Ethel Waters

Waters, Ethel 2017

Ethel Waters was born on October 31, 1896 (to September 1, 1977). She was an American blues, jazz, and gospel vocalist. As an actress, Waters was the second African American to be nominated for an Academy Award, and the first Black woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award.

Ethel Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, a result of the rape of her mother, Louise Anderson, at age 13 by John Waters, a pianist and family acquaintance from a mixed-race middle class background who played no significant role in her life. She wrote about being raised in a violent and impoverished home in Philadelphia and neighboring cities, seldom living anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. “No one raised me,” Waters recalled, “I just ran wild.” She excelled not only at looking after herself, but at singing and dancing. Waters began performing at church functions, and as a teenager, was locally renowned for her “hip shimmy shake.”

Waters married at the age of 13, but soon left her abusive husband and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel working for $4.75 per week. On Halloween night in 1913, her seventeenth birthday, she attended a costume party at a nightclub on Juniper Street, and was persuaded to sing two songs. Waters impressed the audience so much that she was offered professional work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland.

With great determination, Waters made her debut on the Black vaudeville circuit in 1917, billed as Sweet Mama Stringbean for her tall, lithe build. She broke through with her rendition of “St. Louis Blues,” which Waters performed in a softer and subtler style than her musical rivals, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

Ethel Waters moved to New York City to join the dynamic explosion of African American creativity that was the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning with her appearances in Harlem nightclubs in the late 1920s, she became one of America’s most celebrated and highest paid entertainers. Her first Harlem appearance was at Edmond’s Cellar, a club that had a Black patronage, and was the source of her early fan base. At the Cotton Club, Waters introduced “Stormy Weather,” composed for her by Harold Arlen. Her appearances at Harlem’s Plantation Club, led her to Broadway.

Waters would later write, “I was singing the story of my misery and confusion, the story of the wrongs and outrages done to me by people I had loved and trusted.” Impressed by her performance, Irving Berlin wrote “Supper Time.” a song about a lynching, for Waters to perform in a Broadway revue. Between club appearances, Waters traveled a nightclub circuit from Chicago to St. Louis and throughout the South. In 1927, she appeared in an all-Black revue, “Africana.” Thereafter, she divided her time between the stage, nightclubs, and eventually movies.

Marked by a vitality that gloried not only in Black artistic achievement but also in Black identity, the Harlem Renaissance celebrated sexuality with a remarkable lack of judgmental criticism. Like most blues singers of the time, Waters sang her share of raunchy, openly suggestive songs such as “Organ Grinder Blues” and “Do What You Did Last Night.” And, like many other women blues singers of the day, such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter, Waters was known to have sexual relationships with other women. Although she was not as open as Rainey about her same-sex relationships, Waters had at least one quite public affair with a dancer named Ethel Williams, with whom she flirted from the stage, and had notorious lover’s spats. She is also rumored to have had a brief liaison with British novelist Radclyffe Hall, whom she mentions in her autobiography.

Some of Waters’ performances from the mid-1920s foreshadow the scat singing later popularized by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Among the jazz instrumentalists who accompanied her in the earliest recording sessions were Fletcher Henderson, Joe Smith, Coleman Hawkins, James P. Johnson, Clarence Williams, Duke Ellington, and Benny Carter.

Waters first recorded for Columbia Records in 1925, for which she was later bestowed a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. While at Columbia, she introduced many popular standards, including “Dinah,” “Heebie Jeebies,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Someday, Sweetheart,” “Am I Blue?” and “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue.”

In the 1930s, Waters was able to remake herself as an actress. She first appeared in several Broadway revues, and then gradually garnered non-singing dramatic roles on both stage and screen. Her acting career would eventually eclipse her accomplishments as a singer in the public eye. In 1933, Waters made a satirical all-Black film, “Rufus Jones for President,” and took a role in the Broadway musical revue, “As Thousands Cheer,” where she was the first Black woman in an otherwise white show. Waters had three gigs at this point; in addition to the show, she starred in a national radio program, and continued to work in nightclubs.

