Black History 2020: Living Legends

Mx Rian
41 min readMar 2, 2020

By Rian Roberson

For each day of Black History Month, I chose to highlight the accomplishments of black living legends — individuals who have dedicated their lives to creating positive social change, breaking color barriers, and gifting the world with art and music. I wanted to have an opportunity to celebrate the long lives and legacies of these legends who still walk among us. Enjoy ❤

Feb 1

bell hooks (1952-)

Born Gloria Jean Watkins to working-class parents in the heart of Kentucky, bell hooks experienced firsthand the realities of racism, sexism, and poverty growing up in the segregated south. hook’s formative experiences lend themselves directly to her numerous literary contributions addressing the intersectionality of race, class, and gender.

An author, educator, and social activist, her work is regarded as highly influential within the social justice and feminist communities. Her notable works include: And There We Wept (1978), Ain’t I a Woman? (1981), Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004). As a Professor, hooks has been teaching for over 40 years in universities around the nation. Today, hooks is a Distinguished Professor at Berea College, KY, not far from the birthplace of her humble beginnings.

Feb 2

Quincy Jones (1932-)

86-year-old Jones DGAF

One of the most important names in entertainment of the 20th century and beyond, Jones is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, composer, record producer, film and television producer. Born in Chicago, IL, Jones attended Garfield High School (my alma mater) in Seattle where he honed his skills as a trumpeter and arranger. Jones was offered a scholarship to study at the Berklee College of Music, but dropped out to pursue a career touring with Lionel Hampton. In his early music career, he would arrange for music legends Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles. In the early 1960’s, Jones became the vice president of Mercury Records. From there, he launched his expansive career scoring for film and television, including Roots (1977), The Wiz (1978), and The Color Purple (1985). Jones would also produce Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad — Thriller would go on to become the bestselling album of all time. Jones has been credited with launching the careers of some of the biggest African-American stars, including Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Will Smith.

In 1985, Jones produced “We Are the World,” a charity single which included Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as many other of the most famous singers of the era. In 1992, Jones received the Grammy Legend Award, with 80 nominations and 28 wins. In 2011, President Obama presented Jones with the National Medal of the Arts, for his decades of work in music, film, and television. Jones is also the founder of the Quincy Jones Workshops, which provide education and mentorship to inner-city youth in Los Angeles. At 86, Jones is still active and engaged in music and the arts and is responsible for largely shaping contemporary music as it is today.

Feb 3

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (1918–2020)

Portrait by Anne Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, September 2016

Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to a laborer father and a mother who was a school teacher, Johnson stood out for her brilliance in mathematics from a young age. As public schooling past the 8th grade was unavailable to black children in the late 1920’s, Johnson’s parents enrolled her in a private high school at the age of 10. Johnson completed her high school education at 14 and then enrolled in West Virginia State. In college, Johnson eagerly enrolled in every mathematics class offered. Supportive professors even created new math courses specifically for Johnson. She would graduate summa cum laude from West Virginia State College at age 18 with degrees in mathematics and French.

Johnson, working as a “computer” in the early 1950's

Johnson began her career in aerospace as a research mathematician, despite the field being virtually devoid of black female representation. Johnson took a role as a mathematician at NACA (later NASA) in 1953 where she worked alongside a handful of other black female mathematicians. Although she was originally hired as a “computer,” (calculating and analyzing data), Johnson’s expertise in analytic geometry made her a valuable asset to NACA, and she became a member of the then all-male flight research team. Although she had to deal with racial and gendered barriers in addition to her challenging work, Johnson was known to be assertive and never allowed others to question her value to the team.

President Obama presents Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015

From 1958 to 1986, Johnson served as an aerospace technologist, responsible for some of the most significant calculations in the early days of space flight, including providing trajectory calculations for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. In 2015, President Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, the film Hidden Figures detailed the real-life events of black female mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monaé), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). In 2018, Mattel honored Johnson with a NASA barbie in her likeness.

21 days after the original post, Johnson died at age 101 on February 24, 2020. Johnson is survived by her husband, Jim, six grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.

Feb 4

Cicely Tyson (1924-)

Born in Harlem to immigrant parents, Tyson was a born performer, getting her start singing and playing piano. In 1950 at age 25, she was discovered by an Ebony magazine fashion photographer and began her modeling career. The same year, she had her acting debut on stage, followed by a role on the series Frontiers of Faith. Tyson would work continuously as a model and actress through the 1950’s and 60’s before becoming a breakout star in the critically acclaimed film Sounder (1972), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Actress. Tyson would win a primetime Emmy for Best Actress for her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as well as an Emmy for Actress of the Year in 1974. Tyson starred in several acclaimed television productions in the 70’s, including: Roots, King, and The Marva Collins Story. In 1977, Tyson was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In 1978, she resumed a relationship with Miles Davis, after originally dating in the early 60’s. They were married between 1981 and 1988.

Tyson was the cover model for Miles Davis’ album, Sorcerer (1967)

Tyson continued to snag acclaimed roles into the 90’s, including Sipsey in 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, Madame Queen in Hoodlum (1997), and Myrtle Simmons in Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005). Moving into her 80’s and 90’s, Tyson hasn’t slowed down a bit and received critical acclaim for her roles in The Help (2011), The Trip to Bountiful (2014), and How to Get Away with Murder (2015-present). In 2015, Tyson was awarded the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, and an honorary Oscar in 2018. At 95, Tyson has declared she has no interest in retiring, saying “The reason why I have been in this universe as long as I have been is because He’s not ready for me. When I’ve completed my job, he’ll take me away.”

