Obituary

In Memoriam: Famous Black People Who Died in 2020

Each year, The Washington Informer pays tribute to our most notable Black brothers and sisters who have transitioned over the past 12 months.

While it’s never easy to say goodbye to those we’ve come to love and admire, it’s always a good feeling to remember the indelible marks of success many have left on this phenomenon we call life, as they strove to inspire others to follow the good examples they have set.

Rest well to each of the following:

January

The new year began tragically with the suspected drug overdose death on Jan. 1 of Nick Gordon, who was most famous for his relationship with Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown. He was only 30.

NBA legend Kobe Bryant, 41, and daughter Gianna, 13. died Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash Calabasas, Calif. Bryant, who played his entire 20-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers, entered the league directly from high school and won five NBA championships before retiring in 2016.

February

Famed actress Ja’Net DuBois, who played the role of Willona Woods on “Good Times,” died Feb. 18 at the age of 74. DuBois reportedly unexpectedly died in her sleep while at her Glendale, California, home.

Katherine Johnson, the pioneering NASA mathematician and one of the inspirations for the film “Hidden Figures,” died Feb. 24 at 101.

“She was an American hero, and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote in a tweet announcing her death.

March

Bishop Barbara Harris, the world’s first female ordained Episcopal bishop, died March 13.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery, known as the dean of civil rights, died March 27 at age 98.

Lowery was widely regarded as the top lieutenant for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and contributed to the civil rights movement in the most profound ways that include working to end segregation on buses in Mobile, Ala., before Rosa Parks as well as being a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Bill Withers, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter know for hits such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Use Me,” “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us,” died on March 30 at age 81.

April

Ellis Marsalis Jr., legendary jazz pianist and the father of accomplished jazz musicians Branford and Wynton Marsalis, died April 1 from complications after contracting the coronavirus. He was 85.

Earl G. Graves Sr., who championed the intersection of Black people, the business world and personal finance on his way to founding the seminal Black Enterprise magazine and growing it into a bona fide multimedia conglomerate, died April 7 following complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 85.

Cheryl A. Wall, literary scholar, an award-winning scholar of African American literature and a Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Rutgers University, died April 18. She was 71.

May

Legendary rock n’ roll pioneer Little Richard died May 9 at the age of 87. The reports of his death followed that of the death of iconic hip-hop executive Andre Harrell, who discovered Sean “Diddy” Combs. Harrell was 59 and died May 8.

Betty Wright, 66, who died on May 10, was an R&B singer, songwriter and background vocalist. Beginning her professional career in the late 1960s as a teenager, Wright rose to fame in the 1970s with hits such as “Clean Up Woman” and “Tonight Is the Night.”

Fred L. Davis, the former longtime Memphis city council member and civil rights activist who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died May 12 following an illness. He was 86.

Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, a former longtime butler who worked in the White House, died May 16 following complications from the coronavirus. He was 91.

Jerman served 11 presidents, including Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black commander in chief. Fox News reported that “Jerman worked at the White House from 1957 to 2012 as a cleaner, a doorman and butler.”

June

Wes Unseld, the venerable NBA Hall of Fame player who was the star on the Washington Bullets’ only championship team, died June 2 following lengthy health battles, most recently pneumonia. He was 74.

Bonnie Pointer, a founding member of the Pointer Sisters, died at age 69 on June 8.

July

John Lewis, a civil rights icon and venerable congressman, died July 17 at the age of 80 following a battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer that he announced late last year.

Lewis, who was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966, served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District from 1987 until his death.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights leader whose close association with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped fuel efforts toward achieving racial equality, died July 17 at the age of 95.

Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain died on July 30 following a brief battle with coronavirus. He was 74.

Cain, who was also the former chair of the Kansas City Federal Reserve as well as the onetime chief executive of the Godfather’s Pizza chain, was a loyal supporter of President Donald Trump. He attended a heavily attended rally for Trump without wearing a mask just weeks before his death.

August

Actor Chadwick Boseman, who inspired millions in the iconic movies “Black Panther” and “42,” the latter in which he portrayed baseball legend Jackie Robinson, died on Aug. 28 after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was 43.

John Thompson, the trailblazing former Georgetown coach who was the first Black coach to win the NCAA title, died Aug. 30. He was 78. No cause of death was immediately given.

Thompson had retired in May from the Nike Board of Directors.

September

Sylvester Francis, founder of the small but highly respected Backstreet Cultural museum that features an array of exhibits from various aspects of African American culture in New Orleans neighborhoods, died Sept. 2 at the age of 73.

