11 Black luminaries who lost their lives to COVID-19

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The first known U.S. case of COVID-19 was reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on January 21, 2020. In the months following, whispers about the novel coronavirus continued to spread across social media and some news outlets. Something was in the air but with little reliable information available at the time, the truth about this strange virus remained elusive. 

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Since then, our lives have been forever changed. Compared to white Americans, Black people are 2.9 times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and 1.9 times as likely to lose their life from it, according to the CDC. 

Environmental stressors like air pollution continue to exacerbate COVID-19 complications, Black people are working to recover from devastating rates of job loss, and there continues to be a need for more research on the mental health impacts of COVID-19. One thing remains clear, however. The government has a responsibility to deliver programs that will promote equity in testing, vaccinations, and economic repair.

To take one of the first steps toward communal healing, theGrio remembers the leaders in Black culture, politics, and entertainment we lost this year. 

Larry Edgeworth 

(Photo: Instagram)

Veteran audio technician Larry Edgeworth spent 25 years working in NBC News’ 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters as part of the NBC family. Edgeworth was born in New York City and earned a degree in television and film production from the New York Institute of Technology in 1982. Edgeworth passed away in mid-March from COVID-19 complications and his wife, Crystal, shared with reporters that the 61-year-old had other health challenges.

In the aftermath of his passing, Edgeworth was dearly remembered by NBC staff who shared many special tributes online. “Larry was a gentle bear of a man, the heart and soul of our extended NBC family,” said Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent. TODAY show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, who travelled with Edgeworth in the past, said, “I adored Larry. We traveled together for two straight months on a campaign in 2008 and he was always the most warm, most professional, most loving.” 

Nashom ‘Mona Foot’ Wooden

Mona Foot theGrio.com
Screenshot from the Drag Showcase Instagram video of Mona Foot

Nashom “Mona Foot” Wooden was a musical artist, performer, and drag queen phenom. Mr. Wooden’s passing in March 2020 at age 50 shocked friends and fans, who described him as healthy but rapidly weakened from the disease. The Brooklyn-born Wooden took on the persona “Mona Foot” and dominated New York’s queer night scene since the 90s, captivating audiences in fierce Wonder Woman and Barbarella costumes.

In 1999, he starred alongside Seymour Hoffman and Robert De Niro in the comedy-drama “Flawless” and recorded the film’s eponymous song with the dance trio The Ones, which climbed to No. 4 on the Billboard charts. Project Runway designer Geoffrey Mac called Wooden one of his best friends and shared condolences in a video posted on Instagram, saying, “I just want to make sure everyone out there stays healthy and takes care of each other because the virus is really real.” 

Ellis Marsalis Jr. 

(Credit: Chris Granger/New Orleans Advocate)

Ellis Marsalis Jr. was a legendary jazz pianist, educator, and patriarch of the musical Marsalis family. A son of New Orleans, Marsalis attended Xavier University’s School of Music as a teenager and entered Dillard University in 1951, majoring in music education. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and playing with bands like the house trio at New Orleans’ Playboi Club and the Al Hirt band, Ellis began working as an instructor at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts High School. There, he nurtured musicians like Harry Connick Jr., Donald Harrison, four out of six of his sons: Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason.

Mbyo Kenyatta Marsalis, the youngest Marsalis brother, resided with his father in the family home in New Orleans and Ellis III is a photographer and poet. Marsalis passed away in April 2020 at age 85. In 2010, Marsalis was interviewed by the HistoryMakers and in 2018, he was inducted into the New Orleans Hall of Fame and received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music.

Wilson Roosevelt Jerman

Wilson Roosevelt Jerman theGrio.com
Butler Wilson Roosevelt Jerman with The Obamas (Image from the book “Becoming”)

When a good friend, Eugene Allen, asked Wilson Roosevelt Jerman if he wanted a job at the White House, Jerman wasn’t sure but ultimately accepted the offer. Allen’s life inspired the 2013 historical drama The Butler, and together, the two men witnessed history first-hand through their service at the White House. Born in 1929 in Seaboard, North Carolina, Jerman grew up in poverty and quit school early to help his family. In 1955, Jerman moved to Washington D.C and in 1957, he began working as a cleaner in the White House under the Eisenhower Administration.

With the arrivals of the Kennedys in 1960, Jerman was promoted to a butler by First Lady Jackie Kennedy and formed a close connection with her. In his 55 years of service, Jerman bonded with many presidential families including the Johnsons, who supported his first wife Gladys’ health treatment when she became critically ill. In May 2020, Jerman passed from COVID-19 at the age of 91. 

Herman Cain

Herman Cain thegrio.com
Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at the “Cain’s Revolution on the Hill” Tax Day Rally at the U.S. Capitol April 16, 2012 in Washington, DC. Cain spent the day promoting his 9-9-9 tax code plan in advance of tomorrow, the day that Americans are required to file their income taxes this year. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Born in Memphis and raised in Atlanta, Herman Cain made a name for himself as a corporate analyst, entrepreneur, and author. Prior to entering the political realm, the Morehouse College graduate gained prominence as the CEO of Godfather Pizza, and for his impressive track record of putting once failing franchises, like Burger King, back on paths to success. In the ’90s, his conservative criticism of the Clinton administration’s healthcare reform plan caught the attention of Republican leaders like Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich, who he collaborated with on economic study and policy.

After his unsuccessful presidential run in 2012, the Tea Party-aligned Cain supported Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and continued to host his radio show at Atlanta’s WSB station until his death in July 2020. Cain succumbed to the coronavirus at age 74, one month after being diagnosed. 