Feb 5

Henry “Hank” Louis Aaron (1934-)

Aaron in 2019

Born in Mobile, AL on February 5, 1934, Aaron got his start in baseball by emulating his idol, Jackie Robinson, who had recently made history by becoming the first black major league baseball player. Coming from poverty, Aaron didn’t have proper equipment, so he and his siblings made their own with sticks and bottle caps. By high school, Aaron was gaining attention from the major leagues, and by age 20 was signed to the Milwaukee Braves. Aaron, who was known for his hard work and quiet demeanor, was also a constant target of racism, hostility, and death threats. In 1957, Aaron was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player, and “Hammerin’ Hank” was credited for his team’s World Series Win against the Yankees. In his major league career, spanning 23 years, Aaron would become one of the most recognized players in the history of baseball, being included on 25 All-Star teams, a three-time Gold Glove winner, and National League batting champion, home run leader, and RBI leader multiple times. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was breaking Babe Ruth’s legendary home run record on April 8th, 1974.

A mint condition Hank Aaron rookie card is worth around $100,000

He would retire in 1976 with a staggering 755 career home runs. Following his retirement, Aaron became one of baseball’s first black executives and a leading spokesperson for minority hiring. Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1999, MLB created the Hank Aaron award, which is annually given to the greatest batters in their respective leagues. In 2001, Aaron received the Presidential Citizens medal and the following year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Aaron has 6 children and lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife, Billye. The original post was made on Aaron’s 86th birthday.

Feb 6

Sidney Poitier (1927-)

Born premature in Miami to Bahamian farmers, Poitier was raised on tiny Cat Island in the Bahamas before moving to Miami at age 15 to live with his older brother. At 16, Poitier was living in New York City, where he learned to read while working as a dishwasher. That year, he lied about his age and enlisted in the military at the peak of World War II. His service saw him overseeing psychiatric patients, until he himself sought discharge because of emotional distress. After the Army, Poitier returned to dishwashing before landing a spot with the American Negro Theater. Early into his career, he struggled to stand out as a bankable performer because he couldn’t sing and still had a thick Bahamian accent. Undeterred, Poitier worked hard to perfect his craft. Poitier’s big screen debut was 1950’s No Way Out, which earned him critical acclaim and a number of roles. His breakout role came in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, followed by a starring role next to Tony Curtis in 1958’s The Defiant Ones, for which he would become the first black actor to be nominated for Best Actor Oscar.

Poitier became the first black person to win a Best Actor Oscar in 1963

In 1963, he would win a Best Actor Oscar for his role in Lilies of the Field. Poitier became a major box office draw with his films, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)”, “To Sir, With Love (1967)”, and “In the Heat of the Night (1967).” In 1974, Poitier was knighted as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, gaining the title Sir Sidney Poitier. In his extensive career, Poitier has received some of the highest honors, including an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, the Kennedy Center Honor in 1995, a SAG Lifetime Achievement award in 1999, NAACP Image Awards in 2000 and 2001, an honorary Oscar in 2002, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by Barak Obama in 2009. At 93, Poitier has 6 daughters (5 living,) eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He has been married to his wife, Joanna Shimkus, since 1976.

Feb 7

James Meredith (1933-)

Born in 1933 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, as a child of mixed African-American and Choctaw descent, Meredith received his early education in segregated schools. After high school, Meredith attended Jackson State University, an HBCU in 1960. Meredith received excellent grades and was interested in taking his education further than Jackson State could take him. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s stance opposing segregation in schools, Meredith began applying to the University of Mississippi — still exclusively white. Meredith received several rejections before receiving the backing of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Meredith filed a suit against the state, claiming racial discrimination. Meredith ultimately won his suit, and it was withheld by the Supreme Court, allowing Meredith enrollment at University of Mississippi. Despite this ruling, Meredith had many fiercely opposing his admittance, including the Governor. In the days leading up to Meredith’s entrance, a full-scale riot erupted between angry white students and the National Guard, which resulted in fire bombing and the deaths of two people — all because they didn’t want a black man studying besides them. On October 1, 1962, Meredith was finally admitted. He spent his two semesters at the University being persistently harassed and ostracized by other students, constantly under the protection of armed guards.

Meredith is escorted by armed guards, attending the University of Mississippi (1962)

He graduated with a degree in political science in 1963. Meredith would go on to earn a law degree from Columbia University. In 1966, Meredith organized and led the March Against Fear, consisting of black men walking 220 miles from Memphis to Jackson. On the second day of the march, Meredith was shot by a protestor, got patched up, and carried on with his demonstration. In 2002, the University of Mississippi honored Meredith with a statue on campus in his honor on the 40th anniversary of his admission. In 2012, on the 50th anniversary, he received the Harvard Graduate School of Education Medal for Education. Meredith (86) has 4 children and lives with his wife, Judy, in Jackson, MS.

Feb 8

Claudette Colvin (1939-)

Born into poverty in Montgomery, AL, Colvin was raised by her aunt and uncle. While attending Booker T. Washington High School, she became a member of the NAACP Youth Council, where she developed a close relationship with her mentor, Rosa Parks. Colvin was known to be strong-willed and politically-minded and aspired to become president one day. On March 5th, 1955, Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger while riding a bus home from school. Only six months later, Rosa Parks herself would make history for the same act. After the incident, Colvin’s mother encouraged her to stay quiet about her arrest, as she felt Colvin’s darker skinned, kinkier hair, and teenage pregnancy were less “appealing” than Park’s presentation as the face of the bus boycott.

Say that, then!

Colvin’s resistance was also markedly less passive than Park’s, as she was said to have yelled, “it’s my constitutional right!” as she was arrested. On June 5th, 1956, Colvin and four other plaintiffs won their landmark case against (Browder v. Gayle) the Middle District of Alabama, leading to the permanent end of bus segregation. Colvin gave birth to her son, Raymond at age 15 in 1956. Despite her success in ending bus segregation, Colvin was branded a troublemaker by her community and was unable to find employment. Colvin would end up dropping out of college and relocating to New York City in 1958. Colvin would work as a nurse’s aide in Manhattan before retiring in 2004. In 2000, Troy State University opened the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery to mark the town’s place in history. Looking back at her contribution to history in a 2005 interview with the Montgomery Advertiser, Colvin said she is “very proud,” of what she did, but “disappointed” to one of many female leaders left out of history books, with majority male ministers representing the outward face of the NAACP. On May 20, 2018, 63 years after her arrest, Colvin was honored for her lifetime commitment to public service with a Congressional Certificate and American flag.