Waters became the highest paid performer on Broadway, but she was starting to age. MGM hired Lena Horne as the ingénue in the all-Black musical, “Cabin in the Sky,” and Waters starred as “Petunia” in 1942, reprising her stage role of 1940. The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli, was a success, but Waters was offended by the adulation accorded Horne, and feeling her age, went into somewhat of a decline.

Waters began to work with Fletcher Henderson again in the late 1940s. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1949 for the film “Pinky.” In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Award for her performance opposite Julie Harris in the play, “The Member of the Wedding,” with both Waters and Harris repeated their roles in the 1952 film version. In 1950, Waters starred in the television series “Beulah,” but quit after complaining that the scripts’ portrayal of African Americans was “degrading.”

Despite these successes, Waters’ brilliant career was fading. She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and the IRS hounded her. Her health suffered, and she worked only sporadically in following years. From 1950 to 1951, she wrote the autobiography, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” with Charles Samuels. In it, Waters stated that she was born in 1900. In her second autobiography, “To Me, It’s Wonderful,” she contended that she was born in 1896.

During her later years, Waters considerably toned down her “red hot mama” image and redefined herself as an evangelical Christian. In the period before her death, she toured with the Reverend Billy Graham Crusades, despite the fact that she had once been a Catholic and he was a Protestant. Waters died on September 1, 1977 from heart disease at the Chatsworth, California, home of a young couple who cared for her. She was 80 years old.

Waters was approved for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004, however the actual star has not been paid for or installed, despite fundraising efforts. In 2017, Florida playwright Larry Parr’s biographical one-woman musical, “Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” hit the stage.

We remember Ethel Waters and thank her for her many contributions to America’s cultural and artistic landscape, and to our community.

 

 

George M. Johnson

Johnson, George 2017

George M. Johnson was born on October 31, 1985. He is a journalist and HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ activist.

George Matthew Johnson was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, one of four children of Gregory Johnson, a police officer (now retired), and Kaye Johnson, a beautician. When he was 14, Johnson started working at a summer camp in Plainfield, even as he grappled with his sexuality and fitting in.

“As a young boy, I struggled with what I was feeling inside,” Johnson told the Ubuntu Biography Project. “I knew by the age of five that something about me was different, as my attractions were more to boys than girls. I was very effeminate, which caused me to be teased some, so I learned ways to cope with the bullying.” Johnson learned how to play football, baseball, and basketball, and made sure he was one of the best at it. He recalled how it gave him safety in heterosexual spaces because even though he was gay, the straight boys still wanted him on their team.

Johnson graduated from Bishop George Ahr High School in Edison, New Jersey, and enrolled at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, where he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and earned his Bachelor of Science in finance in 2007. “As I grew older and started to explore in college, I began coming into my own but still struggled with masculinity issues,” Johnson said. “I joined a fraternity hoping it would help with that but, in turn, it only made me stronger in the belief of who I am. I learned that I never had a ‘coming out’ experience. It was more about ‘coming into’ who I really was.”

In 2012, Johnson received a Master of Arts in human resources development from Bowie State University in Maryland. Over the next several years, he ended up working at both his alma maters, Virginia Union and Bowie State.

When Johnson was 25 and about to graduate from Bowie State, he experienced what he called the “best, worst day” of his life—the day he tested positive for HIV. Not feeling well, Johnson finally built up enough courage to go to a free clinic in Richmond, Virginia. “All I remember was praying that, either way the results came out, I would be covered,” Johnson wrote for thebody.com in 2016. “Twenty minutes passed and the nurse came and took me into a room. Another woman walked in, so I already knew something wasn’t right. I began to panic. I just remember falling onto the couch and her telling me that ‘the results came back positive.’”

