Billy Strayhorn


Strayhorn, Billy 2017

Billy Strayhorn was born on November 29, 1915 (to May 31, 1967). He was a composer, pianist, and arranger, best known for his successful collaboration with bandleader and composer Duke Ellington. Their dynamic working relationship endured for nearly three decades, and produced such definitive American jazz compositions as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Lush Life.”

William Thomas Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, the fourth of nine children. Gravely ill at birth and born into an impoverished family, he wasn’t expected to survive. Strayhorn’s mother’s family was from Hillsborough, North Carolina, and after his family moved to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his mother, Lillian Young Strayhorn, sent Billy to Hillsborough to protect him from his father, James Nathaniel Strayhorn, who frequently went on drunken sprees. Billy Strayhorn was attracted to the piano that his grandmother owned, and played it from the moment he was tall enough to reach the keys. Even in those early years, when Strayhorn played, his family would gather to listen and sing.

Billy Strayhorn returned to Pittsburgh, and attended Westinghouse High School, where he began his musical career. He studied classical for a time at the Pittsburgh Music Institute, writing a high school musical, forming a musical trio that played daily on a local radio station, and, while still in his teens, composing (with lyrics) the songs “Life Is Lonely” (later renamed “Lush Life”), “My Little Brown Book,” and “Something to Live For.” Strayhorn was largely self-educated, and he was so interested in intellectual pursuits that one of his childhood nicknames was Dictionary. As a young man, Strayhorn had his own newspaper route, and worked as a soda jerk and delivery boy for the local drugstore, finally saving up enough money to buy his own piano. While in high school, he played in the school band, and by age 19, he was writing a sophisticated Cole Porter-style musical, “Fantastic Rhythm.”

Though classical music was Strayhorn’s first love, his ambition to become a classical composer was shot down by the harsh reality of a Black man trying to make it in what was then the nearly all-white classical music world. Strayhorn was introduced to the music of pianists like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson at age of 19; these musicians guided him into the realm of jazz where he remained for the rest of his life. Strayhorn’s first jazz exposure was in a combo called the Mad Hatters, who played around the Pittsburgh region.

In 1938, at the age of 23, Strayhorn met the 39-year-old Duke Ellington, who was performing in Pittsburgh’s Crawford Grill. An impromptu backstage audition showcased Strayhorn’s stunning talent at the piano, and Ellington contemplated hiring him on the spot, although, at the time, there was no real job to fill. A few months later, Strayhorn was writing arrangements for Ellington’s orchestral music, and living relatively openly as a gay man, a rare feat for an African American man during that time.

Over the next 29 years, Strayhorn made an inestimable contribution to American songwriting and culture—all while working without a contract. His presence allowed Ellington to increase his workload and expand his artistic palette. Strayhorn worked as a composer and collaborator, assuring that the Ellington Orchestra’s music was top notch.

In a highly publicized dispute over composing royalties in late 1940, ASCAP, the music licensing organization, forbade its members from broadcasting any songs over the radio. Ellington, one of ASCAP’S most celebrated composers, needed radio broadcasts to promote record sales, which in turn paid his orchestra’s salaries. During a hurried cross-country train ride to join Ellington for a live broadcast from a Los Angeles nightclub, Strayhorn, not a member of ASCAP, got almost no sleep for six straight days, writing song after song after song. Strayhorn’s prolific, engaging new work kept the Ellington Orchestra afloat for months. And when it was time for a new radio theme—Ellington’s own “Sepia Panorama” was still not allowed on the airwaves—Ellington chose Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” premiering it in early 1941.

Taking advantage of Strayhorn’s feel for musical theater, Ellington and Strayhorn co-wrote the groundbreaking musical, “Jump for Joy,” which opened in Los Angeles in 1941. A daring and risky venture for the times, the show masqueraded as a musical review, and featured an all-black cast. “Jump for Joy” was, in fact, a social satire that fiercely attacked racism.

