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In Memoriam 2021: Notables who Passed Away This Year

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Cicely Tyson appeared in 30 movies, countless TV shows, as well as numerous theatre productions in her career. She died in January, 2021.
Compiled by Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

In 2021, the world lost actors, musicians, athletes, activists, office holders and many others too soon. The losses were exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, which claimed its share of lives including among the well-known. Here are some names lost in 2021.

January

1 — Floyd Little, 78. Little, a halfback for the Denver Broncos from 1967 to 1975 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, and in 1983, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his time at Syracuse University, where he was a three-time All-American.

3 — Eric Jerome Dickey, 59, the bestselling author of 29 novels was famous for books like “Sister, Sister” and “Naughty or Nice,” in addition to his crime fiction series “Gideon.” Dickey had been living in Los Angeles since he graduated from the University of Memphis in his hometown.

7 — Deezer D, 55, was an actor and rapper, known for playing the role of Nurse Malik McGrath in the television series “ER.” He also released three albums under his Deezer D name. Thompson also acted in the movies “CB4” and “Fear of a Black Hat.”

UNDATED: Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves poses for an action portrait circa 1968. Hank Aaron played for the Atlanta Braves from 1954 to 1954. (Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images)

22 — Hank Aaron, 86, who is considered one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the sport had spent the entirety of his 23-year career with the Braves, first in Milwaukee, then in Atlanta. The Mobile Ala.-native was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1974, Aaron beaten Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, just shortly before his own retirement in 1976. Aaron held the all-time homerun record of 755 for over 30 years.

23 — Larry King, 87, the veteran news broadcaster famed for his radio show “The Larry King Show” and later “Larry King Live” on television, conducted over 50 thousand interviews and received numerous broadcasting awards including two Peabodys, an Emmy and ten Cable ACE awards.

28 – Cicely Tyson, 96. Having appeared in 30 movies, countless TV shows, as well as numerous theatre productions in her career, Tyson earned three Primetime Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actors Guild Award, one Tony Award, an Honorary Academy Award and a Peabody Award. Her breakout role was in 1972 as Rebecca Morgan in “Sounder.” 

29 — John Chaney, 89, was the basketball coach who led Temple University in Philadelphia to 17 NCAA tournament appearances. In 2001, Chaney was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and later joined the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Big 5 Hall of Fame in 2009.

29 – Shelia Washington, 61. Washington’s efforts led to the exoneration of the Scottsboro Boys. At age 17, after discovering a memoir about the nine adolescents who were wrongfully convicted of rape, Washington dedicated her life to doing them justice. 

February

4: Dianne Durham, the first Black woman to win a USA Gymnastics national championship, dies in Chicago following a short illness, her husband said. She was 52. Durham was a pioneer in American gymnastics. Her victory in the all-around at the 1983 national championships as a teenager was the first by a Black woman in the organization’s history.

5 — Leon Spinks, 67, managed to win a match against Muhammad Ali in a split decision in 1978 in his eighth professional fight, securing the undisputed heavyweight championship. However, Spinks lost the title after losing to Ali in an unapproved match less than a year later. Spinks boxed from 1977 to 1995.

Mary Wilson
On Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, Friends of the LBJ Library presented an evening with Mary Wilson, a founding member of The Supremes, in honor of the LBJ Library special exhibition, Motown: The Sound of Young America. LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin 12/04/2019

8 — Mary Wilson, 76, was a singer and founding member of the Supremes, the best-charting all-women group in United States chart history. Wilson was inducted, alongside her fellow Supremes Ballard and Diana Ross, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

9 — Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea, 79, the jazz composer, bandleader and keyboardist whose compositions include “Spain” and “Windows.” Originally from Chelsea, Massachusetts, Corea was introduced to jazz by his father. In the 1960s, Corea played in jazz great John Coltrane’s band, before coming into his own in the 1970s. Corea won 25 Grammys from his more-than-60 nominations.

19 — Lawrence Otis Graham, 59, an attorney and bestselling author of books about race, class and politics in America. Graham, who worked as a corporate and real estate lawyer, wrote 14 books. Graham’s 1999 book “Our Kind of People: America’s Black Upper Class” became an Essence, Los Angeles Times and New York Times bestseller.

28 — Irv Cross, 81, a professional football player and sportscaster. Born Irvin Acie Cross, he played cornerback in the National Football League (NFL) for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Rams through the 1960s. In 1971, Cross joined CBS Sports as a commentator and analyst, making him the first African American sports analyst on national television. 