HIV/AIDS is just one of many topics that Johnson addresses in his writing, all of them centered around the stories of people of color, particularly those in the LGBTQ/SGL community.

“The Black LGBTQ/SGL community is me. It’s important because I know that my purpose in this universe is to fight for our existence,” he told the Ubuntu Biography Project. “As a marginalized population within an oppressed group, we are often subjected to having to fight our own just for that right to exist. I know that I am visibility and representation for our community, but I know that is important to be even more accessible and utilized to help others. We should, as Black LGBTQ/SGL people, be very proud of who we are, especially as a way to fight against the erasure our community has faced for hundreds of years. We are only now learning about the queerness of so many pioneers who had that part of their narrative left out of their stories.”

Johnson is currently working on a project that discusses the various intersections of homophobia within the Black community; the first part examined homophobia within fraternities, or “Greek life.” You can follow Johnson on georgemjohnson.contently.com, where he writes about race, culture, gender, sex, health, HIV/AIDS, pop culture, and other timely topics. He has also contributed to pride.com, hivequal.org, “The Huffington Post,” nbc.com, and “A&U” magazine, among others. His piece on swimmer Simone Manuel was the most-read story on ebony.com’s digital platform in 2016.

As part of his volunteer work giving back to the community, Johnson helped co-found Black Gifted and Whole, a nonprofit that provides mentoring and scholarships to queer students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). He also mentors six young people attending HBCUs.

Johnson, known as Matt to those close to him, lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he spends his rare free time hanging with his friends at happy hour, bowling, “chilling” with his grandmother, and enjoying his favorite hobby: drinking Prosecco. He describes himself as queer and very spiritual—regularly utilizing sage and African chants to “smudge,” the ancient Native American ritual of using smoke from herbs to remove any negative energy from a space. Johnson makes it a priority to keep negativity out of his personal life as well.

“It is important to live in your truth and stand in it, firmly as you. However, it is also important to recognize that the world isn’t a safe space for many of us either, so we are risking our lives everyday just being who we are,” Johnson said. “So, I tell folks to take pride in the fact that refusing to live in pieces is a revolutionary act against your oppressor, and you should do so proudly. Don’t keep anyone around who forces you to live your life in pieces. The universe will give you red flags. It is your job accept them for what they are. Trust in the universe, and it will provide you over-abundantly.”

We thank George M. Johnson for his way with words, his activism, and for his unwavering support of our community.

Andy Bey

Andy Bey

Andy Bey was born on October 28, 1939. He is an accomplished pianist and jazz singer who is celebrated for his four-octave baritone voice.

Andrew W. Bey grew up in Newark, New Jersey with seven sisters, and later recorded with two of them. He was exposed to jazz as a child, and started singing in front of local audiences as early as eight. At some gigs, he was accompanied by tenor sax great Hank Mobley. Bey was 13 years old in 1952 when he recorded his first solo album, “Mama’s Little Boy’s Got the Blues.” At 17, he formed Andy & the Bey Sisters with his siblings, Salome and Geraldine, in 1956. The group did a 16-month tour of Europe, and recorded three albums before breaking up in 1967. In the 1960s and 1970s, Bey worked on the television show, “Startime,” with Connie Francis, and sang for Louis Jordan.

Andy Bey is a commanding interpreter of lyrics who has a wide vocal range, and a big, rich, full voice.  Although widespread popularity has often eluded him, insiders have always known about Bey; John Coltrane cited Bey as his favorite vocalist. Bey’s vocals were featured by Max Roach, Duke Pearson, and Gary Bartz, for whom he delivered very socio-political lyrics, including some searing condemnations of United States involvement in the Vietnam War.

The 1970s also found Bey recording “Experience and Judgment,” which had strong Indian influences, and the beginning of a long association with pianist Horace Silver, who featured him prominently on many of the religious-themed albums he put out in the 1970s and 1980s. Bey continued to work with Silver into the 1990s, when he was featured on Silver’s 1993 Columbia album, “It’s Got to Be Funky,” which marked a return to hard bop’s mainstream, and did much better commercially than his more spiritually-themed music. In 1974, Bey and Dee Dee Bridgewater were the featured vocalists on Stanley Clarke’s monumental album, “Children of Forever.”

