By Ericka Blount Danois, The Root
The year 2019 took us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions: It began with the swearing-in of the most diverse Congress in U.S. history and culminated with the impeachment of the president. In between, we witnessed rap going country with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”; Lizzo blowing up big with performances at the BET Awards and Coachella; the debut of rappers Megan Thee Stallion and Da Baby; the New York Times’ 1619 project, which re-examined the impact of slavery on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved people to the states from West Africa; Eddie Murphy’s return to revive Saturday Night Live; and the fabulousness that was Billy Porter on red carpets and Beyonce’s tribute to HBCU’s in the Netflix doc, Homecoming.
We also mourned the loss of black icons, pioneers, revolutionaries, activists, celebrities and just ordinary citizens who happen to be living while black. Here’s a list of the ones we lost in 2019.
Pioneering British designer Joe Casely-Hayford’s fashions were worn by rock stars like the Clash and celebrities like Michael Fassbender. Casely-Hayford helped to define London style on a global level. He was one of the United Kingdom’s most respected designers. He died Jan. 3 at the age of 62.
Captain Jack Lyle was one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen and decorated war hero who served in World War II. He was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. He died of complications related to prostate cancer. He flew 26 combat missions. He died Jan. 5 at age 98.
Martin was the first known transgender person to be murdered in 2019. She was found in a roadside ditch in her car with a fatal gunshot wound in Montgomery, Ala., on Jan. 6. She was 31 years old. She was one of at least 24 transgender or gender-nonconforming people killed in 2019, most of whom were black.
Lessie Brown, who was believed to be the oldest person in the U.S. at the time of her death, died at 114 years old in Cleveland Heights in Ohio. Family members attributed her long life to the fact that she ate a sweet potato nearly every day, but Brown said it was just God’s will. She died on Jan. 8.
Comedian Kevin Barnett, known widely for his irreverent weekly podcast Roundtable of Gentlemen and as the co-creator of the Fox comedy series, Rel, starring Lil Rel Howery, died from complications of pancreatitis on Jan. 22 while on vacation in Tijuana, Mexico. He was 32 years old.
James Frank was the first African-American president of the NCAA. He also served as the Southwestern Athletic Conference commissioner. He was a key force in bringing women’s championships under the NCAA umbrella and pushing for the advancement of women’s intercollegiate athletics within the NCAA structure. He died on Jan. 26 at the age of 88.
Michelle King was the Los Angeles schools superintendent would become the first African American woman to lead the nation’s second-largest school district. She succumbed to cancer and died on Feb. 2 at age 57.
Kristoff St. John
Soap fans will remember Kristoff St. John from his role as Neil Winters on The Young and the Restless, the longest-running African American character to appear on the series. He earned two Emmy Awards and 10 NAACP Image Awards for the role. St. John died on Feb. 3 from a stroke at age 52.
Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson broke barriers when he became Major League Baseball’s first black manager, for the Cleveland Indians, in 1975. He was also the only player to win the Most Valuable Player Award in both the National and American Leagues. He died of bone cancer on Feb. 7 at age 84.
John O’Neal, playwright, actor and civil rights activist co-founded the Free Southern Theater, one of the cultural arms of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which played a part in the Freedom Summer Organizing Campaign. O’Neal spent his life fusing art and activism. He died at his home in New Orleans on Feb. 14 as a result of vascular disease. He was 78.
Ethel Ennis, known as Baltimore’s first lady of jazz, died from complications from a stroke on Feb. 17. Ennis toured with Benny Goodman for six years and performed with luminaries like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, the Mile Davis-John Coltrane Sextet and Wynton Marsalis. She was urged by her agent to leave Baltimore to increase her national profile, but she stayed in her beloved hometown until she died at age 86.
Bill Jenkins, a government epidemiologist, is best known for trying stop the Tuskegee syphilis experiment when he worked as a statistician at the United States Public Health Service. Jenkins wrote to media and black doctors about the experiment, but another epidemiologist sent it to the Associated Press, who ran the story, which ultimately helped stop the experiment after it ran for 40 years. Jenkins died on Feb. 17 from complications of sarcoidosis. He was 73.