Ellington’s hiring of Strayhorn launched an impressively productive recording period, regarded by many critics as the most significant and creative phase of Ellington’s career. And, from the early 1940s on, Strayhorn’s training in classical and long-form music became central and indispensable to the orchestra. Together, the collaborators began to write longer, more complex suites and, in 1943, they performed the first of these works, “Black, Brown and Beige,” an unprecedented 43-minute jazz work, at Carnegie Hall. Most assume that Ellington was responsible for these long-form innovations, but Strayhorn was, at the very least, co-composer of many of these ambitious new works. Recently discovered Strayhorn compositions reveal much about his role, as he kept pushing both himself and Ellington in ambitious new directions.

Not only was Strayhorn the sole composer of Ellington’s signature piece, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” but he also wrote other defining works, including “Passion Flower,” “Lush Life,” and “Chelsea Bridge,” and co-wrote “Satin Doll” and “Such Sweet Thunder.” In the early 1950s, tired of his secondary role, Strayhorn left Ellington to pursue his own interests.

Even after rejoining Ellington several years later, Strayhorn concluded that his musical contributions were still not sufficiently acknowledged in public. Although his distinguished songs, arrangements, and virtuosity at the piano gave him status among musicians, few others realized what he had achieved for Ellington as his tireless co-writer and arranger. Fewer still appreciated that this generous, deferential man had created some of the most important and enduring American music of the 20th century.

Billy Strayhorn met his first partner, African American musician Aaron Bridgers, through Elington’s son, Mercer Ellington, and they remained together until Bridgers moved to Paris in 1947.

A man of passionate beliefs, Strayhorn became a committed civil rights advocate, and was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1963, he arranged and conducted the Ellington Orchestra in “King Fought the Battle of ’Bam” for the historical revue, “My People,” dedicated to Dr. King.

Strayhorn’s strong character left an impression on many people who met him. He had a major influence on the career of Lena Horne, who wanted to marry Strayhorn, and considers him to have been the love of her life. Strayhorn used his classical background in guiding Horne’s singing technique toward improvement. They eventually recorded songs together, and in the 1950s, while he attempted to pursue a solo career of his own, he created a few solo albums and revues for the Copasetics (a New York show business society), and took on theater productions with his friend Luther Henderson.

Billy Strayhorn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1964, which eventually caused his death in 1967. He finally succumbed in the early morning on May 31, 1967, in the company of his partner, Bill Grove. His ashes were scattered in the Hudson River by a gathering of his closest friends.

While in the hospital, Strayhorn had submitted his final composition to Ellington. “Blood Count,” which was used as the first track to Ellington’s memorial album for Strayhorn, “…And His Mother Called Him Bill,” was recorded several months after Strayhorn’s death. The last track of the album is a spontaneous solo version of “Lotus Blossom” performed by Ellington, who sat at the piano and played for his friend while the band (who can be heard in the background) packed up after the formal end of the recording session.

The former Regent Theatre in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood was renamed the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in honor of Strayhorn and fellow Pittsburgher Gene Kelly in 2000. In 2015, Strayhorn was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display in Chicago, Illinois, which celebrates LGBTQ history and people.

We remember Billy Strayhorn in deep appreciation for his remarkable and memorable music, and for his many contributions to our community.

Colman Domingo

Domingo, Colman 2017

Colman Domingo was born on November 28, 1969. He is a Tony Award-nominated actor, writer and director of stage and screen whose credits include the films “42,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and “Selma,” Broadway’s “Chicago” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” and the AMC television series “Fear the Walking Dead,” in which he portrays Victor Strand.

Domingo was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he attended Overbrook High School and majored in journalism at Temple University. After relocating to San Francisco, California, Domingo began acting, mostly in theater.

At the age of 22, Domingo came out to his mother, Edith, who visited him in San Francisco and walked around Castro, the city’s gay district. The two ended up drinking in a gay bar, and Domingo recalled the moment as a significant step in his life. “I was beginning to withdraw because I had so many secrets,” he revealed to “Out” in 2012. “That was part of the impetus to come out—that bond was too important to me.” Domingo’s mother (and his stepfather, Clarence) died in 2006.

Domingo also revealed his sexuality to his brother, who took it all in stride. “It’s an experience I’d like to add to the chorus, that these blue-collar, macho men, like my older brother, had the capacity to say: ‘I don’t care, I love you anyway.’ There are young kids thinking: ‘I’ll never come out because it’s too hard in our communities.’ But I’m saying maybe your story can be similar to mine,” Domingo told “Metro UK.”