After a 22-year absence from recording, Bey returned with four albums that have become a permanent part of the musical landscape. Colleague Herb Jordan assisted Bey with a resurgence of his recording career. Their recording, “Ballads, Blues & Bey” in 1996, returned Bey to prominence, and he followed that with “Shades of Bey” in 1998, and “Tuesdays in Chinatown” in 2001, choosing to explore outside the world of jazz with covers of Nick Drake, Milton Nascimento, and others.

Later, he recorded “Experience and Judgment,” which had Indian influences. Bey won the 2003 Jazz Vocalist of the Year award from the Jazz Journalists Association. The album “American Song” received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2005. In 2007, Bey released “Ain’t Necessarily So,” and in 2013, followed that with the acclaimed “The World According to Andy Bey” on the Highnote label.

Bey is an openly gay jazz musician who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1994. He turned to yoga and a strict vegetarian diet to maintain his health over the years, and his popularity as a performer continues unabated. “Did you know that gratefulness helps get rid of fear?” he said in an interview. “I’m so grateful to be able to do what I love, to have a purpose in life.”

We thank Andy Bey for his artistry, his perseverance, and his many contributions to the joyful sounds of our community.

 

Julius Eastman

Eastman, Julius 2017

[The references to “I” in this biography are Stephen Maglott, the original author]

Julius Eastman was born on October 27, 1940 (to May 28, 1990). He was an accomplished composer, pianist, vocalist, and dancer of minimalist tendencies.

Julius Eastman grew up in Ithaca, New York, where he worked in his teen years as a paid chorister. He gained plenty of regional attention with his wonderful voice, and began his piano studies at age 14. After only six months of practice, he was playing Beethoven and other challenging classical composers. Eastman attended Ithaca College and transferred to the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied piano with Mieczyslaw Horszowski and composition with Constant Vauclain. After a few months, Eastman switched his major from piano to composition.

Eastman made his debut as a pianist in 1966 at Town Hall in New York City. He possessed a rich baritone voice that caught the attention of the symphonic world when he recorded the 1973 Grammy-nominated Nonesuch recording of British composer Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Eight Songs for a Mad King.” Eastman’s talents as a composer impressed the celebrated composer and conductor, Lukas Foss.

In 1970, Eastman joined the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he met the Czech-born composer, conductor, and flutist Petr Kotik. Eastman and Kotik performed together extensively in the early to mid-1970s, and he became a founding member of the S.E.M. Ensemble, with whom he performed, toured, and composed numerous works. Many of the earliest performances of Eastman’s works were given by the Creative Associates Ensemble of University at Buffalo, of which he was also a member beginning in 1968. He taught theory while at the University at Buffalo, but left over what he described as “creative differences.” Eastman had hoped to transition to a similar position at Cornell University, in his hometown of Ithaca, but they quickly backed away, and it failed to materialize.

Eastman eventually moved to New York City, where he was associated with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, then led by his friend Lukas Foss. Eastman became a pioneering figure in minimalism, and an influential member of the 1980s Downtown New York scene. He performed in jazz groups with his brother, Gerry Eastman, a guitarist and bass player in many jazz ensembles, including the Count Basie Orchestra. Ironically, the only work by Julius Eastman registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is as a lyricist, with his brother Gerry listed as the composer.

Julius Eastman was a composer of works that were minimal in form but maximal in effect. His compositions were often written according to what he considered an “organic” principle, by which each new section of a work contained all the information from previous sections, though sometimes “the information is taken out at a gradual and logical rate.” The principle is most evident in his three works for four pianos, “Evil Nigger,” “Crazy Nigger,” and “Gay Guerrilla,” all from around 1979.

