This year, we said final goodbyes to well-known men and women who had an impact on the local, state and national levels. They ranged from ministers to singers to sports legends, and all were achievers in their respective fields.
DR. EARL ALLEN
The noted Houston pastor and author who was active in the Civil Rights Movement died Feb. 16 at age 87. Allen was the founder of Miracleland Church. He authored and produced Christian books, tapes and educational products. He was a senior at Texas Southern University when he became spokesperson for students who conducted a march and sit-in at a “whites-only” lunch counter at Weingarten’s. He was also a pastor in Dallas and leader with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
The longtime HISD administrator and the district’s first African American female deputy superintendent for School Administration died Feb. 20 at age 82. She was international president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. from 1982 to 1986. She was initiated into the sorority at Howard University in 1955. She taught at two Houston high schools and served as director of Magnet Schools for HISD. In 2002, she retired as executive deputy superintendent after 42 years of service.
The 2012 Republican presidential candidate and former CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain died July 30 of complications from COVID-19. He was 74. Cain was considered a viable alternative candidate for GOP voters concerned that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, was not conservative enough. But Cain struggled to respond to accusations that he sexually harassed several women. He served as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City from 1992 to 1996.
The actress who played neighbor Willona on TV’s “Good Times” and composed and sang the theme song for “The Jeffersons,” died Feb. 17 at age 74. Dubois won two Emmy Awards for her voice work on the WB series “The PJs.” She was close to Janet Jackson, her adopted daughter on “Good Times,” and played Jackson’s mother in her 1986 “Control” video. Her film credits included “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.”
The former Houston state representative who served in the Texas House for nearly three decades died April 29 at age 83. In 1979, in the face of considerable opposition, Edwards passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as an annual holiday. He was chair of the Rules and Resolutions Committee and chair of Budget and Oversight of the Ways and Means Committee. He was a board member of Operation PUSH and Texas state director of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns.
DR. THOMAS FREEMAN
The legendary Texas Southern University debate coach and educational icon died June 6 at age 100. He was also longtime minister of Mount Horem Baptist Church in Fifth Ward. Freeman arrived at TSU in 1949 and held numerous academic and administrative positions through the years. The new Honors College was named after him in 2009. Freeman’s students included the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and Congressman Mickey Leland. He advised Denzel Washington in the 2007 film, “The Great Debaters.”
The founder of Black Enterprise Magazine died April 6 at age 85. He launched the magazine in 1970 to educate, inspire and uplift readers. He wrote a book in 1997 titled “How to Succeed in Business Without Being White.” Graves held jobs in law enforcement and real estate before working on Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s staff. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, he began developing his magazine. He also ran Pepsi-Cola of Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s largest Black-owned soft drink distributors.
The mathematician who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits for NASA’s early space missions died Feb. 24 at age 101. She was portrayed in the hit film “Hidden Figures.” Johnson was one of the “computers” who solved equations by hand during NASA’s early years. In 1961, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mission, the first to carry an American into space. The next year, she manually verified the calculations of an IBM computer that plotted John Glenn’s orbit.
The flamboyant rock-and-roll star died May 9 at age 87. Born Richard Penniman, he helped shatter the color line on the music charts. He sold more than 30 million records and influenced numerous other musicians, from the Beatles to Otis Redding. After his 1956 classic “Tutti Frutti” landed in the Top 40, a string of hits followed, including “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Lucille” and “Long Tall Sally.” He was a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
PASTOR MANSON JOHNSON
The pastor of Houston’s Holman Street Baptist Church for 43 years and a force in the Third Ward community died May 31 from complications of COVID-19. He was 71. Johnson was known as a “dynamic” preacher and teacher. He became pastor of Holman Street in 1977 and under his leadership, the church’s membership and ministries grew. The church moved into a new worship center in 1998. He taught at HISD’s Cullen Middle School after college and served as head of the Mathematics Department.
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY
The civil rights activist who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died March 27 at age 98. Lowery was a Mobile, Ala. pastor when he met King in the 1950s. His meetings with King, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and other activists led to the SCLC’s formation in 1957. Lowery became SCLC president in 1977 and retired in 1997. Former President Barack Obama awarded Lowery the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2009.
The first lady of Abundant Life Center (Cathedral) and a life coach, author and leadership consultant died Aug. 10 at age 66. She founded and led the charitable organization You! Woman in the Now/U-WIN. She wrote two books, “Saundra’s Kitchen,” a collection of food and thought, and “Gracefully Made,” a daily meditation and inspirational book. She was a leader in various areas of the church, including volunteers, administrative teams and the choir, and was founder of Word in Motion Dance Company.