In 1994, Domingo took on the role of The Brown Bomber, a gay Black superhero created by fellow Ubuntu Biography Project honoree Rupert Kinnard. Domingo appeared alongside Gina Field—who played another Kinnard creation, Diva Touché Flambé—in the stage production of “Out of the Inkwell” at San Francisco’s famed Theatre Rhinoceros.

Since the mid-1990s, Domingo has performed in or directed dozens of theater productions. He played multiple characters in the rock musical, “Passing Strange,” which opened on Broadway in February of 2008 after a successful run at The Public Theater in New York City. Domingo received an Obie Award as part of the ensemble cast of the Off-Broadway production, and reprised the roles for Spike Lee’s firm version.

In 2010, Domingo wrote and performed his one-man autobiographical play, “A Boy and His Soul” at the Vineyard Theater in New York. Described as “a whirlwind trip via the phenomenal soul collection of a young, black, inner-city gay boy and his complex family,” the work garnered Domingo a GLAAD Award: Outstanding New York Theater: Broadway & Off–Broadway, and a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show. He was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award and a Drama League Award.

The following year, Domingo received a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical for “The Scottsboro Boys.” When the show opened in London in 2013, Domingo was honored with an Olivier Award nomination for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical. He also starred as Billy Flynn in the Broadway production of “Chicago.”

Domingo’s television credits include “Nash Bridges,” “Law and Order,” “The Big Gay Sketch Show,” “The Knick,” “Lucifer,” and “Great Performances.” He’s appeared in nearly two dozen films, including “Miracle at St. Anna,” “Lincoln,” “Red Hook Summer,” “Beautiful Something,” and “The Birth of a Nation.”

In addition to currently filming “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins’ drama, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Domingo is slated to direct his first feature film, “City on Fire,” for Mandalay Pictures. He is also executive producing and developing an original drama series for AMC, “In the Middle of the Street,” based on his play, “Dot.” Domingo co-wrote with Patricia McGregor the “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” musical that premiered at People’s Light Theatre in Malvern, Pennsylvania in 2017.

We thank Colman Domingo for his outstanding contributions to the arts, and for his support of our community.

Ephraim Lewis

Lewis, Ephraim 2017

Ephraim Lewis was born on November 27, 1967 (to March 18, 1994). He was an English soul/neo-soul and R&B singer and songwriter whose promising career was cut short by his mysterious death after releasing only one album.

Ephraim Lewis was born the youngest of eight children in Wolverhampton, West Midlands, England. His father, Jabez, encouraged the siblings to pursue music as a family vocal group, but that dream ended with the death of Lewis’s mother in 1984. Jabez Lewis later said, “Ephraim, he was very close to his mother and his mother loved him. But, with all the children, when they grow up and begin to rebel, they don’t want to go to church, you see. That’s how it begins. I tell them all they don’t need to go out in the tough world to make money, they can make religious songs and get money from it. But they want the limelight.”

Lewis left home at age 16, and was discovered by the owners of Axis Studio in Sheffield, who dubbed him the “British Michael Jackson.” Lewis signed with Elektra Records in 1992, and his debut album, “Skin” was released that year. Despite great expectations, the album sold fewer than 200,000 copies, and its two singles, “Drowning in Your Eyes” and “It Can’t Be Forever,” only fared respectably on the charts.

As plans developed for a follow-up album, Lewis broke up with his longtime girlfriend and started a relationship with Sheffield graduate student Paul Flowers.

“We met in Sheffield Botanical Gardens by chance,” Flowers recalled. “I was openly gay, but Ephraim wasn’t ready to call himself gay at the time. We arranged to meet again and just sort of fell in love. Ephraim had an incredible presence. He glowed with energy. I was always amazed at how people reacted to him.

Just months before his death, Lewis seemed to be getting his life on track according to Flowers. He was happy, got on more firm financial footing, and used money from his Elektra Records contract to buy a BMW. The record company sent Lewis to Los Angeles, California to work with prolific songwriter and producer Glen Ballard. Lewis told Flowers that he had become militant about his new sexual identity while in LA—taking in the West Hollywood gay scene, and striving to become a positive gay Black role model.