Feb 9

Harold “Harry” George Belafonte, Jr. (1927-)

Born in Harlem to parents of mixed Jamaican, Scottish, Dutch, and Jewish heritage, Belafonte was raised in Jamaica by his grandmother before returning to NYC for high school. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Belafonte became exposed to the American Negro Theater, where he was inspired by Sidney Poitier to pursue acting. Belafonte studied acting along industry legends Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, and Sidney Poitier himself. To pay for acting classes, Belafonte worked as a club singer, sharing the stage with Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Miles Davis. In 1954, Belafonte won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his role in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. In 1956, his breakthrough album “Calypso” became the first LP to sell over a million copies within a year and currently ranks at #4 on Billboard’s Top 100 Albums list.

The album produced some of his most familiar songs, including “Banana Boat Song” also known as “Day O” and “Jump in the Line.” In 1959, Belafonte became the first Jamaican to win an Emmy for “Revlon Revue: Tonight with Belafonte.” Belafonte was a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and was a confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1961, Belafonte financed the Freedom Rides. Belafonte raised $50,000 to release civil rights protestors from Birmingham City Jail in 1963. Like other activists, Belafonte was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Belafonte has long been a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy, and was active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and openly criticized the George W. Bush administration. In 2017, Belafonte was made honorary co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington, the day following the inauguration of President Trump. Today, he is vocal supporter of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Belafonte has four children and 5 grandchildren and lives with his wife, Pamela.

Feb 10

Ruby Bridges (1954-)

Born in Tylertown Mississippi, Bridges was born the same year as the landmark ruling, Brown v. Board of Education which declared school segregation unconstitutional. Despite the ruling, there was virtually no integration in New Orleans schools at the time, where Bridges and her family relocated in 1960. Under pressure from the federal government, the Orleans Parish School Board administered entrance exams for incoming black students, with the intention of keeping them out. Under her mother’s encouragement, Bridges took the exam, passed, and prepared for enrollment at the all-white William Frantz Elementary School. Upon arriving at her first day of school, she encountered a large, crowd of angry white parents, throwing things and shouting at the six-year-old Bridges. After entering the building, white parents pulled their children out in protest and all teachers refused to teach Bridges, except Barbara Henry, who taught Bridges alone for over a year. Every morning as Bridges walked to school, a white neighbor threatened to poison her, while another held up a black baby doll in a coffin for Bridges to see. Bridges was guarded by armed U.S. Marshalls during her time at William Frantz and was only allowed to eat food from home.

5-year-old Bridges posed such a threat to white supremacy that she was subjected to years of death threats

Bridges herself was not the only made to suffer for her education — her father lost his job at a gas station, the local grocers refused to sell to her family, and her sharecropper grandparents were evicted from their land. However, many black and white residents showed their support by protecting the Bridges’ family house and offering employment to her father. Following her education in desegregated New Orleans schools, Bridges worked as a travel agent for 15 years. She is the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, launched in 1999, which promotes tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences. Bridges’ image has been immortalized in the Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With (1964), which hung in the White House during Obama’s time in office.

Feb 11

Andrew Jackson Young, Jr. (1932-)

Born in New Orleans to a schoolteacher mother and a dentist father, Young grew up in relative affluence compared to most black families in the area. Young recalls his parents attempting to “compensate for segregation” by providing for their children, but not extending help to poorer black communities. This experience of privilege would have a lasting impact on him. Young received degrees from Howard University and Hartford Seminary before taking a role as pastor at a church in Marion, AL. During this time, Young became inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of nonviolent resistance as a means for creating social change. He began working to increase black voting in Alabama, making friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. along the way, as well as receiving death threats from white residents. In the early 1960’s, Young was named the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and played a key role as a strategist and negotiator during the Civil Rights Campaigns in Birmingham, St. Augustine, Selma, and Atlanta.

Jackson with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968

His activism would put in him jail on several occasions. Young was with King at the time of his assassination in 1968. In 1972, Young was elected to Congress in Georgia and became a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1977, President Carter appointed Young as a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the first black person to hold the position. Under the urging of Coretta Scott King, Young ran for and was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1981, where he worked to expand minority and female business growth. He was re-elected as mayor in 1985. In 1996, he served as co-chairman of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. In 2003, he founded the Andrew Young Foundation, which promotes education, health, leadership and human rights in the U.S., Africa, and the Caribbean. In 2008, Young appeared two appearances on The Colbert Report, discussing the writer’s strike and the election of Barak Obama. At 87, Young has 4 children and lives with his wife, Carolyn in Atlanta, GA.

Feb 12

Herbert “Herb” Paul Douglas (1922-)

Born March 9th, 1922 in Pittsburgh, PA, Douglas has always beaten the odds. When Douglas was only 5 years old, his father went blind and Douglas had to develop very independently. His father raised him with four simple principles: analyze, organize, initiate, and follow through. Those four principles served Douglas well, as he helped Xavier University of Louisiana to become the first HBCU to win a relay at the Penn Relays in 1942. Douglas transferred from Xavier to the University of Pittsburgh, where he would focus on the long jump. Douglas earned a place on the 1948 U.S.