The last of these, an expansive and emotional work, appropriates Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” as a gay manifesto. Eastman’s “Stay On It” from 1973 was an influential post-minimalist piece that incorporated pop music influences. He frequently performed with the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, and participated in music symposia with Morton Feldman and John Cage.

A 1980 selection for Eastman’s voice and cello ensemble, “The Holy Presence of Jeanne d’Arc,” was performed at The Kitchen in New York City, and he lent his vocal strength to Meredith Monk’s ensemble for her influential album, “Dolmen Music,” in 1981. In 1986, choreographer Molissa Fenley used his work “Thruway” for a dance called “Geologic Moments” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Julius Eastman was a man seemingly balanced between irreconcilable extremes. He was brilliant, but suffered from extreme bouts of schizophrenia; he was celebrated as a star in the avant-garde world of classical music, but was occasionally homeless and sleeping in Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park. But perhaps the greatest difference was addressed by one of Eastman’s colleagues who stated simply, he was “a Black, gay man rattling around loudly in the white, constrained world of classical music. Eastman was a living testament to unbounded American opportunity and woeful American inequality.”

Eastman’s mercurial artistry often reflected those conflicting paradigms in his world. His compositions exposed a confrontation that he saw between Western and African music, and conflicting notions of beauty. Eastman’s music could comfort one moment and agitate the next. But in the end, he may have been a man who despite his immense intellect and talent, thrashed himself apart trying to live too many contradictions.

Eastman also battled alcoholism and drug addiction. He could be immensely charming, but also an acrid, seething, and occasionally impossible man. Sometimes when he spoke, it was difficult to detect if he was being hurtful or humorous. His temperament can even be detected in the titles he assigned his compositions: “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich,” “Evil Nigger,” and “Gay Guerrilla.” The language was so acidic, it ate away at the concert hall universe, and was perhaps a fitting gesture for someone who saw as much rank hypocrisy as opportunity within its walls.

Despondent about what he saw as a dearth of professional possibilities worthy of him, Eastman grew increasingly dependent on alcohol and other drugs after 1983, and his life began to fall apart. At one point, he was evicted from his apartment, his belongings (including most of his music scores) abandoned curbside. Despite an unsuccessful attempt at a comeback, he shuffled between friends’ homes in New York City and Buffalo, and slipped into obscurity.

Julius Eastman and I had a mutual friend, upon whose doorstep Eastman would occasionally appear. He would stay for a while, and then vanish under the premise of a new musical collaboration or project that required his presence. His friend, John Crawford, had a spacious apartment in a very elegant rowhouse in downtown Buffalo. He also had a stunning, burled rosewood Steinway Grand in his parlor, that Eastman reportedly never touched. It appears his disconnection from his musical past was becoming complete.

At his final visit to Buffalo, Julius Eastman was very, very ill. I spoke to him briefly, but was disturbed to see him in such deep crisis. He suffered from insomnia, was emotionally distressed, and, as I recall, very paranoid—certain that the music world was out to destroy him. But the more pressing issue was his rapidly failing health from the effects of AIDS. Within days, Eastman would be rushed to Buffalo’s Millard Fillmore Hospital, where he died three days later, on May 28, 1990, from AIDS-related, cardiac arrest. Julius Eastman had descended so far from the public eye that no notice was given to his death until an obituary by Kyle Gann appeared in the “Village Voice” on January 22, 1991, eight months after he died.

Eastman’s notational methods were loose and open to interpretation, and consequently, any revival of his music has been a difficult task, dependent on the generous efforts of people who worked with him. Many of his compositions and recordings were discarded when he was evicted. But there are some amazing musicians, who are working tirelessly to collect, preserve, and perform his compositions, and keep his unique musical presence available for generations to come.