Don Newcombe began his career in professional baseball as a pitcher in the Negro League for the Newark Eagles. He would go on to play for Major League Baseball for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians. While he was not the first black pitcher in the majors, he was its the first black superstar pitcher, winning the first Cy Young Award as baseball top pitcher. He also became the first black pitcher to start a World Series game. He died on Feb. 19 at age 92.
Nashville, Tenn. native Jackie Shane was a transgender pioneer and soul singer who released five albums. She learned and was influenced by Little Richard and shared stages with Etta James, Jackie Wilson and the Impressions. She died in her sleep at home in Nashville on Feb 21. She was 78.
St. Louis-born actor Nathaniel Taylor was best known for his role as Rollo Lawson on fellow St. Louis native Red Foxx’s sitcom, Sanford and Son. Taylor also appeared on the sitcoms, What’s Happening, 227, The Redd Foxx Show and in the films, Black Girl, Trouble Man and Willie Dynamite. He was hospitalized for a heart attack and died on Feb. 27. He was 80 years old.
R&B singer-producer Andre Williams utilized a spoken-song technique that earned him the nickname “the Godfather of Rap.” He hit it big with Motown, co-writing “Thank You (For Loving Me All the Way)” for a 13-year-old Stevie Wonder. He died on March 17 of colon cancer in Chicago at the age of 82.
Eunetta Boone began her career as a sports reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun, but she would go on to write for several popular TV shows, including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roc, Living Single and The Parent ‘Hood. She moved to executive produce on two hit shows, The Hughleys and My Wife and Kids. She created her own show, One on One, about a sports broadcaster. She died on March 20 from a heart attack. She was 63.
Ranking Roger, born Roger Charlery, a British musician of Jamaican heritage, was a singer with the widely influential British ska band the Beat—known as the English Beat in the United States. He died March 26 at the age of 56.
Carmon was the second trans person killed in 2019. She was found shot to death on a street Fairmont Heights, Md. on March 30. She was 27.
Nipsey Hussle, born Ermias Joseph Asghedom, was a beloved rapper, entrepreneur and activist. He became known widely for his mixtapes. His debut album Victory Lap was nominated for the Best Rap album in 2019, which features collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Diddy and YG. He was also known for his activism and community service around South Central Los Angeles. He created the Marathon Clothing store, hiring people from the local community and started a co-working environment called Vector90, which hosted entrepreneurs in Crenshaw. He died on March 31 at 33 years old.
When Boyz n the Hood came out in 1991, it was one of the first films to examine life in 1980s South Central Los Angeles. John Singleton was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director at age 24, becoming the first black person and the youngest person to ever be nominated. He went on to direct other iconic black films, including Poetic Justice, Baby Boy and Rosewood. Some say his best work was the creation of the television crime drama Snowfall, about the rise of the crack cocaine epidemic. He died on April 28 after suffering a stroke. He was 51.
Miller, best known as a Lindy Hop dancer called the “Queen of Swing,” was also a choreographer, actress and comedian. She would create her own group, the Norma Miller Dancers and tour nationally with Count Basie. She was producing music when she died on May 5 at the age of 99.
Chris McNair was the father of Denise McNair, one of the four little girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963. Chris McNair was a former legislator and former Jefferson County Commissioner until 2001. He died on May 8. He was 93 years old.
Born in poverty in the Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression, Unita Blackwell became the first black woman to win the mayor’s race in Mississippi. In 1992, she won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work on housing and water services. She died on May 13 at the age of 86.
Barksdale was the bass singer for The Dells, who were equally comfortable singing jazz, pop, or doo-wop. Robert Townsend’s film, The Five Heartbeats, was based on the Dell’s experiences. Barksdale died on May 15 at the age of 84.
Michelle “Tamika” Washington
Washington, an advocate for trans people, was shot multiple times on May 19 in Philadelphia. She was 40 years old.
Cameron, 20, a trans woman, was shot and killed along with two black gay men—Alunte Davis, 21 and Timothy Blancher, 20—on May 25 in Detroit. A suspect was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of assault with intent to kill for the shooting, where two other people were shot but survived.
Dr. Patricia Bath, who was an ophthalmologist, was an early pioneer of laser cataract surgery and the first black female doctor to receive a medical patent. She co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness and served as a professor of ophthalmology at Howard University’s School of Medicine. She died on May 30 at the age of 76.
