years later, the DC Council named the 200 block “Outlaw Way” in Ma Pokie’s honor, recognizing the contribution of both Outlaws to the street as well as the community.
In support of the designation, ANC 6A wrote that “[r]esidents’ connection with the Outlaws, now enjoyed by multiple generations as many children grow up knowing and respecting them, also fosters a much-needed connection between different social groups, fostering an environment in which residents recognize the value of civic participation and volunteerism.”
Surrounded by Love
Outlaw lived independently in his home until his 94th year. The pandemic disrupted his package system, but he did not give up the efforts completely until a fall in November 2021. “Once that was taken away from him, that’s when the speedy decline in his health happened,” his daughter, Carolyn Williams said.
William H. Outlaw was thinking of his neighbors until the very last. In the final weeks of his illness, he tried to convey his concern to those caring for him. “Something about the man at the door that’s delivering the packages and I have to get the door?” a confused nurse caring for him told his daughter.
During his final illness, Outlaw lay in a hospital bed in the dining room of his home. From there, he could watch the comings and goings of neighbors and pray out loud for his children, his caregivers and his community. Even then, he wanted to be there for his neighbors, Williams said. “He just wanted to make sure everyone was taken care of; it didn’t matter who you were.”
They wanted to be there for him, too. Every birthday, the neighbors would come to the front door to sing, bringing cake and balloons. In the last years and days of his life, neighbors would check in with Outlaw, bring him food and send messages to his children, now living in other neighborhoods, about how he was faring. The family invited them say farewell to Outlaw in the last few days of his life. “They all came; it was so beautiful,” Williams remembers. “They were able to talk to him, and say they loved him.”
“He was more than the packages; he was the man,” Soderman said. “He lived his life in a way that was pretty inspirational. He truly was a man for others.”
Pocahontas Outlaw predeceased her husband by nearly nine years. He is survived by his daughter, Carolyn Williams (James); his son, William Outlaw, Jr. (Stephanie); his granddaughter, Nicole Taylor; great grandchildren, Mackenzie Jacques and Mackenson Jacques, Jr.; his 10th Street “Outlaw Way” Family and a host of relatives and friends.
Williams said the family in particular is grateful to Mike Soderman, Norman Twitty, Reverend Glenn Hoburg and William Frazier who gave Outlaw particular care in his latter years and days, as well as the entire community.
“We have appreciated everything you all have done,” she said, on behalf of the Outlaw family. “Words can never express our deepest gratitude.”
Outlaw died as he wanted, peacefully at home surrounded by his loving family and in the midst of the community where he had been raised, and in turn, that he had raised up.