In 2021, we said “Goodbye” to men and women who played important roles on the local, state and national levels. They included activists, athletes, educators, elected officials and entertainers.
The Major League Baseball home run king died Jan. 23 at age 86. Aaron, who played for 23 years, hit his record-setting 715th home run with the Atlanta Braves in 1974. He received racist hate mail and death threats as he chased and broke Babe Ruth’s longstanding record. Aaron still holds records for RBIs (2,297), total bases (6,856) and extra-base hits (1,477), and ranks among MLB’s best in hits (3,771) and games played (3,298). He ended his career with 755 home runs.
The NBA Hall of Famer and executive died March 22 at age 86. Baylor was a Los Angeles Lakers superstar in the 1950s and ‘60s and No. 1 pick in the 1958 NBA draft. He led a former last-place team to the NBA Finals and won the Rookie of the Year award. In his 14 seasons with the Lakers, Baylor went to the NBA Finals eight times and was an 11-time All-Star. He later became an L.A. Clippers VP.
GUSTA BOOKER JR.
The founder and pastor emeritus of Houston’s Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church died Feb. 3 at age 77. Booker retired in 2018 after 50 years as a pastor. He was founder and moderator of the Gulf Coast Baptist Association, former president of the Central State Convention of Texas and former chair of the National Baptist Convention Christian Education Board. He was a member of the Texas Black Religious Hall of Fame and Texas Southern University Alumni Hall of Fame.
The NCAA national champion sprinter with the University of Houston died Aug. 12 at age 26. His death was ruled a suicide. Burrell lettered with the UH track program from 2013-2018, competing for his father, head coach and Olympic gold medal sprinter Leroy Burrell. In 2018, Cameron Burrell captured the NCAA individual national championship in the 100-meter and ran the anchor leg of the Cougars’ championship 4×100-meter relay team. His mother, Michelle Finn-Burrell, was also an Olympic gold medalist.
The well-known community volunteer and wife of the late architectural pioneer John S. Chase died Jan. 19 at age 89. Mrs. Chase served on the boards of the Municipal Arts Commission, Houston Botanic Garden, Emancipation Park Conservancy and Houston Museum of African American Culture. She taught elementary school in Austin and at Grimes and Dodson elementary schools in Houston. After retiring from teaching, she was dedicated to rearing her three children and assisting her husband with his architectural firm.
ERIC JEROME DICKEY
The bestselling author whose work depicted modern Black life died Jan. 3 at age 59. Dickey’s books sold more than seven million copies. His bestsellers included “Friends and Lovers” and “Milk in My Coffee.” His 1996 debut novel, “Sister, Sister,” was named by Essence magazine as one of the 50 Most Impactful Black Books of the Last 50 Years. His last book was titled “The Son of Mr. Suleman.” Dickey was a stand-up comedian before becoming an author.
The actress known for roles in TV shows and movies died July 6 at age 64. Douglas had an early starring role in the movie “Tap” and won an NAACP Image Award for her performance. In 1995, Douglas landed a starring role in the WB sitcom “The Parent ‘Hood,” remaining with the show for its five-season run. She played Angela in “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” Her most recent role was in the 2019 Netflix miniseries “When They See Us.”
The first African American senior national gymnastics champion and a trailblazer in the sport died Feb. 4 at age 52. Known for her grace, artistry and power, Durham helped pull the sport of gymnastics into an era dominated by power tumbling and fast-paced progression. In the lead-up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Durham was deprived of a spot on the team due to injuries and politics. But her achievement as 1983 national champion launched Durham onto the national stage.
The first Black golfer to play in the Masters died Nov. 29 at age 87. Elder, a Dallas native, developed his game during segregation while caddying. He polished his game in the Army and after his discharge, joined the United Golf Association Tour for Black players in the early 1960s. He made history in 1975 at Augusta National, which previously held an all-white tournament. Elder captured four PGA Tour victories. His best finish in six Masters appearances was a tie for 17th in 1979.