Lonnie Norman

Lonnie Norman Tennessee thegrio.com
(Credit: City of Manchester)

In 1991, Lonnie Norman made history by becoming Manchestor, Tennessee’s first Black mayor, a position he held until his passing in October 2020—a total of three terms and 30 years in public service. Growing up during the Jim Crow era, Norman was invested in improving race relations in Tennessee and became involved in unionizing and desegregation efforts at the Arnold Engineering and Development Complex (AEDC), where he worked as a technician for 40 years.

His family says that his proudest accomplishments as mayor were securing funding for a new recreational complex, supporting local businesses and rural hospitals, and embracing the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, which brings an estimate of 80,000 visitors to the Manchester area per year. In the wake of his death, Norman’s family implored citizens to take COVID-19 seriously and to follow safety guidelines, stating, “To our fellow citizens, we say please wear a mask, practice physical distancing, and protect public health and each other. We are all in this together.” 

Charley Pride 

Charley Pride performs onstage during the The 54th Annual CMA Awards at Nashville’s Music City Center on Wednesday, November 11, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for CMA)

Over the course of his career, baritone country music singer Charley Pride garnered over 30 No.1 hits on the country music charts. After serving in the U.S. Army, playing baseball in the segregated American league, and working at a smelting plant in Montana, the Sledge, Mississippi native’s music career launched in 1967 when he released “Just Between You and Me” with RCA records.

Although he was the first Black artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and gain acclaim in the genre, Pride told NPR that he didn’t think of himself as a pioneer. However, other Black country music singers like Mickey Guyton, Rhiannon Giddens, and Yola warmly reflected on his influence following his death in December 2020. Guyton told Rolling Stone that “His voice and his bravery made it possible for me to be able to have a career in country music.” 

Theodore G. Lumpkin Jr.

In this Aug. 3, 2011, file photo, Harry E. Johnson Sr., left, president & CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation, takes Tuskegee Airmen, including Theodore Lumpkin Jr., center, and Dabney Montgomery, right, on a tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

In December 2020, we lost one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Theodore Lumpkin Jr. Transitioning just a few days before his 101st birthday, the Los Angeles native led a life fulfilled by service, which began after being drafted into the U.S. army in July 1942. As part of a program initiated by civil rights campaigns pushing for military integration and executed by the Roosevelt Administration, men like Lumpkin played a pivotal role in U.S. history by proving that Black people had all the capabilities to serve in the military.

Lumpkin served as an Air Combat Intelligence Officer in the 100th Fighter Squadron in Tuskegee, Alabama and the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy, where he briefed pilots before and after their mission flights. By the time Lumpkin retired from the military in 1979, he had earned the rank of Lt. Colonel. In the years after, he had successful careers in social work and real estate, and was a board member of the Tuskegee Airmen Scholarship Fund. 

Carol Sutton

GETTY

Since her first 1974 television appearance in the adaptation of Ernest Gaines’ classic novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, actress Carol Sutton starred in over 100 stage, television, and film projects, according to NPR. Over the course of her life and career, Sutton poured her talents into her hometown of New Orleans, where she first exercised her acting skills in the Dillard University student-led Dashiki Project Theatre, and where she adamantly remained until her passing in December 2020 at age 76.

Upon her death, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell reflected on how much Sutton’s presence was felt in the city, describing her as “practically the Queen of New Orleans theater, having graced the stages across the city for decades.” Sutton’s acting portfolio includes roles in blockbusters like The Big Easy, Steel Magnolias, The Pelican Brief, Monster’s Ball, Ray, The Help, and 2019’s Poms. Some of her most recent gigs include the acclaimed television dramas Queen Sugar and Lovecraft Country. Outside of her acting, Sutton followed the example of her mother, Marguerite Bush, who was a community activist and volunteered for decades with the anti-poverty nonprofit Total Community Action. 

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith thegrio.com
(Credit: social media)

For fellow sports journalists he worked with over the years, Sekou Smith was family. Beginning his career as a beat writer for the Indianapolis Star in 2001, Smith developed a reputation for his sometimes tough but always fair reporting, kindness, and passion for basketball. In 2005, Smith started writing for the Atlanta Constitutional Journal, covering the Hawks, and joined the NBA TV crew at Turner Broadcasting in 2009.

Smith was only 48 when he lost his life to COVID-19 in late January 2021, and the news left the sports arena visibly shaken. Basketball giants and fellow NBA TV analysts Ernie Johnson Jr., Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley remembered Smith as “a guy who just loved every second of doing what he enjoyed doing,” and was “very honorable, took the time to study, knew what he was talking about, and never took shots.” Many tributes to Smith were shared online, including from NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who described Smith as “… one of the most affable and dedicated reporters in the NBA and a terrific friend to so many across the league.” 

Marc Wilmore

We owe many of our TV laughs to comedic writer Marc Wilmore. Known as a notorious prankster and masterful impressionist, the Pomona, California native got his big break as a writer on In Living Color in 1990. Brother and fellow comedian Larry Wilmore called him “the kindest, gentlest, funniest, lion of an angel I’ve ever known” in a tweet following Marc’s passing in February 2021 at age 57. Marc’s sense of humor served him well, not only in developing connections with others through the TV screen, but in sparking professional opportunities too. Following a 2001 prank he played on “The Simpsons” executive producer Matt Selman, he was offered a producing position on the show, where remained for over a decade. Most recently, Marcworked as a writer on the Netflix show F is for Family.

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