Bruce Williamson, a former lead singer with The Temptations R&B group, died Sept. 6 from coronavirus-related complications. He was 49.

Williamson, who joined the band in 2007, died at his home in Las Vegas.

Lou Brock, the baseball legend who stole the second-most number of bases ever during a legendary career that spanned nearly two decades and included leading the St. Louis Cardinals to two World Series championships in the 1960s, died Sept. 6. He was 81.

Pamela Hutchinson, a member of R&B trio The Emotions, died on Sept.18 at the age of 61. TV One reported that she died following “health challenges she’d been battling for several years.”

Gale Sayers, former Chicago Bears star and NFL football legend, died at the age of 77 on Sept. 23 after battling dementia since being diagnosed in 2013.

He played for the Chicago Bears from 1965-71 after setting records at the University of Kansas and earning the nickname “Kansas Comet.”

October

Actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who played in several of director Spike Lee’s films and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance in the 2003 Broadway revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was fatally shot Oct. 3 at age 70.

Byrd earned a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Morris Brown College and a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance from California Institute of the Arts.

Johnny Nash, the chart-topping singer whose smash hit song “I Can See Clearly Now” went on to become a worldwide anthem, died of natural causes Oct. 6 at the age of 80.

November

Natalie Desselle-Reid, the beloved actress who starred in a variety of Black films and television shows including “How to Be A Player,” “Eve” and “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” died on Nov. 7 after a private battle with cancer.

However, it was her role as “Mickey” in “B.A.P.S.,” that made her a Black cultural icon.

Bishop Harry Jackson Jr., who served as an evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump, died on Nov. 9 at the age of 86. While the cause of Jackson’s death remains unknown, he had attended a White House event at which coronavirus protocols were not widely observed.

Bobby Brown Jr., the son of the R&B icon, was found dead on Nov. 18 at home in Encino, Calif., at age 28. Authorities did not suspect foul play.

David Dinkins, New York City’s first Black mayor, died Nov. 23 at his home from natural causes at the age of 93, just over a month after his wife Joyce’s death at age 89.

Bruce Carver Boynton, a respected civil rights activist and Alabama-based lawyer, died of cancer on Nov. 23 at the age of 83.

In 1958 while he was a law student at Howard University, Boynton stopped at a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, where he refused to exit a “whites-only” area after attempting to purchase a sandwich.

November

Lucille Bridges, the mother of Ruby Bridges, who first made headlines as a Black first-grade student following court-ordered integration in 1960 New Orleans before going on to become a civil rights activist, died Nov. 10. She was 86.

Drew Days III, a legal scholar who broke barriers during his career as a lawyer and college professor over the course of more than four decades, died Nov. 15. He was 79.

The Alfred M. Rankin Professor of Law at Yale Law School was the first Black assistant attorney general for civil rights in President Jimmy Carter’s administration and later served as the first Black U.S. solicitor general, serving under President Bill Clinton.

Ben Watkins, who captured America’s heart as a contestant on “MasterChef Junior,” a reality-based cooking contest TV show, died Nov. 16. He was just 14.

Watkins suffered from a rare form of cancer called angiomatoid fibrous histiocytoma that results in soft tissue tumors. He was diagnosed last year.

December

Olympic gold medalist Arnie Robinson Jr. died at home on Dec. 2 in San Diego, according to The New York Times. He was 72.

His son confirmed with the outlet that his death was the result of the coronavirus. He was described as “one of the greatest long jumpers in history.”

Marcus Garvey Jr., the namesake son of the famed pan-Africanist who started the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Back to Africa movement, died Dec. 8. He was 90.

Veteran actress Carol Sutton, whose most recent roles included appearances on the hit TV series “Queen Sugar,” died at age 76 on Dec. 10 from complications of COVID-19.

Tommy “Tiny” Lister, who played the felon neighborhood bully Deebo in the 1995 film “Friday” and its “Next Friday” sequel, died Dec. 10 at age 62.

Lister was reportedly found dead Thursday at his apartment in Marina Del Ray, Calif., after friends’ attempts to contact him failed and a wellness check was issued.

Sutton, who played the role of Aunt Martha on the OWN series, had been hospitalized in New Orleans where she lived.

Charley Pride, the nation’s first Black country music superstar revered for his smash hit “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” died on Dec. 12. He was 86.

The Mississippi native died due to complications from COVID-19.

Civil rights activist and noted Memphis pastor James L. Netters died on Dec. 13 at age 93.

Netters was one of the activists who helped lead the sanitation workers strike with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as sit-ins, marches and protests. His cause of death was not immediately known. Netters served for over 60 years as the pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church.

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