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.

Latasha Byears

Byears, Latasha 2017
Photo: LA Times

Latasha Byears was born August 12, 1973. She is a celebrated former American professional women’s basketball player who played power forward for several franchises of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), including the Sacramento Monarchs, the Los Angeles Sparks, the Washington Mystics, and the Houston Comets.

Latasha Nashay Byears was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but grew up in Millington, Tennessee; she attended high school in nearby Arlington. After playing two years in Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, she transferred to Chicago’s DePaul University. It was there during the 1995-1996 season that Byears earned her a first team All-American by averaging nearly 23 points and 12 rebounds per game.

Although Byears wasn’t selected in the WNBA draft, the Sacramento Monarchs invited her to their training camp in 1997, and she played for them for four seasons. Byears was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks following the 2000 season, and contributed to the team’s championship run during the early 2000s.

Following a Sparks game on June 5, 2003, Byears learned that she and three other men were being investigated for the alleged rape of a WNBA player. Byears was cut by the team, even though criminal proceedings against her were closed in 2005 due to insufficient evidence. Byears’ filed a lawsuit against the Lakers, alleging gender and sexual orientation discrimination, and the fact she was not given the same treatment as Kobe Bryant (who played for the Los Angeles Lakers, owners of the Sparks at the time) when he had rape allegations leveled against him. The lawsuit was eventually settled, but not before Byears missed two years of playing.

She finished out her career playing for teams that included the Washington Mystics, the Bulgarian team CSKA Sofia, the Houston Comets, and Leszno in Poland.

We thank Latasha Byears for her contributions to the world of basketball, and for her support of our community.

Patrik-Ian Polk

Polk, Patrik-Ian 2017 D.S. True
Photo: D.S. True

Patrik-Ian Polk was born on July 29, 1973. He is an accomplished American film director, producer, screenwriter, singer, and actor. He is best known for creating works that explore the African American LGBTQ experience and relationships, including “Noah’s Arc” and “Blackbird.”

Patrik-Ian Polk was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and showed an early passion for television and movies. He attended Brandeis University, where he was the arts editor of the college newspaper, and pursued his undergraduate degree in film and theater at the University of Southern Mississippi. Polk continued his studies at the University of Southern California, School of Cinema-Television, where he wrote and directed a number of short films.

After a brief stint as a producer’s assistant on the television series “SeaQuest,DSV,” Polk was hired as a development executive at MTV’s fledgling Paramount-based feature film division, MTV Films. Polk actively participated in the development of such productions as the hugely successful “Beavis and Butthead Do America,” and the critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated high school dark comedy “Election.” He then served as vice president of production and development at Edmonds Entertainment/e2 filmworks, working on the films “Soul Food,” “Hav Plenty,” and “Light It Up.”

Patrik-Ian Polk made his feature film directorial debut with “Punks,” an independent feature that he also wrote and produced. “Punks” had its world premiere in January of 2000 at the Sundance Film Festival, and won several awards around the world before it was released theatrically in November of 2001.

Polk is also the creator of the groundbreaking television series “Noah’s Arc,” which made its debut on the Logo network in October of 2005. “Noah’s Arc” is about four Black gay friends dealing with everyday life through complex romantic and professional relationships. Logo abruptly canceled the series after two seasons, prompting an outcry from its loyal fans. After a third season failed to materialize, Polk created “Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom,” a 2008 film that continued to follow the lives of its beloved characters. Polk’s film received three NAACP Image Award nominations for Outstanding Independent Feature Film, Outstanding Writing in a Feature Film, and Outstanding Directing in a Feature Film. It was also awarded the GLAAD Award for Best Feature Film in a Limited Release, and two Independent Spirit Awards.

In 2012, Patrik-Ian Polk released the film “The Skinny,” which he wrote, directed and produced. It tells the story of five friends who are Brown University classmates as they reunite in New York City for Gay Pride weekend, and starred Jussie Smollett, who went on to greater fame as part of the ensemble cast of the Fox television series “Empire.”