The Texas blues and jazz saxophonist died Jan. 29 at age 86. Gaines, a native of Waskom, performed with the Texas Upsetters for years. He previously performed and recorded with Little Richard in the 1950s and later backed such artists as Sam Cooke, James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Joe Tex. He also toured with Millie Jackson and Curtis Mayfield. Gaines formed the Texas Upsetters in 1985 and recordings included “Full Gain” (1988), “Horn of Plenty” (1992) and “Jump Start” (2002).
The Houston community leader died Nov. 9 at age 108. She co-founded Third Ward’s Holy Cross Lutheran Church, the first Lutheran church for Blacks in Texas. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she and friends traveled by bus to Austin, protesting at the State Capitol for the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. She was a key figure in opening Precinct No. 247, the first Black voting precinct in Cuney Homes, and served there until 2006.
“MARVELOUS” MARVIN HAGLER
The middleweight boxing champion died March 14 at age 66. Hagler competed in the sport from 1973 to 1987 and was undisputed champ of the middleweight division from 1980 to 1987, with 12 successful title defenses. Hagler had a 55-1 record as an amateur. As a pro, he defeated Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns, but Sugar Ray Leonard ended his reign. Hagler’s pro record was 62-3 with 52 knockouts. He had “Marvelous” legally added to his name in 1982.
The outspoken federal judge and congressman died April 6 at age 84. Hastings began his career as a civil rights lawyer and became Florida’s first Black federal judge in 1979. His term on the bench ended 10 years later after he was charged with conspiring to solicit a $150,000 bribe and impeached. In 1992 he was elected to the House representing Florida and mounted another 14 successful campaigns. He served on the Rules Committee and earned a reputation for speaking his mind.
ERNEST “ERNIE” JACKSON
The noted Houston radio executive and vice president/general manager of KMJQ (Majic 102) and KBXX (97.9 The Box) from 1993 to 2001, died April 30 at age 78. Jackson was responsible for the total operation of both urban contemporary stations. During his lengthy broadcasting career in six cities, Jackson worked as a senior account executive, sales manager, sports director and on-air announcer. He was an award-winning photographer and had experience as a strategic marketing consultant and non-profit executive director.
The familiar voice to Houston radio listeners for years and a multi-talented media professional died June 18 at age 72. Her broadcasting background included: News director/talk show host, KYOK-Radio; producer/newscaster, KCOH-Radio; reporter/weekend anchor, KILT-Radio; reporter/anchor, KXAS-TV; and co-host, KMJQ-Radio and Gulf Coast Cable TV. Other positions included advertising and circulation manager, the Defender; special projects coordinator, Houston NAACP; director, Media Relations, HISD; executive director, Public Engagement, District of Columbia Public Schools; and director, Public Affairs, MHMRA Harris County.
LARRY DON JOHNSON The pioneering Houston media professional and actor died June 26 at age 77. Johnson was a founding member of the Urban Theater and was cast in theater and film roles and commercials. He was the first Black news director and weekend anchor at Channel 39. He held positions at KHTV, KYOK, KCOH and KKBQ and was director of Public Affairs, Harris County Hospital District. He was inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame in 2011 and retired from KTSU as development director.
The civil rights leader and former National Urban League president died March 1 at age 85. Jordan, a lawyer, became Georgia field director for the NAACP in the early ‘60s. He was named executive director of the United Negro College Fund in 1970 and president of the NUL in 1971. In 1980 he was shot and wounded by an avowed white racist in Indiana. Jordan became close friends with Bill Clinton before he became U.S. president and that friendship continued.
The educator/administrator and member of one of Houston’s most prominent families died Nov. 24 at age 62. Lawson worked as a resource teacher, special education administrator and assistant principal and served on the campuses of Blackshear and B. C. Elmore elementary schools, Ryan Middle School, William A. Lawson Institute and Worthing High School. Survivors include his father, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church Pastor Emeritus William A. Lawson, and sister, ABC13/KTRK-TV anchor Melanie Lawson.
The rapper nicknamed the “Clown Prince of Hip-Hop” because of his humorous music and persona died July 16 at age 57. Born Marcel Theo Hall, he was known for his 1989 hit, “Just a Friend.” Markie had moderate success on R&B radio with his early singles “Make the Music With Your Mouth” and “Vapors.” But “Just a Friend” made him a star and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. He was a frequent guest on songs by other artists and won over a new generation of fans with regular appearances on the children’s show “Yo Gabba Gabba.”
