In this memoriam, Diverse pays tribute to a few of the trendsetters and trailblazers, innovators and educators, scholars and thought leaders, champions and caretakers whom we lost in 2020. What links them is the indelible mark they left on the lives of countless students, higher education, society and the world.
We reflect at the close of a year that will long be remembered by those in higher education and the nation as one marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. In its wake, the coronavirus has claimed the lives of numerous scholars and leaders in the academy.
Dr. Maurice Berger
Maurice Berger, a renowned international art scholar and curator, was also a powerful voice against overt and subtle racism in the art world and the broader society. Among the most prominent exhibitions Berger curated was “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,”
housed in 2011 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Berger grew up on New York City’s Lower East Side among Black and Puerto Rican families. He dedicated much of his life to being conscious of how race determines opportunities, attitudes and much more, not only in his life but also in the life of others. His writing, exploring those influences, was direct and provocative. Berger asked, for instance, “Are Art Museums Racist?” in a 1990 essay in the magazine Art in America. In a 2017 essay, he talked about the racism on display in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Berger wrote the acclaimed book White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness, published in 2000. He was a senior research scholar at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He died at his home in Craryville, New York. Berger was 63.
The historically Black Howard University campus in Washington, D.C. was electric on the 150th commencement day in 2018. Chadwick Boseman, one of its native sons had returned to deliver the main address, fresh off the groundbreaking superhero film “Black Panther.” In a way, the regal, young actor who played T’Challa had returned to his Wakanda — Howard, “The Mecca.”
Boseman, a 2000 graduate, had admired T’Challa and Marvel’s “Black
Panther” comics while at Howard, where he studied acting with Tony Award-winning actress and director Phylicia Rashad.
“When you pray for something, it can actually happen,” Boseman once said. “And that’s powerful.”
For Black moviegoers around the world, his role in “Black Panther” also represented a hope fulfilled — and a point of pride and empowerment. They helped make “Black Panther” one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. In a statement on Instagram, Boseman said it was “the honor of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in ‘Black Panther.’”
He attended the British American Dramatic Academy at Oxford before beginning his career as an actor, director and writer. At 35, Boseman appeared in his first prominent role, the legendary Jackie Robinson in “42.” But a starring role in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” filmed in 2019, was his last. Boseman died on August 28. He was 43.
David C. Driskell
David C. Driskell, a scholar, artist and art collector, was widely regarded as the seminal authority on Black art in America. It was a life’s journey that took root at Howard University. In 1952, Driskell was a sophomore majoring in history at Howard until James A. Porter, a scholar of African American art,
took notice of his artistic talent and urged him to switch his focus to art history.
“He said, ‘You can’t afford to just be an artist,’” Driskell recalled in an ARTnews interview. “You have to show people what we’ve contributed.”
The son of Georgia sharecroppers, he did that and more, transforming the field of African American art through his scholarship, innovation and humanity. Driskell was a professor at Fisk University when he began putting together his groundbreaking 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950.” It remains a foundation for the field. He was the personal curator for Bill and Camille Cosby and selected the Black artwork that appeared on “The Cosby Show.”
His own collections of African American art were considered among the largest and finest in the world. In 2001 the University of Maryland, where he was a scholar since 1977, established the David C. Driskell Center, which documents and presents African American art and holds the Driskell archive. He died on April 1 from complications related to COVID-19. Driskell was 88.
In 1956, Lila Fenwick overcame the interlocking and virulent challenges of racism and sexism to become the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. She was the only Black woman at Harvard Law in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education case. Fenwick lived in segregated housing at the Law School and often told of how the dean of admissions invited female students to a dinner and asked them to justify taking a place at the school from men.
A 1953 alumnae of Barnard College in New York, Fenwick came to Harvard Law when it first began to admit women. After Harvard, Fenwick attended the London School of Economics and Political Science. In the 1960s, Fenwick began a career at the United Nations, where she specialized in studies about gender, racial and religious discrimination; the protection of minorities and indigenous populations; and the right to emigrate from oppressive countries. She helped build the Foundation for Research and Education in Sickle Cell Disease. Born in Manhattan on May 24, 1932, she was the daughter of Trinidadian immigrants, Hilda and John Fenwick. Fenwick died on April 4 in her Manhattan home. She was 87.
For Black professionals, corporate executives, and those who aspired to be like him, a striving entrepreneur, Earl G. Graves Sr. put a monthly playbook for business success in their hands. For the first time, there were pages filled with people in business who looked like them. In 1970, that was Black Enterprise magazine. The publication that Graves, the son of immigrants from Barbados, founded with a $175,000 loan continues to publish, but periodically.
As Graves touted the strength of the Black business community, he sent this message to White corporate America. “We don’t want charity. We want to do business. We don’t want guaranteed success. We want the opportunity to earn it,” he wrote.