His fifth feature film, “Blackbird,” was released in 2014. Based on the novel by Larry Duplechan, it tells the story of a talented teenaged singer who struggles with religion, sexuality, a troubled home life, and other high school woes in a small Southern Baptist town. The film stars Oscar winner Mo’Nique, Isaiah Washington, and newcomer Julian Walker. “Blackbird” went on to win the Best Narrative Feature Film award at Los Angeles’ Pan African Film Festival. Other festival juries and audiences have rewarded “Blackbird” with honors, including Outflix Memphis, Atlanta’s Out on Film, Reeling in Chicago, and the Crossroads Film Festival in Polk’s native Mississippi. Additionally, the film received honors for Best Ensemble Cast, Best Director and Best Actor honors for Julian Walker at Atlanta’s Out on Film, and the Diversity Award at the Barcelona LGTIB Film Festival.

In 2016, the “Los Angeles Times” profiled Patrik-Ian Polk as one of “Our Diverse 100.”

Patrik-Ian Polk remains one of the most visible Black gay personalities in the entertainment industry today, and one of the few creative forces in Hollywood who focuses on the everyday lives of same-gender loving people of color.

We salute Patrik-Ian Polk in grateful appreciation for his cinematic achievements and his many contributions to our community.

Lee Carson

Carson, Lee 2017

Lee Carson was born on July 12, 1973. He is a widely respected educator, therapist, community-builder, brother, son, uncle, feminist, activist, and humanitarian.

Lee Fulton Carson was born the oldest of four children in Rochester, New York, to Larry Lee Carson, who was employed at Xerox, and Janice Faye Carson, who held various jobs over the years, including work in a bank and as a teacher’s aide. His parents have been together for more than 40 years.

While in grade school, Lee played the clarinet in the school band, aspiring to be the next Benny Goodman, the most notable clarinet player he was aware of at that time. At Wilson Magnet High School, he ran track, mostly middle distance, competing in 400 meter and 800 meter singles and 4×4 and 4×8 relays.

Lee doesn’t feel he’s had any challenges coming into his identity as a gay man, other than internally coming to grips with it, and finding a niche and social group that he felt comfortable with. He says he began to realize his attractions to men around the age of ten, but didn’t begin to explore it until after graduating high school at 18. He had his first relationship with a man at 20, which is the time he disclosed his sexual orientation to his mother, who stated she already knew and that she was giving him space to tell her when he was ready. To this day, he appreciates that she was so accepting and supportive in light of her being a Jehovah’s Witness.

He did not come out to his father until a year later, which came about while they watched an episode of “Ricki Lake.” The talk show featured LGBTQ people and his father made a negative comment. Lee spoke up and his father replied, “the way you keep sticking up for gay people, I’m starting to think you may be gay!” Lee, having had a positive response from coming out to his mother, decided to take the opportunity to tell his father and disclosed that he was gay. His father was silent initially, but stated that he was his son and that he would always love him, though he didn’t understand the idea of homosexuality. To this day, Lee enjoys a good relationship with both of his parents.

In 1994, Lee obtained his Associate’s degree in Liberal Arts from Monroe Community College. Two years later, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Health Science, with a concentration in chemical dependency counseling, from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Brockport. After passing his written and oral examinations, he became a credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor (CASAC) in the State of New York.

Lee started his professional career at East House Corp in Rochester, where he served as a counselor in a halfway house that provided rehabilitation services to persons in recovery from substance abuse and mental health challenges. The unit in which he worked was a specialty house that also served deaf and hard of hearing populations. While all staff had to take a basic American Sign Language (ASL) class, Lee took it upon himself to take additional classes to build his proficiency in ASL to better serve clients in the program.

On World AIDS Day in 2000, Lee began working as the program coordinator at the Men of Color Health Awareness Project (MOCHA) site in Rochester. He was amazed that an organization serving such a specific demographic existed in a city the size of Rochester, and he was enthused to have the opportunity to work in an agency that matched his personal and professional interests on multiple levels. Some of his mentors included Guy Weston, George Bellinger, Jr., Al Forbes, Colin Robinson, Reggie Griggs, Cornelius Baker, Ernest Hopkins and a host of others who helped Lee understand what it is to excel as a Black gay man, advocating fiercely for the lives of other Black gay men. During this time he served as a board member of the groundbreaking New York State Black Gay Network.

