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‘I’m borne down’: She’s lost more than 30 friends and acquaintances to the coronavirus

Marsha Music, right, with fellow writer and radio show host Brenda Perryman before Perryman fell ill and died from COVID-19 in early April. Music knows more than 30 people who've died in the coronavirus outbreak in her hometown of Detroit.
Marsha Music, right, with fellow writer and radio show host Brenda Perryman before Perryman fell ill and died from COVID-19 in early April. Music knows more than 30 people who’ve died in the coronavirus outbreak in her hometown of Detroit.
(Marsha Music)

For weeks, Marsha Music’s Facebook feed has brought a stream of death notices as COVID-19 tears through the black community in her hometown of Detroit. She refuses to let herself cry.

Music knows, or knows of, more than 30 people who have died of the disease, the vast majority of them black like herself.

“I’m borne down — heavy,” she says. “This is horrific.... But I fear that if I start crying, I won’t stop.”

Music is the name she uses in her roles as a writer, performer and local historian. Her given name is Marsha Battle Philpot, and since the coronavirus outbreak, she has mostly stayed confined to her apartment overlooking a quiet street on Detroit’s north side.

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There, she pours her heart into tributes to the dead that she posts for friends on her Facebook page. Some of them were people she’d been close to her whole life, while others were more recent acquaintances. Many were community figures she admired for making her city feel more unified and hopeful.

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A playwright and poet who took pride in showcasing her fellow black writers; a friend from work who always looked regal in her head wraps; a tiny woman with the impeccably kept house who used to press and curl Music’s hair when she was a girl; a DJ who hosted soul music parties for the over-40 crowd; a restaurant owner who was famous for his huge sandwiches and cakes — she wrote tributes to them all.

Music’s tender goodbyes, praise-filled shoutouts, local color and memories of brighter days are her way of paying her respects to loved ones she hasn’t been able to visit because of the stay-at-home order imposed by Michigan’s governor.

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It might seem odd that one person would know so many victims, but for many African Americans, it’s not. The virus has been especially deadly among people of color, people who are less well-off and people in urban areas such as Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles.

Marsha Music, a writer, performer and historian, spent weeks in self-quarantine writing tributes to friends, acquaintances and residents who've died of COVID-19.
Marsha Music, a writer, performer and historian, spent weeks in self-quarantine writing tributes to friends, acquaintances and residents who’ve died of COVID-19.
(Marsha Music)

The Facebook posts have also given the 65-year-old Music a way to reflect on what it means to be spared when so many she knows have died of the virus.

In early April, as word spread in Detroit of overcrowded morgues and body bags lining hospital corridors, Music wrote that as a child, she was “fascinated with tales of survival in the face of peril, intrigued by the human capacity to triumph over incredible, impossible odds... the terrors of the Holocaust, the enslavement of my forebears, the polio scourge, 9/11.”

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Now her city faced its own kind of peril.

“Each day brings names of the familiar,” Music wrote. “I am grateful ... that the plague has passed over my door, one more day.”

Music was already devastated by the death of a friend when she learned the woman’s husband had died as well.

Gloria Smith, a co-worker from the Wayne County Juvenile Court, died in late March of COVID-19. She was 64.

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A week later, her husband, Jeffrey “JJ” Smith, a retired Michigan State Police sergeant, also died of the virus. He was 60.

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“I feel so bad that these friends of mine — dynamic, smart Detroiters — are becoming known to you, only because of their deaths by Covid-19,” she wrote to her Facebook followers.

Music is an administrative assistant at the courthouse. She and other colleagues admired how Gloria Smith stood tall in her African prints and dreadlocks adorned with cowrie shells.

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“We called her ‘The Queen,’” Music wrote.

Music remembers Gloria and Jeffrey enjoying themselves each year at the African World Festival, a celebration of black heritage that draws thousands from across Detroit. The couple always looked so in love, she says.

Among Marsha Music's tributes: honoring Gloria Smith and her husband Jeffrey "JJ" Smith, who died a week apart.
Among Marsha Music’s tributes: honoring Gloria Smith and her husband Jeffrey “JJ” Smith, who died a week apart.
(Marsha Music)

Music says she can hardly fathom the cruelty of an outbreak that could take both a wife and her husband, “people of such presence,” in a matter of a few days.

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Blacks make up only 14% of Michigan’s population yet they account for 40% of its coronavirus fatalities, according to public health officials there.

A third of COVID-19 deaths nationwide are African Americans, who represent just 13% of the U.S. population, according to initial data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By comparison, non-Hispanic whites make up 60% of the population and 44% of COVID-19 deaths.

Public health experts and African American political leaders blame poverty, lack of access to testing, discrimination in the healthcare system and underlying conditions such diabetes, asthma and heart disease for blacks dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than other racial groups.

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In Detroit, the virus has killed African Americans regardless of income or health.

Late March and April were especially brutal for this city of 672,660 that’s 80% African American. Detroit became a hot spot as virus-related deaths skyrocketed in Michigan. With social distancing guidelines in effect, Music says, she and other black residents increasingly turned to Facebook for news about the outbreak and to commemorate the dead.

Music sighs over the phone as she explains that the virus has cut down people she knows who are scraping to get by, and also, with equal force, some of the city’s most established and well-known African Americans.