March

Vernon Jordan Jr., senior managing director at Lazard Capital Markets LLC, speaks during the Economic Club of Washington dinner event with George Mitchell, former U.S. Middle East special envoy, right, and Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. Buffett said he doesn’t expect another U.S. recession unless Europe’s crisis spreads. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Vernon Jordan; George Mitchell

1 — Vernon Jordan, 85, rose from humble beginnings in the segregated South to become a champion of civil rights before reinventing himself as a Washington insider and corporate influencer. He became head of the National Urban League, becoming the face of Black America’s modern struggle for jobs and justice for more than a decade. His friendship with Bill Clinton took them both to the White House. Jordan was a key campaign adviser to Clinton during his first presidential campaign and co-chaired Clinton’s transition team, the first Black person to be assigned such a role.

2 — Bunny Wailer, 73, born Neville O’Riley Livingston, formed the band The Wailers with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in 1963 and remained as the last living member of the original band. Wailer came to be one of the defining voices of reggae through his work with Marley and Tosh, and Wailer won three Grammy Awards through his music.

13 — Marvelous Marvin Hagler, 66, a professional boxer from 1973 to 1987, was the undisputed champ of the middleweight division from 1980 to 1987. Hagler’s long reign as undisputed champ of the middleweight division is still the longest in boxing history.

19 — Alvin Sykes, 64 was a self-taught law expert and Civil Rights activist. Though he never went to law school or took the bar exam, Sykes taught himself using resources from a library in Kansas City. Through his efforts, Sykes was able to get police in Kansas City to reopen a murder case of a murder in 1970. In addition, his efforts led to the enactment of the Emmett Till Unsolved Rights Crime Act of 2008.

22 — Elgin Baylor, 86, was a professional basketball player, coach and team manager. Baylor started playing professionally with the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958 and played with them, through their move to Los Angeles, until 1971. Baylor then became vice president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers in 1986, staying in that role until 2008.

31 — Winfred Rembert, 75, was an unorthodox African American artist who depicted the Jim Crow South in pieces made from leather and shoe dye. 

April

1 — Martha Lou Gadsden, 90, was the owner of Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston, S.C. A soul food icon who ran the Kitchen from 1983 until late 2020, Gadsden grew up mostly in Manning, S.C. with her grandmother who first introduced her to cooking. 

4 — Bill McCreary, 87, was one of New York’s first Black TV journalists. After starting at a Queens radio station in 1960, McCreary joined New York’s Fox 5 as the managing editor and anchor of “Black News.” After a year in the role, McCreary was moved to co-anchoring the “10 O’clock News” for the channel. 

9 — DMX, 50, the popular rapper of songs like “Where the Hood At?” and “X Gon’ Give It to Ya.” born Earl Simmons, spent much of his childhood on the streets of Yonkers. He released “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” his first album, in 1998 through Def Jam Recordings which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and was the first of five consecutive albums to do the same. In addition to selling over 74 million records worldwide, DMX also played in numerous films such as 1998’s “Belly” and appeared as himself in numerous TV shows, including “DMX: Soul of a Man,” his own reality show.

May

3 — Lloyd Price, 88, singer-songwriter, bandleader and music executive called “Mr. Personality,” in reference to his song “Personality,” which stayed at the second spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 list for three weeks, Price put out multiple hits in his lifetime, in addition to starting multiple record labels. 

19 — Lee Evans, 74, a Black Power icon who brought home two Olympic gold medals for the United States. In 1968, Evans and other Black athletes demonstrated for Black Power at both the American Olympic Trials in California and at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. At the games in Mexico City that year, Evans also set two world records, both of which lasted at least 20 years. Evans also founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

19 — Paul Mooney, 79, a comedian and actor who collaborated with the likes of Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle. Mooney was best known for his work in comedic circles, including his comedy albums and time as head writer on “The Richard Pryor” show. He is also credited as a major writer on many influential Black sitcoms and comedies, including “Good Times,” “In Living Color,” “Pryor’s Place,” and “Chappelle’s Show”.

22 — Chi Modu, 57, the photographer who captured some of the most famous images of 1990s hip hop stars. Modu, who first took up photography at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, had photographed the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Q-Tip, among many others.

June

4 — Clarence Williams III, 81, played the cool undercover cop Linc Hayes on the counterculture series “The Mod Squad” and Prince’s father in “Purple Rain,” among other roles. A native of New York, Williams’ career spanned over five decades in theater, television and film. 

5 — Martha White, 99, sparked Louisiana bus boycotts in 1953. White took an empty seat for white people while Black passengers stood. After White refused a command to stand up, another Black passenger sat with her. After the bus driver got the police involved, they said White was allowed to sit. White served as an example for the later Montgomery Bus Boycott.

11 — James Timothy “Mudcat” Grant, 85, the first Black pitcher to win a World Series game for the American League and was also the first Black pitcher to win 20 games in a season in the American League. He played for seven different teams in his career, which lasted from 1958 to 1971.

