‘The last flag bearers of an era’: how coronavirus threatens a generation of black Ameri

Older black people are more likely to die of the virus that their white counterparts – among those lost are prominent black pastors, performers and civil rights activists

By Kenya Evelyn | The Guardian | April 21, 2020

Coronavirus has claimed more than 45,000 lives in the US as of Tuesday – especially those of older Americans, who represent 91% of all Covid-19 deaths.

Within that vulnerable population, older black people are more likely to die of the virus than their white counterparts. And among those lost are prominent black pastors, performers and practitioners who lived through struggles for civil and cultural rights in their communities.

“Many of them are the last flag bearers of an era long ago,” said Brian Turner, an associate professor of psychology and director of African American diaspora studies at Xavier University, a historically black university in New Orleans. “The collective trauma our communities are experiencing risks the lifelines of our cultural anchors and folklores shared through oral traditions.”

The map of where these elders live is a story within itself. African Americans face a higher risk of exposure to the virus, mostly on account of concentrating in urban areas and working in essential industries. In the midwest and north-east, racial inequities in labor and population density threaten lives.

Meanwhile, the south presents the “perfect storm of characteristics to just be a tragic region in terms of the Covid outbreak”, said Thomas LaVeist, dean of public health and tropical medicine at Tulane University. Poverty and inadequate healthcare mean higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

“So many black folks struggle with inequities that contribute to premature death rates,” said Daniel Dawes, professor of health law and policy at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “Many are not even able to die in dignity.”

“We’re losing an incredible brain trust with these generations and that will impact an entire country, not just the black community,” Dawes said.

The Guardian presents the stories of five black Americans who died of the coronavirus, the impact on their families, and unique communities.

Theodore Gaffney, 92 Washington, District of Columbia

Theodore Gaffney from an interview in the document “Freedom Riders.”

Theodore Gaffney from an interview in the document ‘Freedom Riders’. Photograph: Firelight Media

Theodore Gaffney’s presence in the civil rights movement remains one of the most recognizable – even though he was always behind the scenes. Gaffney captured much of the historic events of the era as a photographer.

A photo captured by Gaffney on the front page of the Birmingham News after an attack by a white mob on Freedom Riders protesting segregation in the south.

A photo captured by Gaffney on the front page of the Birmingham News after an attack by a white mob on Freedom Riders protesting segregation in the south. Photograph: Newspapers.com

Descended from former slaves in South Carolina, Gaffney went on to become one of the first African American photographers inside the White House and for the Washington Post.

“He provided proof that black people are being assaulted at these protests,” said Lopez Matthews, a librarian at Howard University’s Moorland Spingarn Museum, where Gaffney was a longtime contributor.

“His work was important in portraying an experience only African Americans were believing at the time,” he added.

Gaffney documented the famous Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who, beginning in 1961, rode interstate buses throughout the south to protest against segregation. After Klansmen and white mobs attacked the activists debarking a Greyhound bus in Alabama, Gaffney’s photo of the bus in flames made national papers across the country.

According to his wife, Gaffney died on Easter Sunday at the age of 92 in his native Washington DC.

“We’ve lost a tremendous wealth of knowledge who actually lived many of the things we are documenting,” Matthews said.

Ronald Lewis, 68 New Orleans, Louisiana Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans called Lewis “the very definition of a culture bearer”.

“I want to educate the world about our great culture, how we do this, and why we are so successful at it even though the economics say we ain’t supposed to be,” Ronald Lewis once said.

Ronald Lewis at his mueseum, the House of Dance & Feathers, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Ronald Lewis at his museum, the House of Dance & Feathers, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph: House of Dance & Feathers

As founder of the House of Dance & Feathers in 2003, Lewis provided a community center that celebrated African American and Creole culture, an important cause as the city saw rampant gentrification after Hurricane Katrina.

“He spoke up for us all,” his neighbor, Jimmy Lewis, told the Guardian. “He was full of love and concern.”Advertisement

As a lifelong resident of the Lower Ninth ward, Ronald Lewis’s home was also one of the first to be rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. But though he weathered nearly every storm, the coronavirus proved an entirely different beast for the 68-year-old with diabetes.

Social distancing made a proper send off of Lewis impossible, but the community will come together again to celebrate a cultural icon.

Lila Fenwick, 87 Manhattan, New York

Lila Fenwick speaks to attendees of a Harvard Law summit in 2003.

Lila Fenwick speaks to attendees of a Harvard Law summit in 2003. Photograph: Courtesy of Harvard University

Lila Fenwick is most known for being the first black female graduate of Harvard law school in 1956, a year before US supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg began her studies.

But, as she recalled to Harvard Law alumni, “It never occurred to [her] that there were going to be any obstacles.”

“I knew I was going to be a lawyer when I was a little girl,” she said.

Fenwick spent much of her adult life working as a specialist on gender, racial and religious discrimination at the United Nations until she retired in 1974 – when the UN’s headquarters were relocated to Geneva.

She died at the age of 87 in her Manhattan home on 4 April.

In a tribute blogpost, Harvard University remembered Fenwick as “an extraordinary leader who devoted her career” to protecting “human rights of all people across the globe”.

Gil Bailey, 84 Queens, New York

Gil Bailey

Gil Bailey, the ‘Godfather of Caribbean radio’ built his own radio platform and inspired many young immigrants in New York City. Photograph: Facebook


Considered the “Godfather of Caribbean radio”, Gil Bailey built his own radio platform – inspiring many young immigrants in New York City.

Bailey was born in Jamaica and moved to the US in the 1960s and quickly became a prominent voice in local radio and Caribbean American affairs. “In our history, the Jamaican population had one person on the radio waves, it was this man. We’ve come a long way, and he led the way,” artist Nadine Sutherland wrote in tribute.

“We are losing the pillars that built our legacies throughout this country,” Sutherland told the Guardian. “That’s what matters most.”

Brenda Perryman, 71 Detroit, Michigan

Brenda Perryman, longtime Detroit educator and talk show host.

Brenda Perryman, longtime Detroit educator and talk show host. Photograph: Facebook

Brenda Perryman was a longtime member of Detroit’s local NAACP, using her platform as a host of a roundtable talk on public access television to press leaders on arts funding and women’s empowerment.

The retired teacher, poet and activist died on 5 March due to complications from the coronavirus. Perryman was celebrated as an advocate for the community, earning numerous “Spirit of Detroit” awards.

“She made everybody feel [they] were her favorite,” a former student, Nortrice Banner, told the Detroit Free Press. “She was constantly creating and always inspired us to do the same.”

In remembrance, the Michigan congresswoman Brenda Lawrence tweeted that Perryman’s “dedication to building up the community [she] served will never be forgotten”.

  1. The article was amended on 21 April 2020 to remove an obituary for Eugene Kane, a former columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who tested negative for Covid-19.

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