The Houston entrepreneur, affectionately known as “Mac” or “Ro,” died Sept. 26 at age 81. Morris owned C&I Sales Company and Club Gazebo. He operated as an insurance agent with multiple companies for over 40 years. Morris was a salesman by trade and a top salesman for R.J. Reynold’s Company. He later became the regional sales director of Falstaff Brewing Company. He served in the Courtesy Corp. Group 2C and was a former board member of the Turner Alumni Association.
The singer and songwriter, a native Houstonian, died Oct. 6 at age 80. Nash scored a No. 1 hit with “I Can See Clearly Now” in 1972. In addition to his pop music career, Nash had a hand in the development of reggae music. As one of the owners of the JAD Records label, he signed Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer to exclusive deals early in their careers. Nash released his last studio album, “Here Again,” in 1986.
The country music superstar, whose hits such as “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” sold millions of records and made him the first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died Dec. 12 of complications from COVID-19. He was 86. His other hits included “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Burgers and Fries,” “Mountain of Love” and “Someone Loves You Honey.” He won three Grammy Awards and the Country Music Association’s Top Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year awards in 1972.
BARBARA “B” SMITH
The top model who went on to open restaurants, launch a successful home products line and write cookbooks died Feb. 22 at age 70 after a much-publicized battle with Alzheimer’s. Smith became the second Black model to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle Magazine in 1976. Ten years later she opened a Manhattan restaurant that became popular with affluent Blacks. Two more B. Smith Restaurants followed. She hosted the nationally syndicated television show “B. Smith with Style” for nearly a decade.
WILLIAM “BUBBHA” THOMAS
The Houston drummer and nurturer of young talent died March 28 at age 82. He led the ensemble the Lightmen in the 1970s. He earned five Grammy nominations. Thomas was also known for Jazz Education Inc., a non-profit which sponsored the Jazz & Poetry Series, Summer Jazz Workshop and Houston International Jazz Festival. He brought music to thousands of children across Texas and spearheaded a program that trained more than 8,000 teenage musicians. Thomas studied under local jazz legend Conrad “Prof” Johnson.
The first Black coach to lead a team to the NCAA men’s basketball championship died Aug. 30 at age 78. Thompson led Georgetown to 14 straight NCAA tournaments, 24 consecutive postseason appearances and three Final Fours. Thompson took over the Georgetown program in the 1970s and molded it into a perennial contender, culminating with a national championship team anchored by center Patrick Ewing in 1984. Georgetown reached two other title games with Thompson and Ewing, losing in 1982 and 1985.
REV. C.T. VIVIAN
The minister and key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who organized pivotal civil rights campaigns and spent decades advocating for justice and equality died July 17 at age 95. Vivian met King soon after the budding civil rights leader’s leadership of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and helped translate ideas into action by organizing the Freedom Rides that forced federal intervention across the South. Former President Barack Obama honored Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
The special advisor to Mayor Sylvester Turner and a longtime political strategist died May 21 after contracting COVID-19. He was 65. Wade also served as an advisor to former Mayor Annise Parker and as an aide to the late Congressman Mickey Leland. He was the first African American elected president of the University of Houston Students’ Association, serving as president from 1977-1978. He remained an active part of the campus as an advisor to the UH Hobby School of Public Affairs.
The former Astro who later became the first Black general manager to win a World Series with the Yankees in 1996 died May 14 at age 74. Watson made the All-Star team in 1973 and 1975, hit over .300 four times and drove in at least 100 runs twice while hitting in the middle of the Astros’ lineup. He also played for Boston, the Yankees and Atlanta Braves. He became the league’s second Black GM when he was hired by the Astros in 1993.
The singer-songwriter died March 30 at age 81. Withers released a string of soulful songs in the 1970s that have stood the test of time, including “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Withers, a three-time Grammy Award-winner, released his first album, “Just As I Am,” in 1971. It included “Ain’t No Sunshine” and another hit, “Grandma’s Hands.” He had a hit duet with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., “Just the Two of Us.” Withers withdrew from the music industry in the 1980s.
The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter died May 10 at age 66. Wright had her breakthrough with the 1971 hit “Clean Up Woman,” which combined elements of funk, soul and R&B. It was recorded when Wright was just 17. With members of K.C. and the Sunshine Band, she co-wrote her 1975 hit “Where is the Love,” which won a Grammy for Best R&B Song. Wright started her own label in 1985, leading to a gold album, “Mother Wit,” and the comeback hit, “No Pain (No Gain).”
The All-Star outfielder for the Houston Astros nicknamed the “Toy Cannon” died March 26 at age 78. Wynn hit more than 30 home runs twice with Houston, including a career-high 37 in 1967 at the Astrodome. He went on to play for the Dodgers, Braves, Brewers and Yankees. He later worked in the Astros’ front office as a community outreach executive. In 2011 the team dedicated the Jimmy Wynn Training Center, a baseball facility at the Astros Youth Academy.