On March 18, 1994, Los Angeles police responded to reports of a “naked man acting crazy” at 1710 Fuller Avenue, the apartment where Lewis was living while in the city. When police arrived, investigators said that Lewis became more paranoid and began climbing the outside balconies, “leaping from balcony to balcony, both horizontally and vertically, moving up and across the building.” When he reached the top floor, Lewis smashed an apartment window and began stabbing himself in the thigh with a piece of broken glass.

A short time later, after Lewis at one point was unsuccessfully “tased” by police, he either fell or jumped from the top balcony, and landed on the courtyard below, suffering extensive head injuries. After being kept alive on a respirator for several hours, the decision was made to end life-sustaining measures, and Lewis died at the hospital that night. Lewis had been taking methamphetamines prior to his death, which was ruled by the coroner as a suicide.

The following month, hundreds of people gathered at the Darlington Street Methodist Church in Wolverhampton for Lewis’s funeral. Due to the mysterious and controversial circumstances surrounding Lewis’s death, returning his body for burial was delayed, and there was tension between members of Lewis’s family and other mourners at the funeral. Lewis’s manager, David Harper, covered most of the funeral expenses and the cost of returning Lewis’s body to England, but did not attend the service because of hostilities toward him by Lewis’s relatives. The Lewis family would spend the next several years taking legal action against the Los Angeles Police Department, alleging they caused Lewis’s death.

Lewis was laid to rest on April 21, 1994, leaving behind an unfulfilled musical legacy, and questions surrounding his death that remain to this day.

“Ephraim had the qualities to be a massive star,” said Kevin Bacon, whose Axis Studio discovered Lewis. “This was somebody so brilliant at what he did he never thought about it. Most singers have tremendous egos based around their insecurity about their own singing. Ephraim didn’t have that kind of ego because it never occurred to him there was anything he couldn’t do.”

We remember Ephraim Lewis for his contributions to the world of music, and for his support of our community.

[Portions of this biography came from Paul Boakye’s “The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Ephraim Lewis”].

Simon Tseko Nkoli

Nkoli, Simon Tseko 2017

Simon Tseko Nkoli was born on November 26, 1957 (to November 30, 1998). He was an important anti-apartheid, gay rights, and AIDS activist in South Africa.

Simon Tseko Nkoli was born in Soweto, South Africa in a seSotho-speaking family. He grew up on a farm in the Free State, and his family later moved to Bophelong Township, near Sebokeng. South Africa’s apartheid laws imposed severe limitations on his family’s opportunities. Nkoli told the story of how, at age nine, he locked his parents in a wardrobe so they could escape detection from police enforcing the pass laws, which restricted where Black residents could live. That experience left a powerful impression that he used later as a metaphor for living a closeted life.

Nkoli spent much of his childhood with his grandparents, low-income tenant farmers on a white-owned estate. He craved education and, against the resistance of the landowner and his grandfather who needed his labor, stole away when he could to attend the rural schools. Eventually, Nkoli rejoined his mother and stepfather in Sebokeng to continue his education.

Simon Tseko Nkoli recognized his feelings for other men while a teenager. Identifying as a gay man was confusing because the seSotho word for homosexual is “sitabane,” which implies hermaphrodite. At 18, Nkoli came out to his mother, who took him to a priest and a series of local healers or “sangomas” who attempted, unsuccessfully, to argue him out of it. At 19, he met his first lover, a white bus driver named Andre, through a pen pal magazine.

The mothers of both young men opposed the relationship—Simon’s because it was gay and Andre’s because it was biracial. Nkoli’s mother arranged for him to see a psychologist, who turned out to be gay and assured him of his rationality. Matters came to a head when the lovers made a suicide pact; Nkoli’s mother learned of it and intervened. The pair were able to live together once they became college students in Johannesburg. Even then, however, to conform to enforced segregation, Nkoli had to pose as Andre’s domestic worker.

After the 1976 Soweto youth uprising, Nkoli became an activist against apartheid. His anti-apartheid activism began when he was arrested four times in the student rebellions. In 1979, he joined the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), and became secretary for the Transvaal region. When Nkoli’s homosexuality became known, it was debated among his fellows within the organization; they voted to retain him in the post.

