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Remembering People Of Color Lost To COVID-19

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Two hundred thousand - the U.S. will reach that number of coronavirus deaths this week. That is a fifth of all COVID-related deaths in the world, and it is Black and brown communities that have suffered the most. We wanted to take this moment to remember some of those lives and to go back to the beginning, to New York City, one of the earliest and deadliest coronavirus hotspots.

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CURTIS TURNEY: She taught us how to become men and women.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Dez-Ann Romain was the first known educator from the New York City Public School system to die from the coronavirus back in March. And that was one of her students, Curtis Turney. Romain was the beloved principal of Brooklyn Democracy Academy, a transfer high school for students who struggled in the traditional school system. Romain had moved from Trinidad to New York as a teenager, and she often shared her own struggles in school with her students.

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TURNEY: She was understanding and tough at the same time, which made her so relatable. Ms. Romain, after graduating from high school, became more than just a former teacher to most of us but a great friend and, most of all, a hero to so many of us.

KELLY: She was just 36 when she died. And Romain left behind words of wisdom when she spoke at last year's graduation ceremony.

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DEZ-ANN ROMAIN: Understand that you are great in your own right. And don't let anybody ever make you feel less than.

KELLY: One month on from Romain's death, the pandemic had grown and spread, and another community leader lost his battle with COVID-19. Akbar Nurid-Din Shabazz was the first Muslim chaplain in the Texas prison system. He died April 23 just outside Houston. He was 70 years old. His friends and colleagues described a man who gave up a lot to put inmates on the path to a better life. Basile Abdullah, whose life sentence was reversed, says coming into contact with Shabazz...

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BASILE ABDULLAH: Put me into a life I could not have lived - the things that I have done could not have happened.

PFEIFFER: Akbar Nurid-Din Shabazz Jr. looks back and wishes he could tell his father how proud of him he was.

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AKBAR NURID-DIN SHABAZZ JR: Of course, I told him, you know, that I love him and that kind of thing. But after he passed, I really started to hear the impact he had on others.

PFEIFFER: Since Texas prison started mass testing in April, the state has consistently ranked highest in the country for both number of cases and deaths in prison populations.

KELLY: The coronavirus swept into many Native American communities early and into the summer. Native Americans have seen 3 1/2 times as many cases as white Americans. Among them was Edna Raper of the Cherokee Nation, who died of COVID-19 on July 4. Raper was one of 2,000 remaining speakers of the Cherokee language, and she cared deeply about passing it on to her children and her grandchildren.

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SARAH PICKUP: (Singing in Cherokee).

KELLY: Here's Raper's daughter, Sarah Pickup. Whenever her mother would babysit Pickup's daughters...

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PICKUP: She'd start singing in Cherokee, and that's how she'd put them to sleep.

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PICKUP: (Singing in Cherokee).

PFEIFFER: Pickup says Raper was committed to her community around Tulsa, Okla. On many days, she got in her silver Chevy Malibu and helped people without transportation.

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PICKUP: She would, like, take them to doctor's appointments or go get their groceries - just anybody in the community that needed help.

PFEIFFER: Raper's granddaughter Madison Gardner says she wants to honor her grandmother's legacy by teaching Cherokee to the next generation.

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MADISON GARDNER: She's a really honest and wise woman, so she taught me a lot. And hopefully, I get to teach my kids and my nieces and nephews as much as she has taught me.

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GARDNER: (Singing in Cherokee).

KELLY: Edna Raper was 67 years old. Elsewhere in the program, we remember older adults and frontline workers who have died from COVID-19. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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