Douglas in 1948

Olympic team and traveled to London for the first Olympic games since the start of World War II. Douglas won a bronze medal in the long jump, with a jump of 7.545m (24’ 9”), coming short of snatching the silver medal by one centimeter. Douglas’s success at the Olympics did much to open doors for aspiring black athletes. Following his athletics career, Douglas was eager to continue on at the University of Pennsylvania as a coach but was refused because of his race. Douglas completed his master’s degree in education at Pitt before landing a career with Schieffelin & Company (now Moët Hennessy) where he served as vice-president for several decades. Douglas was the third black vice-president of a major American company. Despite his success in business, Pitt was always close to Douglas’ heart. More than half a century after being denied a coaching position, Douglas became a trustee of the University of Pittsburgh. At age 90, Douglas attended 2012 Olympic games in London, 64 years after winning his bronzed medal. In 2018, Douglas was inducted into the inaugural class of Pitt’s hall of fame. At 97, Douglas still follows the four principles that his dad taught him: analyze, organize, initiate, and follow through. He continues to be very active but was recently had to stop swimming because of an issue with his aortic valve, “but I’ll be back out there once I’m allowed,” he said in a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Feb 13

Oscar Robertson (1938-)

Born in Charlotte, TN and raised in a segregated, impoverished housing project in Indianapolis, Robertson gravitated towards basketball, as his saw it as a “poor kids’ game,” compared to baseball. Robertson taught himself to shoot baskets by tossing tennis balls and balled up rags into a peach basket behind his house. By high school, Robertson was the star of his basketball team, earning the nickname Indiana “Mr. Basketball” for his 24.0 point average in his senior year. At the University of Cincinnati, he racked up numerous accolades, including winning the national scoring title, being named All-American, and Player of the Year for each of his 3 years. Despite his success, Robertson regularly dealt with racism on road trips to segregated cities in the south. In 1960, Robertson was named co-captain of the U.S. basketball team in the Olympics in Rome, leading the U.S. to an impressive victory. The same year, Robertson made his NBA debut with the Cincinnati Royals and was named NBA Rookie of the Year. He was also named the NBA All-Star Game MVP in 1961, 1964, and 1969.

Robertson (right) and Abdul-Jabbar in the early 1970's

Before the 1970–71 seasons, Robertson was traded by the Royals, in a move that seemed to be in response to Robertson’s stardom. He went on to play for the Bucks, alongside a young man who would later be called Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Robertson helped the Bucks win two division titles between 1971–1973. Robertson continued to be a valuable player on the ball court until his professional retirement in 1974. In 1976, Robertson found himself in a different court, as he filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA. Robertson fought to ensure more rights and freedoms for NBA players. The suit resulted in the free agency rules used today. In 1994, a nine-foot bronze statue of Robertson was erected in from of the Cincinnati Bearcats arena, and in 1995, Robertson was elected into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame. In 1997, Robertson gave a kidney to his daughter, who was suffering from lupus. At 81, Robertson is a loving family man and is a spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation.

Feb 14

Hester Ford (1905?-)

Born the youngest daughter of humble farmers in Lancaster, South Carolina, Ford (neé McCardell) was raised planting and picking cotton, as well as plowing fields and cutting wood. At age 15 in 1921, she married John Ford and together they had 12 children. Ford and her husband moved to Charlotte, NC in 1953, where she has lived ever since. She worked as a nanny for two decades before retiring in the 1970’s. After retiring, she committed her spare time to her church, Macedonia Baptist Church of Charlotte. Although believed to be born in 1905, a 1910 census recorded Ford being 5 years old at the time, so it is possible she was born in 1904. Despite the uncertainty regarding the exact year of her birth, Ford is a verified supercentenarian and is currently the oldest living American. She has 68 grandchildren, 120 great-grandchildren, and 124 great-great-grandchildren! Of her 12 children, so far Ford has outlived 8 of them. Ford credits her longevity to her tough childhood on the farm and her strong belief in God.

Ford with her family on her 111th (or 112th?) birthday

Although Ford is nearly completely deaf and blind and suffers for dementia, she is still able to recite her favorite bible verse, Psalm 23 verbatim. Today, at (at least) 114 years of age, Ford is a “living legacy” to her 325 direct living family members and tight-knit community in Charlotte. Ford lives at her Charlotte home with her family and a caregiver, and despite her dementia has remained fiercely independent, always insisting “I can do it, I can do it!”

Feb 15

Joseph Echols Lowery (1921-)

Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Lowery attended Knoxville College, Alabama A&M College, and Paine Theological Seminary before earning his doctorate of divinity at the Chicago Ecumenical Institute. It was there that he met and married his wife, Civil Rights Activist Evelyn Gibson. Lowery was a pastor in Mobile, AL while being involved in the civil rights movement. Lowery helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott and headed the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, which worked desegregate public places. A close friend and confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lowery was by his side at the 1965 match from Selma to Montgomery.

Lowery (right) with King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement

In addition to his support of the civil rights movement in the United States, he was also a vocal opponent of the South African Apartheid. Lowery also founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served as its president from 1977 to 1997. Lowery has long been a supporter of LGBTQ rights and advocated for equal marriage rights. In 1997, the NAACP recognized Lowery as the “dean of the civil rights movement” and presented him with a lifetime achievement award.

President Obama presents Lowery with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009

In 2003, Lowery was presented with Walter P. Reuther Humanitarian Award. Lowery received a standing ovation for his remarks made at the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King. On January 20, 2009, Lowery delivered the benediction at the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Later that year, Lowery was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lowery celebrated his 98th birthday last October in the company of friends, family, and surviving civil rights activists of the era. Lowery’s birthday, themed “Celebrating the Work and the Man” raised funds for the Lowery Institute, which continues the work of Lowery and his late wife.

Feb 16

Roy “Snap Crackle” Owen Haynes (1925-)

It’s called fashion — look it up

Born and raised in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, MA, Haynes was interested in jazz as far back as he can remember. A self-taught musician, Haynes made his professional debut in 1945 alongside legendary bandleader Luis Russell. Haynes became a regular contributor to the fledgling bebop scene on Manhattan’s 52nd Street. From 1949–1952, Haynes was a member of Charlie Parker’s quintet. During this era, he recorded with fellow music legends Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Sarah Vaughan. In 1965, he performed with the John Coltrane Quartet. Hayne’s unique drumming style became a major influence on what would become rock and roll. He created instantly recognizable idiosyncratic drum and cymbal patterns, extracting the rhythmic qualities from melodies. His distinctive crisp and speedy snare hits earned him the nickname “Snap Crackle.” In 1991, Haynes was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music. In 1994, Haynes was awarded the prestigious Danish Jazzpar prize.