After Nkoli’s first relationship ended, he found few resources for gay people of color. Most gay venues, except a few cruising areas, were in districts reserved for whites. In 1983, his allegiances in racial and sexual identity politics intersected: he came out in an interview in the “City Press,” a Black newspaper, and joined the virtually all-white Gay Association of South Africa (GASA), which maintained an apolitical distance from the apartheid struggle. Receiving little support within GASA for advocating that they relocate their social activities away from whites-only facilities, in May of 1984 Nkoli started The Saturday Group, South Africa’s first gay Black organization. It was short-lived, however, because Nkoli’s political life soon took a dramatic turn.

In the 1980s, Nkoli’s student activism resulted in his joining the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF). In 1984, he helped establish the Vaal Civic Association to undertake tenant organizing in the Delmas township. Nkoli and 21 others from the UDF were arrested after a march protesting government-imposed rent hikes, and charged with “subversion, conspiracy, and treason,” crimes subject to the death penalty.

The “Delmas Trial” lasted four years. While in the Pretoria Central Prison, Nkoli came out to his comrades during discussions of prison sex. This action and the debates it inspired prompted UDF leaders such as co-defendants Popo Molefe and Patrick Lekota to recognize homophobia as a form of oppression, and embrace Nkoli and his struggles as theirs.

During the trial, Nkoli’s substantiation of his attendance at a GASA meeting was a crucial point in countering the prosecution, which had tried to place him at the scene of a murder. The defense was also a public coming out, and brought the Delmas Trial to the attention of the international gay rights movement. The letters of support he received, especially from European activists, were an important demonstration of solidarity. Nkoli was acquitted in 1988, and he and the rest of the “Vaal 22” were freed. However, during his imprisonment, Nkoli learned that he was HIV positive.

Ironically, GASA had withheld its support during the trial. Discerning a need, upon his release Nkoli helped found the Gay and Lesbian Organization of Witwatersrand (GLOW), the first large Black-based SGL/LGBT organization in South Africa. Beginning in 1990, GLOW organized the country’s first three pride marches, and became the model for several other gay groups in the Black townships.

Nkoli continued his participation in the ANC, meeting with Nelson Mandela in 1994. His visibility in the anti-apartheid movement merits much of the credit in winning the ANC’s support for gay rights—support that translated into tangible deeds once the ANC gained power. In 1996, South Africa became the first nation to include sexual orientation in its constitution’s anti-discrimination clause. This milestone victory for equality is the fountainhead from which many other gains for South African SGL/LGBT people flow, including the invalidation of sodomy laws, and the recognition of gay relationships.

In 1990, Nkoli became one of the first South African activists to publicly acknowledge his HIV-positive status. He co-founded the Township AIDS Project (TAP) and the Gay Men’s Health Forum, working diligently to bring AIDS education and counseling to disadvantaged populations. He was also a founding member of both the Positive African Men’s Project and the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (now the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project), as well as a board member of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, representing the African region. Playful and irreverent, Nkoli inspired the devotion of South African progressives from all backgrounds and drew an international following. A 1989 speaking tour of Europe, Canada, and the United States raised $35,000 for TAP.

Nkoli had been infected with HIV for around 12 years, and had been seriously ill, on and off, for the last four. He lost his struggle against the virus in a Johannesburg hospital on November 30, 1998, just days after his 41st birthday. He lived to see the rights of lesbian and gay people enshrined in the Constitution and in the protected freedoms of South Africa, and he played an important role in that achievement.

A memorial at St. Mary’s Anglican Cathedral was followed by a funeral in Sebokeng attended by many of the SGL/LGBT and anti-apartheid movements’ luminaries. The September 1999 Johannesburg Pride march was dedicated to Nkoli, and included a stop at the newly named Simon Nkoli Corner at the intersection of Pretoria and Twist Streets in Johannesburg.

Nkoli’s papers at the Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa include his letters from prison, which were the basis for Canadian filmmaker John Greyson’s 1987 short film about Nkoli, “A Moffie Called Simon. Nkoli was the subject of Robert Colman’s 2003 play, “Your Loving Simon,” and Beverley Ditsie’s 2002 film, “Simon & I.” John Greyson’s 2009 film, “Fig Trees,” a hybrid documentary/opera includes references to Nkoli’s activism. There is a Simon Nkoli Street in Amsterdam, and a Simon Nkoli Day in San Francisco. Nkoli opened the first Gay Games in New York, and was made a freeman of that city by New York City Mayor David Dinkins. In 1996, Nkoli was given the Stonewall Award in the Royal Albert Hall in London.