Before turning to publishing, Graves sold real estate and worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s staff, a position he held until Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. He studied business at what is now Morgan State University, the historically Black university in Baltimore, Md. that he credited for contributing to the multimillionaire publisher and corporate leader he became. Morgan’s School of Business and Management bears Graves’ name. In 1997 he published the bestselling book “How to Succeed in Business Without Being White: Straight Talk on Making it in America.” Graves retired in 2006 as the chief executive of Black Enterprise but remained chairman of Earl G. Graves, Ltd. until his death on April 6. He was 85.
Dr. Alyce Chenault Gullattee
For more than half a century, Dr. Alyce Chenault Gullattee, the woman whose passion for dancing lasted well into her 90s, sought out and treated countless drug addicts, AIDS patients and prostitutes in pockets of the nation’s capital and funded the education of students so that they could remain in school. She also served on the faculty at Howard University’s College of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
Gullattee, a 1964 graduate of Howard’s College of Medicine, joined the psychiatry faculty in 1970. As a clinical psychiatrist in Howard University Hospital, Gullattee’s empathy for patients and blend of social and civil rights activism were hallmarks of her practice and fueled her life’s work. Specializing in substance abuse, Gullattee became one of the nation’s leading voices on the subject and the cocaine epidemic that swept the nation in the 1980s. She directed Howard’s Institute on Drug Abuse and Addiction and served on White House committees on substance abuse for presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
To many in the District, Gullattee, a compassionate and brave doctor, was legendary for her Afrocentric attire and the countless times she ventured into crack houses to get addicts to treatment. To her patients and students, she was affectionately known as “Dr. G.” She died on April 30 after testing positive for COVID-19. She was 91.
Congressman John Lewis
The son of Alabama sharecroppers, John Lewis was a high school student in 1955 when he first heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. The
messages inspired Lewis to pursue a life of activism. He would forever pursue a philosophy of “good trouble,” a way of living where he courageously and nonviolently confronted injustice. Lewis grew up wanting to be a pastor and practiced his sermons speaking to the chickens on his family farm.
His journey led him to become a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and to lead in civil rights, speaking before presidents and world leaders. Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986 and served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Fisk University graduate was revered for his civil rights activism: he was a Freedom Rider, one of the youngest speakers at the 1963 March on Washington and was brutally attacked on what became “Bloody Sunday,” a voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Among his numerous honors were the 2017 John Hope Franklin Award from Diverse and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lewis died at age 80 of pancreatic cancer in Atlanta.
Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail
Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail’s tenure as the 12th president of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina was unexpectedly short-lived, beginning in July and ending just three months later. The man chosen to lead the small, private, historically Black university arrived as the coronavirus
pandemic was pummeling Southern states and straining campuses nationwide. He also came decades into a long and distinguished administrative career that was rooted in the pursuit of equity for Black students.
McPhail led St. Louis Community College, Memphis’ Lemoyne-Owen College, and was the founding chancellor of the Community College of Baltimore County. He held senior tenured faculty appointments at Morgan State University and Delaware State University and was the provost at Pace University. The son of an upholsterer and a homemaker, he was also CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering for the National Academy of Engineering. For the often-struggling university with bold goals for boosting retention and graduation rates, McPhail, a champion for Black students in STEM, represented “… the complete package,” said James Perry, chairman of Saint Augustine’s board of trustees in an interview. “He was our dream president.” McPhail told the board it was an opportunity to give back.
In late September, McPhail tested positive for COVID-19. He died in a North Carolina hospital on October 15. McPhail was 71.
John Thompson Jr.
John Thompson Jr., born in 1941, overcame life in the segregated housing projects of his Washington, D.C. neighborhood to become a trailblazing coach and leader who redefined college basketball and challenged Black stereotypes.
A scholarship basketball athlete, Thompson graduated from Providence College and was drafted into the NBA by the Boston Celtics where he befriended Bill Russell, the Celtics’ future hall-of-famer who pushed Thompson to be a better ballplayer and to use his platform to speak out on civil rights and social issues.
In 1972, Thompson, who was Black, broke ground when Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. named him head basketball coach. Thompson’s coaching and leadership strategy was deeply influenced by his HBCU heroes John McLendon and Clarence “Big House” Gaines, coaches who were determined to see Black student-athletes achieve academically. Thompson not only embraced their authoritative leadership style, but he also used basketball to protest racial inequality. A winning coach, his players earned national championships and academic excellence. After Georgetown, he had successful careers in media and business. In 2016, Georgetown named its new athletic center in his honor. Thompson died August 30.
Good golly. Before he transformed the music world, mixing the sacred with blues and rock and roll, Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard, was born and raised in Macon, Georgia. From there, Little Richard rose to fame as a groundbreaking and flamboyant singer and pianist who often called himself the “Architect of Rock and Roll.”
Little Richard is credited with influencing James Brown, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Prince. His courageous and innovative style helped him to cross over all races, and his concerts broke the color line and helped dismantle segregation. He was an inaugural inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when it opened in 1986. In 1993, he earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and, in 2015, the National Museum of African American Music recognized his role in helping to end the racial divide and positively change American and global culture by awarding him its Rhapsody & Rhythm Award. However, as he ascended to global fame, in the 1950s, Little Richard decided to leave show business to study theology at the historically Black Oakwood University (then Oakwood College) in Huntsville, Alabama, where he was buried in the school’s cemetery after he died of bone cancer on May 9. Little Richard was 87.