Eastman’s music continues to be heard around the world. In December of 2016, the world’s first Eastman retrospective took place at the London Contemporary Music Festival, and included a presentation of seven Eastman works and an exhibition, spread over three nights. The following May, “That Which Is Fundamental,” a four-concert retrospective and month-long exhibition of Eastman’s work was hosted at Bowerbird in Philadelphia, produced in collaboration with the Eastman Estate.

We remember Julius Eastman, and thank him for his unique artistry, and his contributions to our cultural landscape and community.

Dennis Wamala

Wamala, Dennis 2017

Dennis Wamala was born on October 27, 1984. He is director of programs at IceBreakers Uganda (IBU), and a human rights activist who is passionate about the lives, livelihoods, and health of LGBTI people around the world.

Wamala Dennis Mawejje was born in Kampala, Uganda. During his schooling, Wamala was active in clubs, and held several leadership positions. He attended Busoga College Mwiri in Jinja, Uganda, and received his bachelors of economics at Makerere University in Kampala.

Wamala is inspired by the activism and 2011 murder of fellow Ugandan and friend David Kato, the subject of the documentary “Call Me Kuchu,” in which Wamala also appeared. “He was my friend,” Wamala told “Waza” in 2013. “He was someone I could relate to, and knowing who David was, I could not bring myself…that someone would kill him in such a brutal way.”

Facing danger in Uganda, where it remains a crime to be LGBTI, Wamala found himself moving from home to home to remain safe. On an even more personal level, he said being a public voice since coming out in 2003 has “come at a cost of family, friends, and community members shunning me. But this is something I handle very well knowing I am doing the right thing, and that my cause is just.” He has a scar near his eye—the result of being struck with a broken bottle.

In Uganda and beyond, Wamala is known for his experience in LGBTI human rights and access to health care issues, particularly for men who have sex with men (MSM), an area of expertise he has brought to several local and international projects. He is an outspoken critic of Uganda’s legislative efforts to stiffen penalties for “aggravated homosexuality,” including the onerous Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, which originally called for the death penalty before being modified, signed into law, and ultimately struck down by Uganda’s high court on procedural grounds.

At IceBreakers Uganda, a grassroots care and support organization for LGBTI people in Uganda founded by Frank Mugisha in 2004, Wamala and his team’s work centers on sexual health, health rights advocacy, community mobilization, HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, and education. IceBreakers supports adults who are in the process of coming out, as well as those who are already out or “having feelings of loneliness or isolation due to sexuality or sexual related orientation.”

Wamala serves as vice-chair of the board at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), and country chairman of Other Sheep Uganda, a multicultural ministry for sexual minorities. He is on the National LGBT Security Committee, which tracks and deals with violations of LGBT persons, and is a member of Rights-Evidence-ACTions (REAct), a human rights support system.

The inaugural representative of sexual minorities on the government of Uganda’s ministry of health technical working group, Wamala is an inaugural fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, and a driving force behind the GMT (gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender) service providers’ network of Uganda.

In 2016, Wamala traveled to the United States with SMUG for federal court hearings into a “crimes against humanity” lawsuit filed against evangelist Scott Lively, blamed by many for coming to Uganda, meeting with anti-LGBTI clergy and leaders, and fanning the flames of hatred and violence there. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2017, but the presiding judge had harsh words for Lively, calling his ideology “ludicrous,” “abhorrent,” “pathetic,” and “crackpot bigotry.”

Wamala has also appeared in Uganda’s high court to challenge the Ugandan Registration Service Bureau’s refusal to register SMUG as an organization. Without official recognition, it makes it difficult for groups such as SMUG to operate in the open, ask for and receive donations, and secure spaces to operate.

Wamala is married and describes himself as a “very fun-loving and outgoing man.” He is a Rotarian in Kampala, where he still lives and dreams of a better world for LGBTI people in Uganda and around the globe, especially those of color and African descent.

“LGBTQ people of color face everyday challenges of survival,” he said, “but these very challenges have been—and can still be—used as fuel to rise up ever higher and achieve greatness.”