Leah Chase, a New Orleans native, was an American chef, author and television personality known as the Queen of Creole cuisine. Her restaurant, Dooky Chase, became one of the only public places in New Orleans where blacks could meet and discuss strategies during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Later, the restaurant would become one of the city’s must-visit destinations, feeding tourists, dignitaries and celebrities. She died on June 1 at the age of 96.
The body of 26-year-old Chynal Lindsey was pulled from the White Rock Lake in Dallas on June 1, two weeks after police had announced an investigation into the attacks of three other trans women in the past year, including the death of Muhlaysia Booker.
Jazz drummer Lawrence Leathers was playing professionally by age 15 and attended the Juilliard School. He won two Grammy Awards as a member of the Aaron Diehl Trio. He died on June 3 at the age of 37.
Scurlock’s body was found in a field in Lumberton, N.C., on June 5. Police found the 23-year-old with a fatal gunshot wound. Friends—who identified her as a trans woman while her mother identified her in interviews as a gay man—say on the night that Scurlock was killed, she was going to meet someone who had taken down a post featuring a photo of her presenting as a woman.
Rapper and record producer Bushwick Bill, born Richard Stephen Shaw, was a member of the iconic hip-hop group the Geto Boys from Houston. Shaw, who stood 3 foot, 8 inches, started as a dancer in the group. In May he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and died June 9 at the age of 52.
Zoe Spears, 23, was found shot to death on June 13 in Fairmount Heights, Md., the second trans woman to be killed in the Washington, D.C., suburb after Ashanti Camron, who was killed on March 30.
Photographer John Shearer captured one of the most reproduced and iconic images in U.S. history: a young John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket. Shearer captured the moment as a shooter for Look magazine, who hired him at age 20. He would also shoot memorable images from the civil rights movement in the ’60s and ’70s. He became only the second African-American photographer at Life magazine after his neighbor and mentor, Gordon Parks brought him on. Shearer died of prostate cancer on June 22 at the age of 72.
Lindsey, 32, was found dead on a front porch of a vacant home in Kansas City, Mo., on June 25. She was the 11th trans woman killed this year.
Freelon was an architect who was best known as the co-designer of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. He designed (or helped design) the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Baltimore; the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco; the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson; and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. He died July 9 at the age of 66.
Jerry Lawson, lead singer for the Persuasions, was also a producer, singer, and musical arranger. His smooth baritone led the five-member group for four decades. They were called America’s “most enduring a cappella group.” He died on July 10 at the age of 75.
Roberts-Joseph was an activist and the founder of the Baton Rouge Odell S. Williams Now & Then Museum of African American History in 2001. On July 12, her body was discovered in the trunk of her own car about three miles from her home. One of her tenants who owed her back rent was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. She died on July 12 at age 75.
Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker
Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker was a four-weight world champion boxer, winning titles as a lightweight, light welterweight, welterweight and light middleweight. He started as an amateur at age 9. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006. He died on July 14 at the age of 55.
Edith Jones was the first black student to enroll at the University of Arkansas Medical School (now called the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) in 1948. She also became the first female president of the National Medical Association. She died of natural causes on July 15. She was 91 years old.
Denali Berries Stuckey
Denali Berries Stuckey, 29, was found shot to death in North Charleston, S.C., on July 20. Stuckey, who worked as a manicurist, was a trans woman.
New Orleans icon Art Neville, known as “Poppa Funk,” was a singer, songwriter and keyboardist. He was a founding member of the Meters—a pioneering band that defined funk—and the Neville Brothers. The Neville Brothers—which included Art, and his brothers Aaron on vocals, Cyril on drums and Charles on saxophone—became a New Orleans institution. Neville died on July 22 at the age of 81.
Single, 22, became the third trans person to be killed in Texas after she was found dead in a gas station parking lot in Houston on July 3o.
Barnes was best known behind-the-scenes as the musical director for Saturday Night Live who helped pen one of the show’s most famous songs, “Dick in a Box.” She would go on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for the irreverent tune sung by Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg in an SNL Digital Short. She died Aug. 3 at the age of 56 from breast cancer.
