Renald Moore’s journey from a prison cell to becoming Texas Southern’s valedictorian
Academics and acting got him through 20 years of incarceration and onto a better path
“That kid is long gone and this old man is all that’s left.” — Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, The Shawshank Redemption
Renald Moore is very busy these days.
He’s the lead resident assistant at the Knowles-Temenos Place Apartments, a complex that focuses on providing permanent housing for low-income people in Houston. The 2016 Texas Southern University winter commencement valedictorian is also helping his elderly father, Billy Moore, with his daily errands.
“I’m trying to manage all of my father’s affairs at the moment along with all of the requests for my time,” said Moore, 42.
The requests for his time — radio interviews and speaking engagements — are coming from local news publications because of Moore’s inspiring story of hitting rock bottom only to stand on a stage last December with a degree and academic honors in hand.
His youth was characterized by drug-dealing, petty crime and spending time “around the wrong people.” He had several stints in jail before the worst happened in 1993. Moore’s cousin was sold a bad batch of drugs and he went with him to settle the score. Instead of getting a refund, Moore, who was 18 years old at the time, shot and killed the drug dealer and spent the next years of his life regretting it.
During Moore’s 20-year sentence, he earned a GED from Gulf Coast Trade Center and an associate’s degree from Trinity Valley Community College. He was released in 2013 but was homeless for almost a year afterward.
Previously known as Reynoil White (he legally changed his name after being released), he started doing a little acting while incarcerated. “People used to praise me for my acting skills while I was in prison,” said Moore, who acted in skits as part of a prison acting troupe. Moore’s inner thespian became more than just something to keep his mind off the rest of his sentence — acting became an outlet and his passion.
He had dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. Now, he’s an inspiration for anyone who has to start all over again. “I’m glad that my story is inspiring people to overcome their odds, but if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have done it that way,” Moore said.
A Redemption Story
Upon his release, Moore had to begin again back where it all started in Houston. According to a 2005 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 50 to 55 percent of state prisoners return to prison within five years. Moore knew he didn’t want to go back to doing what he had done as a young man. He just wasn’t so sure how to get back on the right track.
“I was homeless for a while. I had been out [of prison] for a year before I started living at Knowles-Temenos,” Moore said. The need for his own place was important and the comfort of that helped birth his zest to continue his education. “I think it’s important, it’s been a blessing to me,” he said about getting the apartment that he moved into in 2014 and still lives in today. “It’s hard to house all of the homeless people in this city. Apartments like these are essential to the process of getting back on your feet.”
Moore worked wherever he could. “Before getting locked up, I worked at a car wash, McDonald’s and as a telemarketer,” Moore said. However, after getting out of prison, employment opportunities were not easy to come by. “While in prison, I used to dream of being in college,” Moore said. “I didn’t know I was going to go to Texas Southern, but I always saw myself physically in college.”
His dream soon came true, with a lot of help from a historically black university, when people looked past his background and to his future.
The Nontraditional student
“We all get tired. It’s a part of being a human being. Get yourself some rest and get up and keep going” was one of the mantras that Moore would tell himself as he prepared to take two buses from the north side of Houston to class every day at Texas Southern.
“There wasn’t one semester that I didn’t think about quitting,” he said. Quitting never became the answer, most definitely not in professor Thomas Meloncon’s theater classes.
“I told Renald that he has too much to offer to quit,” said Meloncon, an associate professor of theater and the theater coordinator at Texas Southern. “It was an absolute joy to teach and direct him.”
Meloncon and Moore worked together in the university’s production of Johnnie B. Goode. Written and directed by Meloncon and starring Moore as Johnnie A, the father of the lead character Johnnie B, the production nearly sold out the 2,000-seat Granville M. Sawyer Auditorium on campus.
“I knew before I cast the play that [Renald] could play that role because of his skill level,” Meloncon said. “He was highly disciplined and hungry to discover his character.”
The man on that stage had dreamed of moments like this, and now he was living it at Texas Southern. “He’s a great student and actor,” Meloncon said. Moore was doing more than acting on those nights; he was living. “I’m ready to get my acting day job right now,” Moore joked, “but T-Mobile, Comcast and the rest of the utilities don’t care if I’m an actor or a valedictorian.”
Moore, who had a 3.9 grade-point average, might have been a natural on the stage, but in the college classrooms at Texas Southern, one of Houston’s oldest universities, he had a lot to learn. “I learned about what goes on to create the content that we see on television and hear on radio,” said Moore, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in communications. “I also learned how media messages are constructed to lead us to purchase things.
“When I first got out of prison, I was very technologically challenged, but there was always someone at Texas Southern that was willing to help me. They didn’t do the work for me, but I recognize God’s hands in helping me.”
Visiting assistant professor Ladonia Randle had Moore in her computer applications in communications class in the summer of 2014 and remembered an eager student. “I usually arrive early to set up and [Renald] was always the first student to arrive for class,” Randle said. “He was enthusiastic about learning. He constantly asked questions and was not embarrassed about asking for help.” About attending a historically black university, Moore said, “I don’t know if I would have gotten that type of assistance somewhere else. The connections I made at TSU will probably last me for the rest of my life.”
Sean Bowers, Texas Southern’s assistant director of scholarships, was one of those connections. “In my opinion, Mr. Moore redefines the definition of ‘nontraditional’ student,” Bowers said. “Ren was behind on a lot of the technology most traditional students grew up using, but he did not let that stop him.”
In three years, Moore went from never having set foot in a college classroom to being at the top of his class. “When I first met Ren, I’m pretty sure I underestimated him and probably even judged him internally,” Bowers said. “By the time he called me and told me that he was selected as the valedictorian, I honestly was not surprised. I simply told him, ‘I told you so.’ ”
Dreams and realities
“I like to act. I like to make music and eventually I think some doors will open up for me,” Moore said. “I’m a man of faith, a man of God. If it’s meant for me to have a role in a Hollywood film, then it will be.”
If his story tells us anything, it’s that he can do whatever he sets his mind to. “Mr. Moore decided that he would be the author of his own story,” said Bernadette Smith, the director of Texas Southern’s University Counseling Center.
“As such, he was determined to push through obstacles and establish connections with individuals and departments to help him reach the goals he set for himself.” Smith added. “Mr. Moore doesn’t have a ceiling.”
Asked what he’d say if he could go back in time to encourage his younger self, Moore answered, “I would tell him to follow his dreams.”
“If I would have followed my dreams, my life and the life of the man I killed might have taken another turn,” he said.
Besides his other duties, Moore plans to start working with young men in the juvenile detention centers in Houston. “I want to take time to talk to them and to give back,” said Moore, who’s taking it one day at a time. For now, he must finish his rounds at the apartments and see about his father.
“Hopefully some of the people who read this can gain something from it,” Moore said. “If I can help keep someone else from having to go through what I went through, then it will all be worth it.”
Donnell Suggs is sports editor of the Houston Home Journal in Perry, Georgia, and covers Fort Valley State University athletics for The Leader-Tribune. Originally from Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, he remains a stubborn New York Mets, New York Jets and Brooklyn Nets fan.