In 2004, he received a second honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory and the Peabody Medal, the highest honor bestowed by Johns Hopkins University in 2012. In 2010, Haynes received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2016, Haynes performed drums on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert alongside Jon Batiste and Stay Human. Despite his numerous accolades and over 7 decades of drumming, Haynes has never been a household name. Although he played alongside the biggest names in jazz, Haynes has mostly stayed out of the spotlight, preferring to be the backbone of his bands with his impeccable rhythm (however Haynes was named one of the best-dressed men in America by Esquire in 1960). At 94, Haynes is still an active drummer and he has passed on his gift to his sons Graham and Craig, as well as his grandson, Marcus, all of which are professional drummers. His younger brother, Michael (1927–2019), was also a jazz musician, and was an active contributor to the civil rights movement.

Feb 17

Rafer Lewis Johnson (1935-)

Johnson helped create the California Special Olympics

Born in Hillsboro, TX, Johnson moved with his family to Kingsburg, CA at age nine, where they were the only black family in town. Johnson was a popular student, being elected class president in both junior high and high school. He was a versatile athlete, playing football, baseball, and basketball in high school. Taking note of Johnson’s athleticism, his coach took him to watch the 1952 US Olympic decathlon trials. Weeks later, Johnson competed in his first decathlon at took first place. He would also win gold in 1953 and 1954 state high school meets. As a college freshman at UCLA, Johnson broke the world record in the decathlon in his 4th competition. Johnson joined the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, the first nondiscriminatory fraternity in the US and was voted class president. In 1965, Johnson qualified for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne in both the decathlon and the long jump. However, an injury saw him pulling out of the long jump, but he still managed to win the silver medal in the decathlon. Between 1956 and 1960, Johnson would break the decathlon world record two more times. In 1958, Johnson was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.

Johnson on the cover of Time in 1960

Johnson returned to the Olympics in 1960 in Rome where he participated against Taiwanese decathlete Yang Chuan-Kwang, a close friend and training partner at UCLA. The two would go back and forth over the two days of competition, with Johnson narrowing edging Chuan-Kwang out in the final event. This would be Johnson’s last decathlon. After retiring from sports, Johnson turned to acting, sportscasting, and public service. As an actor he made appearances in several films, including: Wild in the Country (with Elvis Presley, 1961), Roots: The Next Generation (1979), and the James Bond film, Licensed to Kill (1989). Johnson was instrumental in the creation of the California Special Olympics. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Johnson was chosen to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies. Johnson and his wife, Betsy (m. 1971) live in Sherman Oaks, CA and have two children.

Feb 18

Cecil J. Williams (1937-)

Born in Orangeburg, S.C., the third child of parents of mixed black, white, and Native American ancestry, Williams received a hand-me-down gift from his brother at age nine that would change the course of his life: a Kodak Baby Brownie camera. Williams got his start in photography taking portraits of church goers in their Sunday bests. Soon afterwards, he began being paid to take portraits at a local garden. At age 11, Williams shot his first wedding. At age 14, Williams became a freelance photographer for JET magazine. Beginning in the early 1950’s Williams began documenting the budding civil rights movements, photographing local black churches whose members would go on to win the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. Williams enrolled at Claftin University in 1956, graduating in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in art. In January of 1960, due to random chance, Williams struck up a relationship with John F. Kennedy while visiting relatives in NYC and became one of Kennedy’s favorite photographers. Throughout the 1960’s Williams would photograph many historic events of the civil rights era, including: the desegregation of Clemson University in 1963, the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, and the 1969 Charleston hospital worker’s strike.

This image of Williams drinking from a “white only” fountain has resurfaced as a popular meme, re-captioned “white tears.”

In 1969, Williams made the cover of JET with a portrait of Coretta Scott King. For over 20 years, Williams worked as the official photographer for the South Carolina branch of the NAACP. In 1984 and 1996, Williams ran as a senate candidate in South Carolina, being narrowly defeated both times. In 2015 at age 78, Williams invented the FilmToaster, a camera scanning device that digitizes film negatives. In the summer of 2019, the Cecil Williams Civil Rights Museum opened to showcase his work. At 82, Williams still lives in Orangeburg, S.C., with his wife, Barbara. You may recognize Williams for his appearance in this internet famous photo, taken in 1956.

Feb 19

Anita Faye Hill (1956-)

Born the youngest of thirteen children, Hill was born to a family of famers in Lone Tree, Oklahoma. Hill attended Oklahoma State University, graduating with a degree in psychology. She went on to earning her Juris Doctor degree with honors from Yale Law School in 1980. She began her law career in Washington D.C. as an attorney advisor to Clarence Thomas, who was the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. In 1982, Hill continued working as Thomas’ advisor in his next role as chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before resigning in 1983. Between 1983–86, Hill taught at Oral Roberts University before going on to teach commercial law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law in 1986. In 1991, Clarence Thomas was nominated to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. With many favorable opinions, Thomas’ confirmation was all but guaranteed when an interview of Hill by the FBI was leaked to the press.

Hill testifies against Thomas in 1991

Hill was called to publicly testify, and she disclosed that Thomas had sexually harassed her between the years of 1981–83. Despite Hill’s testimony and correlating polygraph test, Thomas was confirmed by a vote of 52–48. Following Thomas’ controversial confirmation, a bill was passed that entitled victims to harassment to seek compensation for damages and back pay. In 1992, a feminist group raised funds to endow a professorship at the University of Oklahoma College of Law in honor of Hill.