Toni Morrison was one of America’s greatest writers, a Nobel Prize-winning legend who was also a mother, professor and editor who gave voice to the black community through her stories of love, racial strife and everyday life. “Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place to write from, it doesn’t limit my imagination, it expands it,” she told New Yorker writer Hilton Als. Her books like Tar Baby, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Sula and Beloved captured both the horror and beauty of black life with slow-paced, lyrical prose that revealed her obvious love for her complicated characters. She died on Aug. 5 at the age of 88.
Pedro Bell was the artist behind the wild and eclectic album covers for Funkadelic and George Clinton. Bootsy Collins said in Rolling Stone: “The wild and bizarre artwork gave our early audience a sense of seeing the visual side of the music and the language. He had a way of translating and communicating what all the weirdness was about.” Bell died on Aug. 27 at the age of 69.
LaShawn Daniels, better known as Big Shiz, was a Grammy-winning songwriter who wrote songs for many top artists, including Brandy, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Whitney Houston. He won a Grammy for co-writing Destiny’s Child’s No. 1 hit, “Say My Name.” He died on Sept. 3 at the age of 41 following a car crash in South Carolina.
Bee Love Slater
The body was Slater, a black transgender woman, was found in a car that had been set on fire in a rural Clewiston, Fla., neighborhood on Sept. 4. She was 23 years old.
Mugabe, who was the first prime minister and president of post-independence Zimbabwe, was an outspoken critic of colonial powers in the West but his reign would end in political violence and economic hardship for the country’s citizens. He died Sept. 5 at 95.
Joan Johnson co-founded Johnson Products, makers of Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics with her husband, George Johnson. They turned a $250 investment into a multimillion-dollar company for black hair care products, a market long ignored by white companies. They provided national sponsorship for Soul Train, which helped bring the show to national prominence. Johnson Products also became the first black-owned company to be traded on the American Stock Exchange. Joan Johnson Sept. 6 at the age of 89.
Itali Marlowe, 29, was killed in Houston on Sept, 20, the fourth trans person to die in Texas this year. She died from multiple gunshot wounds.
Jessye Norman was a trailblazing international opera star. She trained at Howard University, the Peabody Institute and the University of Michigan and would ultimately be celebrated in the U.S. and abroad. She sang at Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th birthday celebration in 1986 and for second inaugurations for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. She won five Grammys including a lifetime achievement award. She died on Sept. 30 at age 74.
Bronx, N.Y. native Diahann Carroll was an actress, model and activist who was the epitome of class. She broke barriers on television as the first black woman to star in a series in a non-domestic role with the 1968 debut of Julia. One of her most memorable roles was as the diva Dominique Deveraux on the nightly soap opera, Dynasty. She received an Academy Award nomination for best actress for her role in the film Claudine. She won a Tony Award for best actress in a leading role for a musical, the first for a black woman, for No Strings. She died on Oct. 4 at the age of 84.
Atatiana Jefferson sadly was added to the list of black people shot by white officers. She was shot through a window while in her own house after a neighbor called police for a non-emergency welfare check. Recently, the Texas cop who shot her was indicted for murder. She died on Oct. 12 at the age of 28.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings continuously fought for his hometown of Baltimore, including against President Donald Trump, who called the city “rat-infested.” Cummings also fought to impeach President Trump as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of three House committees that investigated the president prior to his impeachment. Cummings died Oct. 17 at the age of 68.
Brown played as a cornerback for the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984. He had previously held the Super Bowl record for the longest interception at 75 yards before James Harrison with the Steelers beat his record at 100 yards. He died Oct. 21 at the age of 78.
Conyers served more than 50 years in Congress, becoming the longest-serving African-American member of Congress as a U.S. representative for Michigan and the sixth-longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history. He died Oct. 27 at 90.
John Witherspoon was an actor and comedian who was best known for his role as the crotchety dad in the Friday franchise and as the voice of Granddad in Boondocks. He also appeared in a number of TV shows and movies, including Hollywood Shuffle, The Wayans Bros., The Richard Pryor Show, The Incredible Hulk, Good Times, The Tracy Morgan Show, Vampire in Brooklyn, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Boomerang and Black Jesus. He died Oct. 29 at the age of 77.
Ernest J. Gaines
Ernest J. Gaines, author of notable books Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman, A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men, was a MacArthur “genius” fellow and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner. He died on Nov. 5 at the age of 86.
