From the world’s oldest person to civil rights icons to rappers to diehard MAGA loyalists to former professional athletes and more, the global Black community lost a diverse array of notable people who left their marks in life before dying this year.
While no one person’s life is more important than another’s, NewsOne would be remiss not to draw attention to the deaths of Black people this year that seemed to resonate with a wide ripple effect across an entire diaspora.
Keep reading to find NewsOne’s list of deaths this year that sent collective shockwaves through not just Black America, but worldwide. After that, keep scrolling down to find a comprehensive, more inclusive listicle of notable deaths of Black people who died this year.
Actor, singer and activist Harry Belafonte died of congestive heart failure on April 25 at the age of 96.
The staunch supporter of the Civil Rights Movement was a pioneer in so many ways. As arguably one of the most successful Caribbean-American singers of all time, Belafonte’s first album Calypso, which debuted in 1956, sold more than 1 million records. With hit songs like “The Banana Boat Song” and “Jump In The Line,” Belafonte’s rise to fame was inevitable. He would go on to perform on Broadway and star in numerous films such as Bright Road and Island In The Sun.
But the arts weren’t Belafonte’s only passion. His support for the Civil Rights Movement ultimately defined who he was as a person. As one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidants, he often provided financial assistance since King only made an honest living as a preacher.
Belafonte, along with Sidney Poitier, also helped bankroll the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the “Mississippi Freedom Summer” of 1964, served as chairman of the International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children in Dakar, Senegal, and successfully leveraged his celebrity status to help drive social change all over the world.
“Harry Belafonte, despite harsh criticism for his positions, never shrunk, never smalled himself up. And no one silenced him,” award-winning author, journalist and NewsOne senior editor asha bandele recalled in a personal essay about her time knowing the icon.
Tori Bowie, an Olympic gold medalist in track and field, died on April 23 at 32 following complications from being in labor during childbirth. According to an autopsy performed by the Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office, Bowie was about eight months pregnant when she was found dead in her Florida home.
Bowie’s death placed a glaring spotlight on the ongoing Black maternal health crisis. Officials speculated that she may have died from a condition called eclampsia, which is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a complication of pregnancy” that “usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women whose blood pressure had previously been in the standard range.” Notably, it can be deadly if left untreated. Doctors routinely recommend delivering the baby early.
However, Bowie’s official cause of death was ultimately determined to be natural causes.
Jim Brown, the football legend who transformed his life away from the field to become an activist, actor and overall mainstay in popular culture, died of natural causes on May 18 at the age of 87.
As a football player, he was undeniably one of the best to grace the gridiron. In 2002, Brown was named the greatest football player ever by Sporting News and for good reason. Selected by the Cleveland Browns in 1957, Brown, who played running back, led the NFL in rushing eight out of the nine years he was in the league. He was also named a Pro Bowler every year he played, leading the Browns to three league championship appearances and one title in 1964. Jim Brown would walk away from the game of football after nine seasons when many believed he was still in his prime.
During the latter part of his football career, Brown became actively involved in the civil rights movement and founded the Black Economic Union, which focuses on community revitalization “while stimulating economic growth for existing independently owned area businesses,” according to its website.
Decades later, Brown founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation, an academic-centered organization serving “at-risk and high risk youth in underserved schools and juvenile detention facilities,” its website says.
In later years, Brown’s political activity turned slightly to the right; namely during Donald Trump’s presidency, which Brown would often defend.
While Brown never offered his full-throated endorsement of Trump, he also would not condemn it.
During a memorable meeting in the White House attended by both the press as well as rapper Kanye West, Brown spoke glowingly of Trump.
“This is the President of the United States,” Brown added. “He allowed me to be invited to his territory, he treated us beautifully, and he shared some thoughts, and he will be open to talking when I get back to him. That’s the best he could do for me.”
Jacky Oh, the mother of the children of popular YouTube personality, actor and comedian DC Young Fly, died on May 31 at the age of 32 following complications from cosmetic surgery. The former Wild ‘N Out model and entrepreneur born Jacklyn Smith shared three young children with DC Young Fly.
Jacky Oh made a name for herself on Wild ‘N Out in 2014 during the comedy show’s sixth season, where she helped to rile up the crowd as one of the stunning Wild ‘N Out girls. She remained on the show for five seasons before she left the series to launch her lip gloss line, the J Nova Collection.
While Jacky Oh was not necessarily a household name, the news of her death was one of NewsOne’s most-read articles of the year and particularly resonated with readers at a time when complications from cosmetic surgery, including death, have been increasingly documented.
Lance Reddick, the actor widely known for his role in the hit cable crime drama, “The Wire,” died of heart disease on March 17. He was 60 years old.
Reddick rose to fame playing the character of Baltimore Police Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, who appeared in all five seasons of “The Wire” on HBO.
Reddick stayed in the limelight following “The Wire” by starring in the John Wick movie series, the latest of which was nearing release and had been in the middle of promotion when he died.
Acting wasn’t Reddick’s only talent in the arts.
In 2011, he released his first album, “Contemplations and Rememberances.”
He previously attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he studied classical composition. He also played piano and said he always wanted to be a musician, but the acting jobs came first, which allowed him to take care of his family.
Hughes “Uncle Redd” Van Ellis was one of three remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre before he died on Oct. 9 at the age of 102.
Ellis, who was only a year old during the Tulsa Race Massacre, was a proud U.S. Army Veteran who fought in WWII alongside the British.
Ellis told KJRH during a 2021 interview that they barely escaped the massacre with their lives and losing everything made it tough to survive.
“My sister Viola told me, she said it was thought guns were going off,” Van Ellis told KJRH. “Dad looked outside to see people getting gunshot, houses getting burned. So, there’s only six little kids. I was a baby. So, my father just managed to barely get out, just with the clothes on our backs. We didn’t have time to get nothing else together.”
Ellis also talked about his time in a very segregated army.
“Back then they had a Black army and they had a white army,” said Van Ellis. “You were treated differently than the white army. Sometimes you couldn’t get supplies you needed in the Black army. Sometimes they weren’t able to get you shoes, stuff like that, you know?”
In May 2021, Ellis and his sister Viola Fletcher, 109, who also survived the massacre, testified in front of Congress, sharing their story about living through one of America’s most tragic moments in history.
“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home,” Fletcher said during his testimony. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”
Their testimony was so compelling that President Joe Biden proclaimed May 31, 2021, a Day of Remembrance: 100 Years After The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Click here to learn more about the amazing Black lives we lost this year.
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