The gospel singer with Houston ties died Oct. 9 at age 54. McLemore led the gospel group New Image, which had a Billboard hit album, “Wait on Him.” Other albums followed, including 2011’s “One Percent Miracle: Any Minute Now.” McLemore, a Los Angeles native, earned a doctorate from Houston Bible College. He starred in such stage plays as Tyler Perry‘s “If Loving You is Wrong,” “Hell Has No Fury Like a Woman Scorned,” “Come Out of the Rain” and “Don’t Get God Started.”
The boundary-pushing comedian who was Richard Pryor’s writing partner and known for his bold musings on racism died May 19 at age 79. Mooney’s collaboration with Pryor began in 1968 and lasted until Pryor’s death in 2005. As head writer on “In Living Color,” Mooney helped create the Homey D. Clown character. Mooney and Pryor first wrote episodes for the sitcom “Sanford and Son” together. Mooney also helped write many of Pryor’s classic comedy albums. He played Negrodamus on “Chappelle Show.”
The former KHOU-11 reporter and communications director for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee died May 12 at age 55. Russell came to Houston in 2006 after working at a Raleigh, N.C. TV station. He left KHOU and joined Jackson Lee’s office. He later became chief of staff for former Councilmember Dwight Boykins, before returning to Washington, D.C., to take a job as a senior media and communications specialist at the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The boxing champ who shocked the sports world by defeating Muhammad Ali died Feb. 5 at age 67. It was only Spinks’ eighth professional fight when he challenged Ali for the heavyweight championship in 1978 in Las Vegas. On the night that he beat Ali (then 36), Spinks, 24, was the definition of an underdog. Yet they fought for 15 punishing rounds and the judges awarded Spinks a victory by split decision. Ali reclaimed the title from Spinks seven months later.
The award-winning actress died January 28 at age 96. Her film, TV and theater work included roles in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “Roots,” “King,” “Sounder” and “The Help.” Tyson’s choice of roles helped shatter Hollywood’s African American stereotypes throughout the 1970s as she insisted on playing characters that allowed her to radiate strength and dignity. She received an Oscar nomination for “Sounder” and won a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for “The Trip to Bountiful.”
MELVIN VAN PEEBLES
The filmmaker and actor known for his 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” died Sept. 21 at age 89. Van Peebles wrote, directed, co-produced, starred in and composed the score for “Sweetback,” the story of a man fighting police brutality. It gained a wide audience and became a successful independent film despite its X rating. It inspired future filmmakers, including his son Mario Van Peebles. Melvin’s other films included “Watermelon Man” (1970), “Identity Crisis” (1989) and “Gang in Blue” (1996).
CLARENCE WILLIAMS III The actor who played Linc on the groundbreaking TV detective series “The Mod Squad” died June 4 at age 81. Williams’ career took off with the “The Mod Squad,” which aired on ABC from 1968 until 1973. The series tackled such important issues as the Vietnam war, racism, illegal immigration and addiction. Williams had a long career, playing Prince’s father in “Purple Rain,” appearing in “Twin Peaks,” “Reindeer Games” and “Half-Baked,” and guest-starring on numerous TV shows.
MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS
The actor best known for his portrayal of stick-up man Omar Little in the HBO drama “The Wire” died Sept. 6 at age 54. Williams began his career as a dancer. His breakout acting role was on “The Wire,” playing the complex anti-hero Omar, a gay robber who targeted drug dealers. Williams went on to star in “Boardwalk Empire” and “Lovecraft Country.” He was Emmy-nominated for his performances in “Bessie,” “The Night Of,” “When They See Us” and “Lovecraft Country.”
One of the original members of the Supremes, the 1960s group that helped define the Motown sound, died Feb. 8 at age 76. Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard were Detroit teens when they were signed by Berry Gordy. Within three years, the Supremes had their first No. 1 hit, “Where Did Our Love Go?” Ross left the group in 1970 and was replaced by Jean Tyrell. Wilson and the Supremes had a hit titled “Stoned Love” but broke up in 1977.