In 2001, he returned to school to earn his Master’s degree in Social Work from SUNY Brockport and Nazareth College, a public and private university collaboration. After graduating in 2004, Lee moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he secured a position as a behavioral science researcher for a large public health firm, the Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC). During his nine years at PHMC, most of Lee’s projects were related to HIV prevention among men who have sex with men (MSM) and various efforts related to LGBT communities. His first project was involved the nationally known Brothers y Hermanos Study, the largest study ever conducted to better understand the socio-cultural factors contributing to HIV risk among Black MSM in Philadelphia.

Lee was able to marry his social work training to research and led several community advisory boards during his tenure at PHMC, including the Advisory Board on LGBT Research, which he helped found and served as their co-facilitator. He also worked on a few projects geared toward decreasing health disparities among general populations, such as the Black Men in HD (Hypertension and Diabetes) project, where he worked to culturally tailor guides to help Black men better manage their hypertension and diabetes.

In 2006, while at PHMC, Lee began working as a therapist for Open Door, the behavioral health department at Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ health and wellness center in Philadelphia. During this time, he also began teaching as an adjunct professor. In 2009, he completed a needs assessment on transgender communities in Philadelphia and worked on another needs assessment for older LGBTQ adults completed in 2013. After more than six years as a therapist with Mazzoni, Lee decided to pursue his passion for teaching and resigned as a therapist. After his time at PHMC, he dove into teaching full time.

From July 2016 to June 1, 2017, Lee worked part-time as the Interim Executive Director of the Philadelphia-based COLOURS Organization, a Black LGBTQ community-based organization. As of July 1, Lee has returned to the board of COLOURS to continue his work in helping to strengthen the work of the organization. Currently he works in a part- time capacity as the Director of Training for the The Ladipo Group, a black-owned and operated company in Philadelphia. In addition, he is an adjunct professor at both Temple University and the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). He has helped to educate hundreds of students, instilling in them the values of social justice and motivating them to be agents of change in the community. Since December 2014, Lee has also served as a therapist for Talk Space, an online therapy provider.

Lee Carson is one of eight founders and the first President of the Black Gay Men’s Leadership Council (BGMLC), a Philadelphia-based volunteer-run, grassroots organization. He served as their president for eight years, and was involved in numerous discussions with the local AIDS office to enhance service provision and funding for Black MSMs. Additionally, he helped organize a track during the national LGBTI Health Summit in Philadelphia featuring asset-based research on the lives of MSM of color; testified in front of the City Council on the need to ensure adequate HIV funding in the city; held numerous networking events for professional Black gay men and allies; and engaged in several letter writing and advocacy efforts when he felt a sense of injustice experienced by Black gay men in public institutions.

BGMLC was a founding organization of the LGBT People of Color Coalition, in which Lee was the BGMLC representative. The LGBT People of Color Coalition was a multi-racial, multi-gender, grassroots organization that sought to work collaboratively on projects to decrease racial divides among LGBT populations in Philadelphia. Lee currently serves as the President Emeritus of BGMLC.

Lee has also worked as a consultant and trainer, and was hired by the technical assistance division of PROCEED, Inc., and worked as the trainer for a national leadership development training institute conducted in four cities across the country. He has provided recruitment and retention technical assistance through Mayatech Corporation, and has also served on consultation groups for the Centers for Disease Control, including the Testing Makes Us Stronger campaign. Lee conducted a workshop at the Mandate DC conference in 2012 geared toward helping Black gay men assess what they are looking for in a partner, which required them to do self-reflection and introspection as they work toward finding an ideal mate. He has also conducted workshops on interracial dating, providing a framework for couples to think about as they work to reconcile racial and cultural differences that may present themselves in the context of the relationship.

Lee has been with his partner Boris for more than five years. They live in Philadelphia and enjoy vacationing together, cooking and entertaining. He tries to get home to Rochester as often as his schedule permits, to spend time with family and friends.

Of his work Lee says, “Our basic need as humans is to be loved and accepted as who we are, and I see my life’s work as providing that love and acceptance directly, as well as training future social workers and human service agents how to do the same for clients they will work with throughout the course of their career.”

We thank Lee for his outstanding service and dedication to building communities, including our own.