How the Parents of a Black College Student Killed by Alleged White Supremacist Became 'Catalysts for Change'

Richard Collins Jr. and Dawn Collins, the parents of Richard Collins III, "want to make sure the world knows our son’s name and what he stood for" after his 2017 murder

How the Parents of a Black College Student Killed by Alleged White Supremacist Became 'Catalysts for Change'
Richard Collins III. Photo: Courtesy Collins Family

May 2017 was an exciting time for Richard Collins III. The 23-year-old had just received his commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was days away from graduating Bowie State University.

He went to visit friends on the campus of the University of Maryland, and around 3 a.m. on May 20, Richard and two friends were waiting at a campus bus stop for an Uber.

Suddenly, a white stranger with a pocketknife emerged from a wooded area, and ordered Richard to move away. He then fatally stabbed him. Richard was the only Black person present.

"His death shattered our world," Richard Collins Jr. tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

Richard was someone who rarely met a stranger, and it was unthinkable to them that he had been targeted by a killer for being Black.

"One of my fondest memories is of him on the playground, seeing another child and saying, 'Hey, kid, do you want to play?'" says his mother, Dawn Collins. "It didn't matter who it was, he said, 'Come on over here, let's play."

Within minutes of the murder, police arrested Sean Urbanski, 22, a former University of Maryland student — and discovered he was a member of a white supremacist Facebook group and had racist memes on his cell phone.

At trial in 2019, prosecutors argued Urbanski targeted Richard because of race. Though Urbanski was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, the presiding judge tossed out hate crime charges, saying prosecutors did not have enough evidence to show that the killing was committed solely because of racial hatred.

"We didn't understand that decision," says Richard Jr. "It mystified us."

Adds Dawn: "We knew we had to change that law."

circa March 2020. Dawn and Rick Collins, parents of Richard Collins who was killed by a White supremacist in May 2017. Credit: Bruce Smallwood /Mount Vernon Marketing/Maryland studio
Dawn and Richard Collins Jr. Bruce Smallwood /Mount Vernon Marketing/Maryland studio

The couple contacted lawmakers and civil rights advocates, with the goal of expanding Maryland's legal definition of a hate crime. In March 2020, with bipartisan support, the state legislature enacted the Second Lt. Richard Collins III Law, making a hate crime one "motivated in whole or in substantial part" by a victim's race, religion or sexual orientation. Says Dawn: "We didn't want anyone else to suffer like we did."

That victory has given them a measure of comfort even as they grieve the loss of their child.

Richard was a natural leader even as a kid growing up in Chesapeake, Va., and he excelled in sports.

"He enjoyed being around people," says his father. "He was engaging, he was intelligent, and he just enjoyed his life."

When the high school lacrosse player realized there was no intramural team when he arrived at Bowie State, he started one on his own.

And Richard had mapped out a plan for his life: to become an Army general, retire, get a master's degree and buy his own farm. "He thought the sky was the limit," says Richard Jr., "and anything was possible."

The Collinses keep their son's bedroom exactly as it was, with an American flag hanging above his bed. Richard's memory inspires them to fight for a better, more just world. "I knew I could stay home and cry or be a catalyst for change," says Dawn.

To that end, they've launched a foundation named for Richard: The 2nd Lieutenant Richard W. Colllins III Foundation gives $1 million in scholarships to ROTC cadets at historically Black colleges and universities every year.

"I want to make sure the world knows our son's name," says Dawn, "and what he stood for."

The parents have also partnered with Outward Bound to bring cadets from HBCUs and majority-white universities on wilderness retreats. The trips aim to promote interactions between different races and to get students "out of their comfort zones," says Richard Jr.

The couple also worked with the University of Maryland and Bowie State to form the Social Justice Alliance, a group with a goal of breaking down racial barriers among students.

"I think the work that they're doing is indescribable, monumental," says Rayshawn Ray, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who co-directs the Social Justice Alliance.

"They were able to, in light of the tragedy of their son being murdered, to have the wherewithal to want to try to heal a racial divide in our county and in our state," he says.

Recently, the University of Maryland unveiled the Lt. Collins Plaza at the school. The memorial is a testament to the ways Richard's legacy is helping to change things for the better.

"It's an affirmation that our son's life made a difference in the world," says Richard Jr. "And that he mattered."

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