We remember Simon Tseko Nkoli in recognition of his contributions to the struggle for freedom and justice, for his remarkable life, for his inspiring courage and determination, and for his many contributions to South Africa and our community.

Oliver W. Martin III

Martin, Oliver W. 2017

Oliver W. Martin III was born on November 25, 1958 (to April 19, 2014). He was a courageous HIV/AIDS activist, a preventative health care advocate, and a pioneering faith community leader.

Oliver Wendell Martin, III was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and adopted at birth by Uther Jean Jones and Oliver W. Martin Jr. His large and loving family of seven brothers would later include a stepfather, Ernest R. Jones. Martin described his family heritage as African, Spanish, Indigenous American, and Dutch. He attended Plum Borough Senior High School in the Township of Plum, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, and graduated in 1976. Following high school, he enrolled at Bradford Business School, then Pittsburgh’s Robert Morris University, where he obtained his Bachelor of Science Degree in Information Systems.

Martin was an important community leader among early HIV/AIDS activists and the SGL/LGBT/Queer faith communities. He had been diagnosed with HIV in 1986, with what was then called GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency disease), but kept it from almost everyone. His younger brother, Kenny, knew of Martin’s diagnosis, because he also tested positive at the same time. But for a decade, the two of them told almost no one. “We didn’t want to put [our family] through living with the thought that we were going to be dead in a week,” Martin said. Only when effective HIV treatment made a longer life with HIV a possibility did they share their diagnoses with most members of their large, tightly-knit family. Martin’s brother succumbed to complications from AIDS in 2005.

Martin once told an interviewer, “I’ve always known my sexuality since I was five years old. I think I just come from a family where we considered ourselves sexual creatures. If you’re a human being, you’re sexual. How that manifests itself is going to be different for everybody.”

Oliver W. Martin III was a staunch advocate for HIV prevention and sexuality education in faith communities. He was the founder and chief executive officer of Conscious Contact of New York, Inc., a health education and prevention program which focused in HIV/AIDS. He was heavily involved in the strategic partnerships that his organization had created with other agencies to bring awareness, create prevention strategies, and expedite crucial services to communities of color.

Martin served as the general secretary for the New York City Faith in Action for HIV/AIDS Prevention, Care and Education Coalition. At its 2011 National HIV Prevention Conference, he conducted a roundtable on building collaborative, inclusive faith, and secular community partnerships. He also served as national administrative leader for the National Faith in Action for HIV and AIDS, as board president of the National United Church of Christ HIV and AIDS Network, and as lead organizer for community events such as World AIDS Day, the Annual Week of Stepping Up In Faith for HIV and AIDS, Christmas in July at Riverside Church, advocacy events for all faith communities at International Conferences, and more.

Martin was also the organizer of Spiritual Outreach Service (S.O.S.) to help individuals participate with HIV prevention and care for the mind, spirit and body, and quarterly HIV support forums in collaboration with the AIDS Service Center New York City and Riverside Church. He was instrumental in the dissemination and promotion of the curriculum Affirming Persons—Saving Lives, and a board member of the National Restoration to Military Families Team, and a charter member of Space for Grace Fellowship Center, a new church he helped start in the greater Lansing, Michigan area.

Prior to getting involved in preventative health care, Martin worked as a grant writer and evaluator for banking organizations in the New York City area, and was a part-time restaurateur in Wisconsin.

Oliver W. Martin III believed it is imperative to lift up the Black, same-gender loving community as a full partner group in the larger queer community. He served on the board of Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ, and on the Common Global Ministries Board of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) until mid-2013. Martin contributed his time and energy to serve on several boards of directors, including the United Church of Christ HIV/AIDS Network (UCAN, Inc.), where he served as board president. He had previously served as a board member of the AIDS Service Center in New York City from 1996 to 2010. In addition, Martin was a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a shareholder in the Green Bay Packers NFL football team.

