Remembering black artists and advocates who helped shape history

Grant Asner

As this year’s Black History Month comes to an end, that doesn’t mean there isn’t time to learn about some black icons who dedicated their lives to their passion.

Betty Davis was a singer, songwriter, model and performer who recorded songs with music groups such as the Pointer Sisters. (Light in the Attic Records)

Betty Davis (July 26, 1944 – Feb. 9, 2022)

No singular label could sum up all of Betty Davis. She was a singer, songwriter, model, performer and Miles Davis’s second wife. Betty’s birth name is Betty Gray Mabry and she was born on July 26, 1944, in Durham, North Carolina, where she was raised on a farm and spent most of her time listening to blues her grandmother showed her. She gained influence to pursue a show business career by watching her dad dance to popular singers like Elvis Presley. Betty’s lyrics and songwriting is known to be very sexually oriented, which is what really drew her fans in. She and modeled worldwide. Betty lived a remarkable life doing what she wanted when she wanted and mesmerized a whole generation while doing so.


Sam Gilliam (Nov. 30, 1933 – June 25, 2022)

Sam Gilliam is known and idolized for his “post-war American art,” which has been showcased in several museums and art galleries, such as the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Gilliam was born on Nov. 30, 1933, in Tupelo, Mississippi, and started drawing at a very young age in hopes of becoming a future cartoonist. He is said to be one of the first people to paint on draped canvases that were hung without using any stretcher bars around the mid-60s. At the same time, Gilliam was creating abstract art inspired by the events and conditions he experienced being African-American. One of Gilliam’s most memorable pieces is called “April 4th,” which was made to express the pain and grief of losing civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 


Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Oct. 2, 1938 – Dec. 1, 2022)

Dorothy Pitman Hughes was an author, feminist and activist who was the co-founder of the Womens Action Alliance (WAA) and worked hard to create racial balance within the modern-day feminist movement. Hughes was born on Oct. 2, in Lumpkin, Georgia, where she experienced numerous racial attacks that only fueled her future lifelong career as an activist. Hughes published her first book in 1999 titled “Wake Up and Smell The Dollars! Whose Inner-city is This Anyways! One Woman’s Struggle Against Sexism, Classism, Racism, Gentrification, and The Empowerment Zone,” which is an autobiography about, well everything in the title. Janelle Monáe recently portrayed Hughes in “The Glorias,” which came out in 2020. The movie is based on Hughes’s good friend and also activist Gloria Steinem. 

Ramsey Lewis was a renowned jazz musician and leader in the contemporary jazz movement for decades. (John Mathew Smith)

Ramsey Lewis (May 27, 1935 – Sept. 12, 2022)

Ramsey Lewis was a renowned jazz musician and leader in the contemporary jazz movement for decades. Lewis was born on May 27, 1935, in Chicago, Illinois, where he first took piano lessons at the age of four. He received many awards throughout his 67-year-long career, including the National Endowment for the Arts Award (NEA) in January 2007, three Grammys for jazz and R&B and The Legendary Landmark award in March of 2007. He had several hit songs like the famous cover of “The In Crowd” by Lewis and his brothers. Many looked up to Lewis’ passion for composing jazz and his enormous discography, releasing over 80 albums in his lifetime.


Bill Russell (Feb. 12, 1934 – July 31, 2022)

NBA fans need no introduction for Bill Russell, often referred to as “Mr. 11 rings” or “The Secretary of Defense.” Russell was born Feb. 12, 1934, in West Monroe, Louisiana, but moved to California at the age of eight where he and his family struggled immensely with poverty and racism. It was only in high school that he started really working on improving as a basketball player. Now, Russell is considered one of the greatest center players in the NBA, playing for 13 years from 1956 – 1969 and blocking on average six to eight shots a game. Throughout these years, he stayed loyal to the Boston Celtics much like his number 6 jersey. Russell was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, continuing his legacy and his love for the sport forever.