Dr. Catana Starks
Dr. Catana Starks made history in 1986 at the historically Black Tennessee State University (TSU) when she became the first Black woman to coach a men’s NCAA Division I golf team. She coached from 1986 to 2005, the year the
team won the National Minority Golf Championship. The team shot a record-setting 840 as a unit. Starks – a native of Mobile, Alabama, and a TSU alumnus and classmate of Olympic track great Wilma Rudolph – had her trailblazing story documented in the film “From the Rough” in 2011.
Starks came to the Nashville university to teach and was soon asked to build a golf program. Her pioneering efforts were recognized in 2014 when Starks was inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame. Starks earned her doctorate degree while coaching and served as head of TSU’s Human Performance and Sports Sciences department. As TSU’s golf coach, Starks guided several successful players including Canadian Sean Foley, who went on to become Tiger Woods’ swing coach; Sam Puryear, who became the first Black men’s head golf coach in a major conference; and Robert Dinwiddie, an All-American at TSU who became a member of the European Tour. Starks died in Nashville on Sept. 6 at age 75.
Dr. Cheryl A. Wall
Dr. Cheryl A. Wall, the noted literary critic, author and longtime Rutgers University English professor, also chose to be a champion for other Black women writers whose contributions she considered central to the Black literary tradition.
“… Cheryl found it possible to make a 45-year career of helping to ensure that these writers and their writings are valued in all of their power, genius and complexity,” said Evie Shockley, a Rutgers University professor and poet in an interview with The New York Times.
Wall, the author and editor of Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition; Women of the Harlem Renaissance; and Changing Our Own Words: Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, often used her works as a platform to showcase the contributions of others. A foremost authority on Zora Neale Hurston, Wall edited two volumes of her writing for the Library of America and two volumes of criticism on Hurston’s fiction.
The graduate of Howard University and Harvard became the first Black woman to head an English Department at a major research university. She pushed for diversity in the field and the academy, encouraging more Black students to major in English and pursue postgraduate degrees. Under her leadership, Rutgers required all English majors to complete a course in African American literature. The longtime scholar died on April 4, a month before she was scheduled to retire. Wall was 71.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the age of 87 in September dealt a stinging blow to higher education, which looked to Ginsburg as a progressive voice on the high court who could be counted on to champion equity issues.
From affirmative action to protecting LGBTQ people against employment discrimination under Title VII, Ginsburg had been a trusted liberal justice on the court and a symbol for gender equity.
Ginsburg — a Brooklyn native — was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Prior to becoming a federal judge, she was a lawyer for the ACLU and a member of its board of directors. In 1980, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals. She taught at Rutgers University from 1963 to 1972 and was the first woman to be tenured at Columbia University’s Law School. She died at 87.
“We have lost a pioneer & champion for women’s equality, Justice RGB,” tweeted Dr. Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). “We are forever grateful for her tenacity and determination to open the doors for so many of us. She left the world a better place for women and gender rights. The Notorious RGB will never be forgotten.”
Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of history at Harvard University and national president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), praised Ginsburg’s blistering dissent in the Supreme Court decision Shelby v. Holder (2013), which struck down key, impactful sections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We grieve as well the cruel irony in this year of 2020, when America commemorates both the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the sesquicentennial of the Fifteenth Amendment, that we would lose to death two stalwart defenders of voting rights — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Congressman John Lewis,” she said.
Raj R. Marphatia
Harvard Law Review’s first president of color, Raj R. Marphatia, died in May at age 60 following a battle with cancer.
Marphatia was born and raised in India and came to the U.S. in 1977 when in high school. He graduated from Harvard College, and in 1985, enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he made history as the first person of color to be elected president of the school’s law review, Marphatia served in that position from 1987 to 1988.
At the time, Marphatia said his election platform stressed “de-emphasizing the hierarchy, and making the Review a more egalitarian place,” according to a Harvard Crimson article from 1987.
Adam S. Cohen, a past president of the law review was at the time quoted as saying that the election of a non-White candidate was “a significant good thing.”
“Being president of the Harvard Law Review doesn’t go to, like, the smartest person,” said Larry J. Rowe, fellow partner of Marphatia’s at Ropes & Gray. “It goes to a person who’s really smart but also that the rest of the Law Review feel that they can turn to as their leader,” Rowe said.
When he died, Marphatia was a partner at the law firm Ropes & Gray, which he joined in 1989.
At Ropes & Gray, Marphatia was a member of the diversity committee and active in the firm’s pro bono program.
“While he was deservedly well known for his grace and fierce determination as a lawyer, most importantly, Raj was a champion of people,” said Julie Jones, chair of Ropes & Gray. “He supported the underdog. He treated everyone with equal respect. He mentored and trained and encouraged. He was always available to help.”
This article originally appeared in the December 10, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.