Martin’s community service has been recognized by many, and he was honored with: the Positive Changemakers Award from the AIDS Service Center New York City in 2012; an award from National People Living with HIV and AIDS in 2006; the Vanguard Community Service Award from the New York AIDS Coalition in 2003; a Community Leadership Award from People Living with HIV and AIDS in 1996; a New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene award in 2001; an award from the New York State AIDS Institute in 2000; a citation from NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for HIV/AIDS Ministry Leadership at The Riverside Church in 2007; and the Life Changers Award 2014 from the Love Alive International Foundation, Inc.

Oliver W. Martin III brought people together from numerous parts of many communities. His ability to create, coordinate, and collaborate with hundreds of people was nothing short of amazing. Martin had an exceptional ability to plan events down to the minutest details, way in advance, and make them come off like well synchronized works of art. Martin was thought of as a virtuoso convener of people, a disseminator of life-affirming, lifesaving, and life-improving information and resources.

At one point in his life, Martin referred to himself as bisexual, but admitted in an early interview that he was “not completely comfortable with that label.” He would later reject the label, and often remind others that he identified “first and foremost as a Child of God.” He also later self-identified as pansexual, a designation he said “deliberately rejects the gender binary, as pansexual people are open to relationships with those who do not identify as strictly men or women.” Martin believed that monogamy was an important component of his relationships.

Martin made his home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with his partner of 14 years, Craig J. Kania. No one in New York City seemed to realize that he didn’t call the city home any longer, as he seemed to be present at so many community events. Martin and his partner loved to travel, and he often spoke of exotic destinations such as Saint Marten, a cruise to somewhere exciting, or a trip to the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina.

On April 19, 2014, Martin passed away from long-term complications related to AIDS. He will be remembered as a relentless activist for justice, and for his advocacy for the spiritual needs of the LGBTQ community. He had a gift of bringing people of diverse backgrounds and agendas together, creating both community and a sense of communion, which benefited everyone.

Oliver W. Martin III loved to quote Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” A lot of very good people came out on both June 13, 2014 at the Unitarian Church of All Souls Sanctuary on Manhattan’s East Side for his Celebration of Life service, and again on August 16, 2014 at the historic Riverside Church in Harlem to remember fondly the life and contributions of a remarkable and unconventional man. Martin was a man who inspired and agitated, made peace and raised hell, built coalitions and loving environments, and, along the way, touched so many lives.

We remember Oliver W. Martin III in appreciation of his lifelong commitment to serving others, his advocacy on behalf of people affected by HIV/AIDS, his important collaborations with communities of faith, and his many contributions to our community.

Morgan Powell

Powell, Morgan 2017
Photo: Courtesy of Nilka Martell, who told the Ubuntu Biography Project it was Morgan’s favorite.

Morgan Powell was born on November 25, 1973 (to September 29, 2014). He was a beloved Bronx, New York-based historian, ecologist, landscape designer, environmental activist, and gardener with a passion for Black history. Powell used that knowledge in founding Bronx River Sankofa, and shared his research as a major contributor to the Bronx African American History Project.

Kristopher Morgan Powell was born in Mandevol, Jamaica, the youngest child of engineer Mervin Grant and civil servant Barbara Myfanwey Powell. He had three older sisters, Charlene Anders, and Fontaine. After Powell’s parents divorced, Barbara Powell came to Harlem, New York City, where her infant son eventually joined her in 1974, when he was less than a year old. Within a few years, Barbara Powell would relocate her family to the Bronx.

“I realize that technically I am a Jamaican-American, but I have always identified [myself] as African American because the connection to Jamaica was weakened and has really become so diluted for me at a very young age,” Morgan Powell stated in a 2004 interview with the Bronx African American History Project. “But having said that, I feel like I grew up in the Diaspora with people from West Africa, all different parts of the Caribbean, and a very strong and diverse community of people who were from the South.”

Powell attended P.S. 89, P.S. 96, Junior High School 135, and Christopher Columbus High School, where he graduated in 1992. He became interested in horticulture through a program at the nearby New York Botanical Garden. Over the years, Powell paid the bills working as a landscape designer and gardener. But he sustained his spirit with his love of Bronx history, and his advocacy for the natural environment. Unable to afford college, he was self-educated and did his own research, sharing his knowledge and passion on the tours and his Bronx River Sankofa blog.