July

16 — Biz Markie, 57, a hip-hop staple known for his beatboxing prowess, turntable mastery and the 1989 classic “Just a Friend.” Markie, whose birth name was Marcel Theo Hall, became known within the rap genre realm as the self-proclaimed “Clown Prince of Hip-Hop” for his lighthearted lyrics and humorous nature.

25 — Robert Parris Moses, 86, the Civil Rights activist who was shot at and endured beatings and jail while leading Black voter registration drives in the American South during the 1960s and later helped improve minority education in math. 

28 — Glen Ford,71, helped create and hosted the first nationally syndicated Black news interview show on television. In addition, Ford was the Capitol Hill, State Department and White House correspondent for the Mutual Black Network. Ford was a Vietnam War veteran and a member of the Black Panther Party. 

August

9 — Chucky Thompson, 53, was a hip hop and R&B producer who worked with the likes of Usher, Mary J. Blige and Notorious B.I.G. A member of the “Hitmen” producers of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment, Thompson has over 50 production credits. 

29 — Lee “Scratch” Perry, 85, was an influential Jamaican musician and record producer. In addition to producing for artists including Bob Marley, The Congos and The Clash, among others, Perry was crucial to the development of dub music. 

September

6 — Michael K. Williams, 54, the actor who, as the rogue robber of drug dealers Omar Little on “The Wire,” created one of the most beloved and enduring characters in a prime era of television. Little, a “stick-up boy” based on real figures from Baltimore, was probably the most popular character among the devoted fans of “The Wire,” the HBO show that ran from 2002 to 2008 and is re-watched constantly in streaming.

21 — Melvin Van Peebles, 89, the actor, filmmaker, playwright, novelist and composer released a variety of work across a variety of media, including music albums, films, novels and plays, his 1970 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” endures as his most famous and one of the most important entries in the history of African American film.

28 — Lonnie Smith, 79, known for wearing his iconic turban, Smith played with the likes of guitarist George Benson , as well as saxophonist Lou Donaldson, in addition to singers such as Etta James and Gladys Knight. Smith also worked as a solo artist, releasing albums even into the year of his death.

October

18 — Colin Powell, 84, served Democratic and Republican presidents in war and peace but had his sterling reputation forever stained when he went before the U.N. and made faulty claims to justify the U.S. war in Iraq. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Powell rose to the rank of four-star general and in 1989 became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that role he oversaw the U.S. invasion of Panama and later the U.S. invasion of Kuwait to oust the Iraqi army in 1991.

November

28 — Virgil Abloh, 41, a leading designer whose groundbreaking fusions of streetwear and high couture made him one of the most celebrated tastemakers in fashion and beyond. In 2018, Abloh became the first Black artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton in the French design house’s storied history. A first generation Ghanaian American whose seamstress mother taught him to sew, Abloh had no formal fashion training but had a degree in engineering and a master’s in architecture.

29 — Lee Elder, 87, broke down racial barriers as the first Black golfer to play in the Masters and paved the way for Tiger Woods and others to follow. A native Texan who developed his game during segregated times while caddying, Elder made history in 1975 at Augusta National, which had been an all-white tournament until he received an invitation after winning the Monsanto Open the previous year. 

December

13 — Joe Simon, 85, a longtime hitmaking soul and R&B artist recorded his first hit, “My Adorable One,” which reached number eight on the U.S. R&B charts, in 1964 but would go on to have 51 hits on the U.S. pop and R&B charts.

15 — bell hooks, 69, a groundbreaking author, educator and activist whose explorations of how race, gender, economics and politics were intertwined made her among the most influential thinkers of her time. hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952 in the segregated town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and later gave herself the pen name bell hooks in honor of her maternal great-grandmother.

15 — Wanda Young, 78, a member of Motown’s chart-topping The Marvelettes and other members of the Marvelettes were teenagers when they recorded “Please Mr. Postman” for Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records in 1961. The song became Motown’s first No. 1 pop hit.

18 — Kangol Kid, 55, influential artist behind one of the biggest hip-hop songs of all time was part of the famed hip-hop group UTFO — which stood for Untouchable Force Organization —best known for the 1984 song “Roxanne, Roxanne,” about the members’ unrequited interest in a woman. The hit kicked off a phenomenon known as the “Roxanne Wars,” in which other artists from New York released Roxanne-themed songs.

26 — Desmond Tutu, 90, South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning icon, an uncompromising foe of the country’s past racist policy of apartheid and a modern-day activist for racial justice and LGBT rights.  Tutu worked passionately, tirelessly and non-violently to tear down apartheid — South Africa’s brutal, decades-long regime of oppression against its Black majority that only ended in 1994.