We thank Dennis Wamala for his courage, his activism, and for his steadfast support of our community.

Stephen A. Maglott

 Stephen Maglott 2

Please visit the Legacy page for memories of Stephen, including a poem written for him by friend and Project honoree Tim’m T. West, and recollections from Karen Williams, the last person profiled by Stephen in the hours preceding his death. On the Press page, you can hear an interview on Michelle Brown’s radio blog program, “Collections,” with Aundaray Guess and Mark Zustovich discussing the continuation of the Ubuntu Biography Project in Stephen’s memory.

Stephen wrote hundreds of biographies for the Ubuntu Biography Project, but was humbly hesitant to document his own. Prior to his passing in the summer of 2016, Stephen worked with West to create his own life story. For the first time, it is presented here in its entirety, with revisions made in 2017 based on writings left behind by Stephen. 


Stephen Maglott was born on October 26, 1953 (to August 13, 2016). He was a social justice activist, civil servant, political operative, and creator of the Ubuntu Biography Project.

Stephen A. Maglott was born in Bangor, Maine, the son of George F. Maglott and Frances Alley Maglott. His birth family consists of three brothers, and two adopted sisters of Indigenous American and Puerto Rican descent. Maglott moved first to Boston, MA when he was six, and shortly thereafter to New York.

Nurtured in his formative years in both Harlem and Buffalo, he was drawn to civil rights and social justice struggles early on. Working with street prostitutes, the homeless, and migrant workers, Maglott helped to create outreach programs, and investigate instances where farm workers were held against their will, owing farmers money after long work days, and charged exorbitantly for their food, transportation, and lodging. He went undercover to expose the corrupt system, and the investigation resulted in a change in policies.

Maglott attended the Parson’s School of Design (The New School) while working for the United Nations as a researcher attached to the UN Commission on Apartheid. When costs mounted and job offers began pouring in, he left school to work full time as a graphics designer and art director for several major agencies. Maglott left this work and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s at the request of his friend, the musician Rick James. He toured with James, and worked periodically with Teena Marie and Prince, handling merchandise sales while they were on tour. Maglott eventually left California for Amsterdam, where he lived life as a bohemian expatriate artist for a few years before returning to the United States and the world of advertising and marketing.

A new relationship and disenchantment with the advertising business led Maglott to try his hand at domestic bliss when he and his partner became foster parents to two boys with disabilities. He taught special education classes, began a catering business, and served as the chief caretaker for the household. After eight years, he could no longer continue to care for the then-young adults, and the boys moved into group homes as their needs expanded. During this time, Maglott also served as a docent and researcher for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin Complex, and worked to preserve Louis Sullivan’s Buffalo Asylum Complex, the Michigan Street Baptist Church, and the Colored Musicians Club.

Maglott accepted a position with the Men Of Color Health Awareness (MOCHA) Project, a Rochester, New York-based HIV/AIDS prevention and case management program committed to serving the needs of gay Black men. He helped to open a Buffalo office, and assisted in the formation of the New York State Black Gay Network (NYSBGN). The MOCHA Project made history in 2000 when it hosted the first statewide summit of Black gay service providers for NYSBGN.

Maglott took a short break from the MOCHA Project to assist his friend, Byron W. Brown, with putting together a campaign for a New York Senate seat. When his MOCHA sabbatical ended, Stephen stayed on with Senator Brown as director of research. Maglott returned to New York City in 2005 when Brown launched a successful campaign to become Buffalo’s first Black mayor.

Upon returning to New York, Maglott served as transition coordinator for newly elected State Senator Jeff Klein, and briefly served in various capacities on the campaign staff of Obama for America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In 2008, he accepted a position as director of correspondence for State Senator and Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Wherever Maglott called home, he was actively involved in causes near and dear to his heart. In Buffalo, he served on the board of the Buffalo Caribbean Islands Festival, the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), and the Faith Leadership Roundtable of the City of Buffalo’s Commission on Citizens’ Rights & Community Relations, among many others. In New York City, he served as a media coordinator for Harlem Week events for the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, and as the on-site coordinator of its successful HBCU College Fair.