As friends recounted, his tours were free, immensely popular and fun for participants. He lived for Bronx history, and took every opportunity he was given to speak about everything from the borough’s parks, rivers and early settlers—the kind of people for whom streets and neighborhoods are named—to the waves of African American and Latino immigrants who remade the area during the 20th century. Powell gave everyone an opportunity to learn something about the locations and the families that made a difference in the Bronx.

In 2001, Powell began researching the history of the Bronx and the impact on its Black residents. “Most of the time, research like this is done by professors or by people who have gotten grants to do it. He did this all on his own. He did incredible research and published work. I have never seen anything quite like it,” said Mark Naison, professor of African American studies and history at Fordham University.

Morgan Powell served as a community researcher and former assistant archivist with the Bronx African American History Project of the African and African American History Department at Fordham University. He was a longtime volunteer on numerous environmental projects throughout New York City, and former park manager at Stuyvesant Cove Park. His presentations have been seen live by hundreds of New Yorkers at the New York Public Library, Cornell University, Fordham University, the City University of New York, and numerous civic societies in all five boroughs of the city.

Powell was also a gifted writer and blogger for the national website Outdoor Afro. His online videos, maps, blogs, and filmed walking tours celebrate the history of Black New York in the Bronx beyond cliché facts, historical figures, and neighborhoods. He also explored social, economic, and environmental themes that interconnected with historical perspectives.

In early 2014, Powell told Naison that he was planning to leave the city, and he wanted to make sure that all the research he had done was preserved. As he turned over his documents to Fordham University, the esteemed professor thought it odd that a man who had spent so much of his life researching and talking about the borough he called home, would abruptly make plans to just walk away. Powell had reportedly told other friends that he would be going away, and not to be upset. Near the end of September, Powell informed a colleague at the Chelsea Garden Center in Manhattan that he had to “go away on family business,” and that if he didn’t return by October 2, he would never be back.

On September 29, Powell’s body was found floating in the Erie Basin off Red Hook, Brooklyn. The NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner would later rule the death a drowning, but the manner was undetermined. Because Powell’s relatives were not aware of, or in contact with his social circle in New York City, there was a delay in claiming Powell’s body. Those who knew Powell say they rarely, if ever, discussed his family; “The New York Times” reported that Powell told an acquaintance he had little contact with relatives after he came out as a gay man. His book collection, known affectionately by friends as the Morgan Library, arrived shortly after he died.

Friends had offered to cremate the remains, but in New York City only next of kin can authorize that decision. Eventually, the New York County Public Administrator’s office offered to release Powell’s body to his friends if they were able to properly bury him. A group called Friends of Morgan Powell raised more than $17,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to purchase a plot in his beloved Woodlawn Cemetery, where he once conducted walking tours.

Powell’s sister claimed his body in October of 2014. That same month, the first of many celebrations of Powell’s life was held at a private residence on Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Two hundred people showed up, including his sisters, a niece, and a nephew. Powell was cremated, and in early 2015, half of the ashes were donated by the family for a memorial rock in the Brookside section of Woodlawn Cemetery.

On April 11, 2015, the Bronx River Alliance hosted Morgan Powell Tree Planting Day, at which more than 80 people came out to lend support in planting trees along the river’s bank.

Morgan Powell was passionate about Black history, the history of the Bronx and the natural world, and cheerfully loved those who shared his vision for a better, more inclusive, and sustainable community. To the casual observer, history, diversity, and environment may appear to be separate public policy concerns, but in Powell’s view, they each reflected parts of a continuum of progress focused on celebrating the past, creating the present, and hopefully anticipating a brighter future.

“Morgan brought the Bronx to life with his tours. You always left feeling empowered and more connected to the community. He was so passionate about the borough, and sharing that love with others, that it seems difficult to picture the Bronx without him,” close friend Nilka Martell told the “Bronx Free Press” in 2014.

We remember Morgan Powell in deep appreciation for his lifelong commitment to teaching and serving others, for his advocacy for Black history, his passionate commitment to the waterways and parks of our urban environment, and for his many contributions to our community.