Hill and Dr. Blasey Ford in 2018

Hill continued to teach in Oklahoma and California and in 1997, she penned her autobiography, “Speaking Truth to Power.” In 2015, the Brandeis Board of Trustees unanimously voted to promote Hill to Private University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s Studies. In 2017, Hill penned an op-ed in the New York Times in support of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s assault allegations during the Supreme Court hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. Despite the outcome of her testimony, Hill has never wavered in her truth and has continued to have a successful career as a professor of law.

Feb 20

Sharon Hill Draper (1948-)

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, the eldest of three children, Draper was an insatiable reader, having read every children’s book in her local library by age 11. She was then gifted a special library card which allowed her to check out adult books. Draper earned a bachelors in English at Pepperdine University and a Master’s in English from Miami University of Ohio in 1974. Following her graduation, Draper worked as a teacher in the Cincinnati public school system, where she earned a reputation giving challenging assignments. While teaching in 1990, she was challenged by a ninth-grade student to “write something.” Draper submitted a short story entitled “One Small Torch” to a writing contest through Ebony magazine. Upon winning, Draper’s work was published, and she was awarded five thousand dollars, along with a congratulatory letter from Roots author Alex Haley. Inspired by her success, Draper began working on several book series and stand-alone novels. Her 1995 novel, “Tears of a Tiger” earned her the first of five Coretta Scott King Awards, followed by “Forged by Fire (1998) “The Battle of Jericho” (2004), “Copper Sun” (2007), and “November Blues” (2008). Draper was named 1997’s National Teacher of the Year.

In 2000, Draper retired from teaching to dedicate herself to her writing. Draper’s books are largely targeted towards children and young adults, addressing mature themes such as death, grief, and abuse. Her work focuses on telling the stories of marginalized people, addressing race, sex, class, and ableism. Draper is intentional on writing complex, dynamic characters, ensuring that marginalized identity is only a part of her character’s identities. Draper has written numerous New York Times Best Sellers, including 2018’s “Blended,” which deals with challenging themes including biracial identity, blended families, and racialized police violence. Her most acclaimed work, “Out of My Mind” was on the best seller’s list for nearly 2 years. At 72, Draper lives in Cincinnati with her husband and golden retriever, Honey.

Feb 21

Elaine Brown (1943-)

Brown was born to a single mom in the inner city of North Philadelphia. Impacted by desperate poverty Brown’s mother worked multiple jobs so Brown could attend private school, and study piano and ballet. Brown graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls before going on to study songwriting at UCLA in 1968. While working as a waitress in L.A., Brown met and began dating Jay Richard Kennedy, a white fiction writer who introduced her to the Black Liberation Movement. Brown soon became the first representative of the Black Student Alliance to the Black Congress in California. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown attended her first Black Panther Party meeting in L.A. Brown helped establish the Party’s Free Breakfast for Children program in L.A. and also worked to create the Free Busing to Prisons Program and Free Legal Aid Program. In 1968 and 1973, Brown was commissioned by the Panther Party chief of staff to record two albums, “Seize the Time” and “Until We’re Free”. In 1971, Brown replaced Eldridge Cleaver as the Party’s Minister of Information.

Brown (top) as Black Panther Party Chairwoman, mid 1970’s

In 1974, facing murder charges, Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton fled to Cuba and appointed Brown to lead the Party — the only woman to do so. In her leadership between 1974–77, she focused on electoral politics and community service, and helped elect Oakland’s first black mayor, while fending off sexism and patriarchy within the party. Brown left the party in 1977 over the authorized beating of Regina Davis for reprimanding a male member. Brown relocated to L.A. with her daughter, Ericka. Between 1980–83, Brown attended Southwestern University School of Law. In 1996, Brown moved to Atlanta, GA and founded Fields of Flowers, a nonprofit that created opportunities for black children in poverty. In 1998, Brown co-founded Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice and co-founded the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform in 2003. Since 1995, Brown has given lectures on prison reform to more than 40 universities and continues to be a voice for the incarcerated.

Feb 22

Diane Nash (1938-)

Born to a middle-class family in Chicago in 1938, Nash was primarily raised by her grandmother, Carrie, as her mother took a job outside of the home while her father served in WWII. Her grandmother was intentional about instilling confidence and a strong sense of self-worth that would serve her as a young black woman. Nash graduated from Hyde Park High School and enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. before transferring to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In the segregated south, Nash experienced her first instances of racism. Despite the strong sense of self-worth instilled by her grandmother, Nash was unsure of how to navigate racial discrimination. Nash began attending nonviolent civil disobedience led by Civil Rights activist James Lawson, who himself had studies with Mahatma Gandhi. Before long, Nash was a full-time activist. In 1960 at age 22, Nash led the Nashville sit-ins, which spread to 69 cities across the U.S. In April of 1960, Nash dropped out of school and became one of the founding leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would go on to be involved in some of the most pivotal campaigns of the Civil Rights era. In 1961, Nash served jail time in solidarity with the “Rock Hill Nine,” nine students who were jailed after a lunch counter sit-in. Nash allowed herself to be arrested repeatedly, refusing bail in protest. Nash would serve many roles in the Civil Rights Movement, working alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nash in the early 1960’s

Nash’s family was initially alarmed at her activism, but overtime, Nash’s dedication to the work inspired her mother to participate in anti-war protests back in Chicago. After the Civil Rights Movement, Nash moved back to Chicago and worked as a teacher and in real estate while continuing to advocate for fair housing and anti-war efforts. Nash was portrayed by Tessa Thompson in the 2014 film, “Selma.” Nash was in attendance at the 50th anniversary of the Selma march in 2015. At 81, Nash lives in Chicago, just a few blocks from her son, Douglass.