In an email from April 2009, Stephen Maglott first discussed creating what would become his “soul work” (as friend Terri Noonan would later describe the Ubuntu Biography Project).

“The working title for the biography collection is ‘The Ubuntu Project’ (Zulu for ‘I am, because we are’) but the details of how this will be used are not complete,” he wrote. “I have ruled out publishing these in book or calendar form, as I want to disseminate this info as widely as possible and use it as a tool to educate and empower same gender loving black men.  I’m not trying to make money off of this, but I’m not trying to go broke doing it either.”

By September of 2009, Maglott had created a logo for the Project, and begun gathering biographical information on his honorees. Over the next several years, he fleshed out the Project, eventually creating a Facebook site for launch in 2014. Over the next two years, the Ubuntu Biography Project would grow to several hundred biographies, each lovingly and meticulously researched by Maglott. He would also reach out to as many of his subjects as possible, often striking up friendships, and charming honorees with his flirtatious and infectious personality.

In the final years of his life, Maglott’s eyesight began to deteriorate and he worried about maintaining the Ubuntu Biography Project. He reached out to friends and community members to express his concerns, and to ask for assistance with the Project, if needed. On Saturday, August 13, 2016, at around 6:00 in the morning, Maglott’s final biography (of Karen Williams) was posted to Facebook. Scheduled to meet up with friend Aundaray Guess later that day, Maglott instead sent a text to Guess that he was enroute to the hospital with chest pains. Stephen Maglott passed away hours later at the age of 62.

On September 7, 2016, Maglott was remembered at a memorial service hosted by the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center.

In a tribute to his friend, Tim’m T. West wrote about Maglott’s race, which came as a surprise to many who perceived Maglott as a chronicler of people of color just like him.

“Stephen held a great deal of anxiety about his race,” West remembered. “I recall a conversation back when we first got acquainted in 2010 when he ‘outed’ himself to me as white. It was a shocking revelation because I knew fewer men in my heart who were as Black…Stephen blurred many lines for me: mentor, father-figure in the absence of one I could be fully transparent with, homie, lover, and friend. He was also, in my eyes, a Black man.”

On June 20, 2017, the Ubuntu Biography Project was renamed in honor of Stephen A. Maglott, and relaunched for Pride Month by Aundaray Guess and longtime Ubuntu fan Mark Zustovich. It was decided that most of Maglott’s original material would be presented as he wrote it, with updates being added as necessary. Since then, dozens of new biographies have been added to the collection—carrying on Maglott’s legacy and “soul work.”

In his own words, Maglott described the genesis of the Project this way:

“The Ubuntu Biography Project was born out of a desire to tell the largely untold stories of LGBTQ men and women of African descent, and to celebrate their remarkable contributions to our world. These are created in the hope that they will serve to educate and empower the whole community, while they give same-gender loving/Trans men and women of African descent ample reason to find pride in who they are, and to find strength in the dynamic and loving community they are connected with. 

Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu term of Central and South Africa that is literally translated as ‘human-ness.’ A more common interpretation of its meaning translates as ‘I am, because we are.’ It is an empowering affirmation of humanity’s interconnectedness and of our collective responsibility to cherish one another. It links each of us to our desire to live and love freely, our shared interest in our creative and spiritual connections, and in humanity’s common lineage to African ancestry. 

These biographies of remarkable men and women illuminate the story of our humanity through shared experiences, familiar hopes, our abundant love, our unique passions, our resilience in the face of challenges, and a common desire for community.”

We fondly remember our founder, Stephen Maglott, for his tireless advocacy, his humble nature, and for never allowing us to forget the LGBTQ/SGL people of color and African descent who have enriched our community and the world.