Bernard J. Tyson
Bernard J. Tyson was the chairman and chief executive officer of Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest and influential healthcare organizations in the country. He died on Nov. 10 at the age of 60.
Former Detroit Lions receiver Charles Rogers was the No. 2 overall pick of the 2003 NFL Draft. But as he battled injuries and received drug violations, he didn’t live up to his potential, appearing in only 15 games. He died Nov. 11 of liver failure at the age of 38.
William Harrison “Bones” Dillard was one the oldest-living U.S. Olympic champions as a four-time gold medalist in track and field. He died Nov. 15 at the age of 96 from stomach cancer.
Barbara Hillary, retired nurse-turned-explorer, became the first black woman to reach both the North and South Poles. In 2007, looking for more adventure in her life, she reached the North Pole at 75. Four years later, at the age of 79, she made it to the South Pole. She died on Nov. 23 at the age of 88.
Father George Clements was known for using the pulpit to advocate for civil rights and social justice causes. In the 1908s, he sparked controversy in the Catholic Church when he adopted a child, encouraging the adoption of African-American children. He would adopt three more children. His story was told in TV movie, The Father Clements Story, starring Lou Gossett Jr. He died Nov. 25 at age 87.
Pastor Clay Evans was a church leader, renowned gospel singer and civil rights icon who was an ally of Martin Luther King Jr. He died on Nov. 27 at the age of 94.
Irving Burgie may be the most prolific songwriter you’ve never heard of. He wrote calypso hits such as “Day-O,” “Jamaica Farewell,” “Island in the Sun,” and “Angelina” and wrote 35 songs recorded by Harry Belafonte. Jimmy Buffett, the Kingston Trio, Brian Wilson, Carly Simon Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke also recorded his songs. He died Nov. 29 at the age of 95.
Edna Smith Primus
Edna Smith Primus, a civil rights lawyer, fought for the rights of black women in South Carolina and other parts of the country who were being involuntarily sterilized. She was the first black woman to attend the University of South Carolina School of Law and one of the first black women to practice law in South Carolina. She died on Nov. 29 at the age of 75.
Christine Chambers was a photographer who photos actors of color and helped to document the rise of a black theater movement that emerged in New York City a decade ago. She died on Dec. 4 at the age of 39.
The 21-year-old rising rap star, born Jarad Anthony Higgins, was known for his hit, “Lucid Dreams,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. He died on Dec. 8 after a medical emergency at the Chicago airport.
Phase 2, born Michael Lawrence Marrow and also known as Lonny Wood, was one of hip-hop’s most iconic graffiti artists who influenced generations of artists. He is credited with creating the “bubble letter” style of aerosol writing. He died from Lou Gehrig’s disease on Dec. 13 at the age of 64.
Mayor Richard Hatcher served as the first African American mayor of Gary, Ind., for 20 years. He also served as the Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee for four years. He died Dec. 13 at 86.
James “Radio” Kennedy
James “Radio” Kennedy, the inspiration for the film Radio, starring Cuba Gooding as Radio, was a mentally disabled man who was fascinated by radios and who inspired a high school football team with the help of a coach who took him under his wing. He was 73 when he died Dec. 15.
Mama Cax, born Cacsmy Brutus, was an amputee, model and disability activist who walked the runway and appeared in ad campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger, Chromat, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty and Savage X Fenty. She died on Dec. 16 at the age of 30.
Coach Herman Boone—the inspiration for the film, Remember the Titans, starring Denzel Washington—was a high school coach who led the newly integrated 1971 T.C. Williams High School football team to a 13-0 season and eventually the national championship runner-up. He died Dec. 18 at age 84.
Yahira Nesby, 33, a trans woman and member of the New York City ball scene for the House of Chanel, was shot to death in a building in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 19.
Edward Aschoff was an ESPN college football reporter who died of pneumonia on Dec. 24, his 34th birthday.
Chuck Turner, politician and activist, served on the Boston City Council representing District 7. He died on Dec. 25 at age 79.
Bryce Gowdy was an incoming freshman at Georgia Tech who was recruited to play wide receiver. He was hit by a freight train on Dec. 30. He was 17.