Feb 23

James Morris Lawson, Jr (1928-)

Born in Uniontown, PA among nine siblings, Lawson was born into a family of Methodist ministers, earning his own ministry license as a senior in high school. Lawson was studying sociology at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, OH when he was drafted to serve in the Korean war. Lawson morally opposed the war and served 13 months in prison for draft evasion before returning to college to complete his degree. Lawson joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality, which advocated nonviolent resistance to racism. Lawson traveled to Nagpur, India where he studied nonviolent resistance developed by Mahatma Gandhi. Lawson returned to the U.S. in 1955 and attended the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College, where he was introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1957, Lawson moved to Nashville under King’s urging to teach nonviolent protest. Lawson continued his education, studying at Oberlin College and later Vanderbilt University in the late 50’s. While in Nashville, Lawson trained many future leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, including Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, and John Lewis. Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt in March 1960 for civil rights arrests but transferred to Boston University and earned his Bachelor’s in sacred theology that same year. In 1961, Lawson and his students launched the second wave of Freedom Riders, riding interstate busses into Jackson, MI, where Lawson and 26 others were arrested. By September of 1961, President Kennedy ordered the end of bus segregation.

Lawson with King, Jr.

Lawson would invite Dr. King to speak in Memphis in 1968, where he was killed the following day. Lawson moved to L.A. in 1974 and served as a pastor until his retirement in 1999. Since then, Lawson has continued to campaign for civil rights, supporting LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom, and the right to a living wage. In 2004, Lawson was awarded the Community of Christ International Peace award. At 91, Lawson resides in Nashville with his wife, Dorothy and has three sons, John, Morris, and Seth.

Feb 24

Eugene Joseph Wright (1923-)

Born in Chicago, IL in 1923, Wright got his start in music playing cornet in his school band before teaching himself bass in his late teens. Wright got his start playing with the Lonnie Simmons group in the mid 1940’s and led the 16-piece band, The Dukes of Swing. Wright experienced his big break when he was recruited by Dave Brubeck, legendary jazz pianist and composer, as a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Wright played bass on the band’s most famous song, “Take Five.” With his reputation as being a dependable and never flamboyant, Wright earned the nickname “The Senator” and was known for his steady Kansas-city style which blended with Brubeck’s cool, mannered jazz. Wright toured Europe with Buddy Defranco between 1952–55. Wright toured Australia with the Red Norvo Trio in 1955. Wright rejoined the Dave Brubeck Quartet and played with them steadily through 1969. Brubeck, a white man, was highly aware of his privilege as a white person and refused to replace Wright with a white bassist, even though doing so would have caused less controversy.

Wright with the Dave Brubeck Quartet

Brubeck took his position as the leader of a racially integrated band seriously and led his group through the South in the tumultuous years between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Riders, in open defiance of Jim Crow laws. In Wright’s expansive career, spanning over 60 years, Wright has played with jazz legends: Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Gene Ammons, and Monty Alexander. Wright appears on over 50 different albums with various artists. Although Wright has remained under the radar in terms of jazz legends, he is a well-known and revered among jazz bassists. “Basically Wright” is a collection of Wright’s bass compositions, published by Hansen. Wright maintained a close friendship the members of the Dave Brubeck Quartet up to the 2012 death of Brubeck. At 96, Wright is the last surviving member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Feb 25

Dr. Alexa Irene Canady (1951-)

Born in Lansing, MI to a dentist father and a teacher mother, Canady and her brother were the only two black children in town. Aware of the challenges her children would face, Canady’s mother, Elizabeth, instilled the values of hard work and education upon her children. Canady was once told by her mother, “Let them make you a token…Take that token and spend it!” Canady was an exceptionally bright child, but only received average grades. It wasn’t until she scored very highly on an intelligence test that it was discovered that her teacher had been switching her test cores with a white student, in order to hide her intelligence. Canady graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in zoology in 1971. Her time at the university was marked with personal struggles, but she applied for a minority scholarship in medicine and earned her M.D. with cum laude honors from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1975 at age 24. Canady interned at the Yale-New Haven Hospital between 1975–76. Although an exceptional physician, Canady still continued to deal with sexist and racist discrimination. Canady went on to the University of Minnesota for her residency, becoming the first black neurosurgery resident in U.S. history.

Dr. Canady loved playing with her patients

After the completion of her residency in 1982, Dr. Canady chose to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery, becoming the first black person and first woman to do so. Dr. Canady loves children and was known to play video games with her patients. In 1987, Dr. Canady became Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan until 2001. Dr. Canady also worked as a researcher and professor at Wayne State University. From 2001–12, Dr. Canady worked as a part-time surgeon at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Fl, while working as a surgery consultant and researching for Wayne State. Although Dr. Canady has maintained a consistently humble demeanor and tends to downplay her contributions to the medical field, Dr. Canady has opened many doors for both women and black people in the medical field.

Feb 26

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (1940-)

Assigned male at birth, Griffin-Gracy was born on the South Side of Chicago. In her youth, Griffin-Gracy attended drag balls, where people of all genders dressed up in gowns and tuxedos. Griffin-Gracy came out as transgender as a teenager in the late 1950’s. Griffin-Gracy was subjected to bullying from her peers and needed to travel with friends to keep her safe from violent attacks. Because of the inaccessibility of medically supervised hormonal transitioning at the time, Griffin-Gracy obtained her hormones for her transition on the black market. Griffin-Gracy worked hard to secure a college education but was kicked out of two colleges because of her outward expression of her gender identity. With limited means to support herself, Griffin-Gracy lived in and out of homelessness for over 20 years, sometimes resorting to theft and sex work to sustain herself. Griffin-Gracy relocated from Chicago to New York City in the mid 1960’s and found the community and safety she was seeking at the Stonewall Inn. On June 27, 1969, Griffin-Gracy was present at the Inn when it was raided, culminating in the Stonewall riots. Griffin-Gracy was one of the leaders of the riot and was beaten by police and jailed for her participation. While incarcerated, Griffin-Gracy formed a friendship with Frank “Big Black” Smith, through whom she learned skills and methods for helping the marginalized trans community. In 1978, Griffin-Gracy relocated to San Diego and began working to provided direct services from incarcerated trans women, impacted by addiction and homelessness. When the AIDS epidemic struck the U.S., Griffin-Gracy worked to provide medical aid to the afflicted and funeral services for those lost to the disease.

