By Bernard McGhee, The Associated Press
A lauded writer who brought to light stories overshadowed by prejudice. A pioneering executive who broke the glass ceiling in Major League Baseball. An African “savior” turned dictator. An urban lyricist and social activist whose promise was cut short by violence.
This year saw the deaths of people who shifted culture through prose, pragmatism and persistence. It also witnessed tragedy, in talent struck down in its prime.
In 2019, the political world lost a giant in U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. He was born the son of a sharecropper, became a lawyer, then an influential congressman and champion of civil rights.
Cummings, who died in October, was chairman of one of the U.S. House committees that led an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump and was a formidable advocate for the poor in his Maryland district.
The death of Toni Morrison in August left a chasm in the publishing world, where she was a “literary mother” to countless writers. She helped elevate multiculturalism to the world stage and unearthed the lives of the unknown and unwanted. She became the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize for “Beloved” and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
In April, Hollywood lost director John Singleton, whose 1991 film “Boyz N the Hood” was praised as a realistic and compassionate take on race, class, peer pressure and family. He became the first Black director to receive an Oscar nomination and the youngest at 24.
The year also saw the untimely deaths of two young rappers, leaving a feeling of accomplishments unfulfilled. Grammy-nominated Nipsey Hussle was killed in a shooting in Los Angeles in March. Juice WRLD, who launched his career on SoundCloud before becoming a streaming juggernaut, died in December after being treated for opioid use during a police search.
Here is a roll call of some influential [Black] figures who died in 2019 (cause of death cited for younger people, if available):
James Ingram, 66. The Grammy-winning singer who launched multiple hits on the R&B and pop charts and earned two Oscar nominations for his songwriting. Jan. 29.
Kristoff St. John, 52. An actor best known for playing Neil Winters on the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” Feb. 4. Heart disease.
Frank Robinson, 83. The Hall of Famer was the first Black manager in Major League Baseball and the only player to win the MVP award in both leagues. Feb. 7.
John Dingell, 92. The former congressman was the longest-serving member of Congress in American history at 59 years and a master of legislative deal-making who was fiercely protective of Detroit’s auto industry. Feb. 7.
Andrea Levy, 62. A prize-winning novelist who chronicled the hopes and horrors experienced by the post-World War II generation of Jamaican immigrants in Britain. Feb. 14.
Jackie Shane, 78. A Black transgender soul singer who became a pioneering musician in Toronto where she packed nightclubs in the 1960s. Feb. 21.
Ken Gibson, 86. He became the first Black mayor of a major Northeast city when he ascended to power in riot-torn Newark, New Jersey, about five decades ago. March 29.
Nipsey Hussle, 33. A Grammy-nominated rapper. March 31. Killed in a shooting.
Damon J. Keith, 96. A grandson of slaves and figure in the civil rights movement who as a federal judge was sued by President Richard Nixon over a ruling against warrantless wiretaps. April 28.
John Singleton, 51. A director who made one of Hollywood’s most memorable debuts with the Oscar-nominated “Boyz N the Hood” and continued over the following decades to probe the lives of Black communities in his native Los Angeles and beyond. April 29. Taken off life support after a stroke.
Binyavanga Wainaina, 48. One of Africa’s best-known authors and gay rights activists. May 21. Illness.
Patricia Bath, 76. A pioneering ophthalmologist who became the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent after she invented a more precise treatment of cataracts. May 30. Complications of cancer.
Frank Lucas, 88. The former Harlem drug kingpin whose life and lore inspired the 2007 film “American Gangster.” May 30.
Leah Chase, 96. A New Orleans chef and civil rights icon who created the city’s first white-tablecloth restaurant for Black patrons, broke the city’s segregation laws by seating White and Black customers, and introduced countless tourists to Southern Louisiana Creole cooking. June 1.
Dr. John, 77. The New Orleans singer and piano player who blended Black and White musical styles with a hoodoo-infused stage persona and gravelly bayou drawl. June 6.
Dave Bartholomew, 100. A giant of New Orleans music and a rock n’ roll pioneer who, with Fats Domino, co-wrote and produced such classics as “Ain’t That a Shame,” “I’m Walkin'” and “Let the Four Winds Blow.” June 23.
Pernell Whitaker, 55. An Olympic gold medalist and four-division boxing champion who was regarded as one of the greatest defensive fighters ever. July 14. Hit by a car.
Edith Irby Jones, 91. The first Black student to enroll at an all-White medical school in the South and later the first female president of the National Medical Association. July 15.
Johnny Clegg, 66. A South African musician who performed in defiance of racial barriers imposed under the country’s apartheid system decades ago and celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela. July 16.
Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, 85. The former Boston Red Sox infielder was the first Black player on the last major league team to field one. July 17.
Art Neville, 81. A member of one of New Orleans’ storied musical families, the Neville Brothers, and a founding member of the groundbreaking funk band The Meters. July 22.
Toni Morrison, 88. A pioneer and reigning giant of modern literature whose imaginative power in “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and other works transformed American letters by dramatizing the pursuit of freedom within the boundaries of race. Aug. 5.
Cedric Benson, 36. A former NFL running back who was one of the most prolific rushers in NCAA and University of Texas history. Aug. 17. Motorcycle crash.
Baxter Leach, 79. A prominent member of the Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers union whose historic strike drew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the city where he was assassinated. Aug. 27.
Robert Mugabe, 95. The former Zimbabwean leader was an ex-guerrilla chief who took power when the African country shook off White minority rule and presided for decades while economic turmoil and human rights violations eroded its early promise. Sept. 6.
Jessye Norman, 74. The renowned international opera star whose passionate soprano voice won her four Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor. Sept. 30.
Diahann Carroll, 84. The Oscar-nominated actress and singer who won critical acclaim as the first black woman to star in a non-servant role in a TV series as “Julia.” Oct. 4. Cancer.
James Stern, 55. A Black activist who took control of one of the nation’s largest neo-Nazi groups — and vowed to dismantle it. Oct. 11. Cancer.
Elijah E. Cummings, 68. A sharecropper’s son who rose to become a civil rights champion and the chairman of one of the U.S. House committees leading an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Oct. 17. Complications from longstanding health problems.
John Conyers, 90. The former congressman was one of the longest-serving members of Congress whose resolutely liberal stance on civil rights made him a political institution in Washington and back home in Detroit despite several scandals. Oct. 27.
John Walker, 82. An Arkansas lawmaker and civil rights attorney who represented Black students in a long-running court fight over the desegregation of Little Rock-area schools. Oct. 28.
John Witherspoon, 77. An actor-comedian who memorably played Ice Cube’s father in the “Friday” films. Oct. 29.
Ernest J. Gaines, 86. A novelist whose poor childhood on a small Louisiana plantation germinated stories of Black struggles that grew into universal tales of grace and beauty. Nov. 5.
Charles Rogers, 38. The former Michigan State star and Detroit Lions receiver was an All-American wide receiver who was the school’s all-time leader in touchdown catches. Nov. 11.
Irving Burgie, 95. A composer who helped popularize Caribbean music and co-wrote the enduring Harry Belafonte hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” Nov. 29.
Juice WRLD, 21. A rapper who launched his career on SoundCloud before becoming a streaming juggernaut and rose to the top of the charts with the Sting-sampled hit “Lucid Dreams.” Dec. 8. Died after being treated for opioid use during a police search.