In 2003, Griffin-Gracy became Executive Director at the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, where she continues to advocate for incarcerated trans women of color. At 79, Griffin-Gracy continues to be a vocal advocate for trans rights. She has four children, one biological and three adopted out of homelessness.

Feb 27

Guion “Guy” Stewart Bluford, Jr. (1942-)

Born in Philadelphia, PA, Bluford was the son of a mechanical engineer and a special education teacher and was raised in a household that encouraged academic success. Bluford graduated from Overbrook High School in 1960 and went on to earn a B.S. in aerospace engineering from Penn State in 1964. Bluford earned his pilot wings at Williams Air Force Base in 1966. Bluford served in the Vietnam war, flying 65 combat missions. Bluford earned his master’s degree from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology in 1974 and began working as a development engineer at the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory.

Bluford during the Vietnam War

In 1978, Bluford was selected by NASA to become an astronaut. Bluford underwent a rigorous year-long training program before his first mission on space shuttle Challenger, launched on August 30, 1983, becoming the first African-American in space. During the mission, Bluford and his team deployed satellites, tested the Canadarm (A Canadian-made robotic arm), and conducted experiments on live cell samples. This mission completed 98 orbits around the Earth and returned on September 5, 1983. Bluford’s second space mission was on October 30, 1985, where he and his team of eight flew three European payload specialists to work on the German D-1 Spacelab, returning November 6, 1985. The Challenger would experience catastrophic failure just two months later, claiming the lives of all on board.

Honestly, this is the first thing I’d do in space

Bluford returned to space as a member of STS-39, aboard the Orbiter Discovery, launched on April 28, 1991. This mission completed 134 orbits of Earth before returning safely on May 6, 1991. His final mission, STS-53, launched on December 9, 1992. Bluford logged over 688 hours on his four space flights. After NASA and the Air Force, Bluford continued to work in engineering and became the President of Aerospace Technology in 2002. Bluford was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1998, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2010, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2019. Bluford and his wife, Linda (m. 1964) have two sons, Guion III and James.

Feb 28

Barbara Smith (1946-)

Take note: pantsuit and nail game ON POINT

Born in Georgia and raised in Cleveland, OH, Smith and her twin sister were raised by extended family members after their mom’s death when the twins were nine. Smith inherited an eager desire for education from her grandmother, who had been a teacher. Unsatisfied with anything less than an A, Smith took her education seriously and engaged in school segregation protests with her sister. Smith attended several of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. In 1965, Smith’s excellent grades earned her acceptance to Mount Holyoke College, but transferred to the New School for Social Research in NYC because of racial animosity. Smith completed her degree at Mount Holyoke in 1969. In the early 1970’s, Smith began engaging in black nationalistic politics and attended her first meeting of the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973. Smith earned her MA in literature from the University of Pittsburgh and took a position at Ms. Magazine, continuing to organize for black female liberation.

Smith (center) with the Combahee River Collective

Smith joined the radical socialist organization, the Combahee River Collective, which emphasized the intersections of race, gender, class, and heterosexism in the lives of women of color. The collective also addressed the issues of reproductive rights, rape, prison reform, sterilization, and violence against women. Encouraged by her friend, Audre Lorde, Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980. Smith and her colleagues published several works that would later become foundational in ethnic, queer, and black studies, including “Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology”, “This Bridge Called My Back”, and “I Am Your Sister.” Smith’s breakthrough article, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1982) is regarded as one of the most important contributions to the topic of black lesbianism. A collection of Smith’s writings can be found in the anthology, “The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom” (1998). At 74, Smith continues to lecture and speak on black, queer feminism and declared her support for presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders in 2020.

Feb 29

Phill Wilson (1956-)

Born and raised in Chicago, IL, Wilson grew up with two very loving and supportive parents, who instilled in him the values of family and community. As a college student earning his B.A. in theater and Spanish at Illinois Wesleyan University, Wilson became involved in civil rights activities and was briefly married. In 1979, Wilson fell in love with a man named Chris Brownlie. Wilson’s family met him with unwavering love and support when he came out as gay. Wilson and Brownlie relocated to L.A. in 1982 and launched a giftware company named “Black is More Than Beautiful”. In direct response to the growing AIDS epidemic, Wilson increased his activism, and opposed Proposition 64, which called for the forced quarantine of AIDS patients. In 1986, Wilson closed his business to found the AIDS Prevention Team. In November of same year, Brownlie became ill and by early 1987, both Wilson and Brownlie were diagnosed with HIV. This diagnosis made Wilson and Brownlie work even harder, founding the AIDS Health Care Foundation, which became the largest nonprofit HIV service in Los Angeles County. Months after diagnosis, Brownlie’s condition had progressed to full-blown AIDS. Wilson felt that the AIDS epidemic was being ignored in black communities and founded the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in 1987. Brownlie died from AIDS in November of 1989. Wilson continued to advocate for AIDS prevention and organized the first “Summit on Homosexuality in the Black Community” in 1990, which led the NAACP to endorse the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual March on Washington in 1993 — Wilson was the keynote speaker. In 1994, Wilson was awarded the Vision Liberty Award for his ongoing activism. In 1999, Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute. In 2010, Wilson was appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

Phill Wilson (right) refuses to shut up

At 63, after losing so many loved ones to AIDS, Wilson does not take his life for granted. Wilson has said that when he does, he hopes to be remembered for not giving up, and that others will take his place to fight for the black community against HIV/AIDS.

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