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Born and raised in Detroit, Music is a fixture in the city’s black community in her own right. In the 1970s, she became the first black woman to represent unionized workers at the city’s Wonder Bread factory and other bakeries.

Her father, Joe Von Battle, once owned Joe’s Record Shop and music studio, where he sold blues albums to blacks who’d migrated from the South and where he produced 14-year-old Aretha Franklin’s first gospel record.

Music used Facebook to pay homage to another well-known figure from the old days, Willie Wilkerson, who died of COVID-19 on April 8 at the age of 72.

Wilkerson was Franklin’s former love and lifetime friend; Music wanted her followers to know he was also a public servant.

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“I remember when he was a firefighter, he’d be hanging out with his firefighter brethren in front of the fire station on Larned, now the Foundation hotel,” she wrote of Wilkerson. “May he RIP, and see Aretha.”


Among members of the current generation of community leaders and beloved figures in Detroit who’ve died from COVID-19, one name in particular stands out for Music — 43-year-old activist, historical preservationist and business consultant Marlowe Stoudamire.

Marsha Music's Facebook tribute to Willie Wilkerson
Willie Wilkerson, a longtime friend of the late iconic singer Aretha Franklin, is the focus of one of many Facebook tributes Marsha Music has written to honor COVID-19 victims.
(Marsha Music)

Music met Stoudamire three years ago when he spearheaded a citywide oral history project examining the racism and housing segregation that fueled anger among blacks in 1967, leading to a wave of civil unrest.

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Music says she was blown away by Stoudamire’s passion for Detroit, and for giving his fellow black residents a fuller understanding of their importance in African American history.

“He just was a bad young brother,” Music says, her voice full of both frustration and sadness. Stoudamire died March 24.

“Here in Detroit,” she says, “one gets a chance — in real life, with real people — to see the disproportionate morbidity. I don’t think our culture has really been able to process what’s happened.”

Music knows her tributes on Facebook won’t make the pain go way — hers or that of her traumatized city.

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“But I began to feel like this is my job, to talk about the people it was taking,” she says of the outbreak. “This is my debt, as one of those who’ve been spared.”

Music memorialized three sisters who died of the virus within days of one another between late March and early April.

‘For us, death is not new, but death at this magnitude is something that we’ve not seen before.’

Pastor QuanTez Pressley

Ruth S. Webb, who worked for 40 years at the Army’s Tank and Automotive Command, died March 28 at the age of 89. Her 94-year-old sister, Janie Giger, a retired beautician, died three days later after testing positive for COVID-19. Their younger sister, Geraldine Slaughter, a retired member of the housekeeping staff at a local hospital, died April 11. She was 86.

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Music recalls frequently visiting Giger’s house to have her hair styled when she was a child. “She was small in stature, but a powerful little woman of God,” Music wrote.

She has been friends with the women’s daughters since childhood. Their relatives have been friends as far back as the 1920s, when the two families attended the same church. They treated each other like kin.

In Madera, friends and family paid their respects by car to a woman who died from coronavirus. She was apparently infected after attending a March 10 funeral.

“These three women were of great character and faith, who lived long lives of family, church, and service,” she wrote.

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Dawn E. Webb, Ruth’s daughter, says the memorial service was short and simple, attended by just 10 relatives wearing masks and gloves, far different from the bigger ceremony with more mourners she would’ve planned for her mother.

In Detroit, where there’s a rich tradition among African Americans of saying goodbye to the dead, the truncated memorials feel like an added insult to an already beleaguered race, says QuanTez Pressley, lead pastor at Third New Hope Baptist Church, which has lost two members of the congregation to the virus in recent weeks.

“For us, death is not new, but death at this magnitude is something that we’ve not seen before,” says Pressley, 33. “Grief is not new to us either, but not being able to say goodbye is also something we’ve not seen before.”

As Music reads COVID-19 memorials written by residents in Detroit and in other cities in her state with large black populations such as Flint, she says she’s struck by the collective sense of helplessness among loved ones in mourning.

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“Not being able to funeralize the dead — that’s the real horror,” she says.

Dawn E. Webb, left, lost her mother Ruth S. Webb to COVID-19 in late March, as well as two aunts. She is among many African Americans in the Detroit area who are grieving as the coronavirus ravages that city.
(Dawn E. Webb)

Kiemba Knowlin, pastor of Jackson Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ in Flint, about 75 miles north of Detroit, sounded dejected when he talked about his devastated flock. Five men at his 75-member church had died of COVID-`19.

At burials, mourners could look on only from their cars with the windows rolled up as caskets are lowered into the ground, he says.

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“As people of faith, God’s love comes in the form of our presence — our hugs, our consoling words, a look in the eye, the grab of the hand,” says Knowlin, 46.

“Now we have to pray that God be there — because we can’t be.”

Music fears many more aspects of African American life will be missing after Michigan’s stay-at-home order expires at the end of May.

“The loss of collective memories, skill, intelligence, talent, leadership, and wisdom we are experiencing in Detroit will reverberate through generations,” she wrote.

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On Easter Sunday, usually a time to attend early church services in fancy new suits and hats and enjoy all-welcoming feasts, Music stayed in her apartment.

With the city shut down, it was a day for pondering the tragedy unfolding in Detroit and how it has changed her.

“It is hard to speak of resurrection, while I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Music wrote on Facebook that morning.

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“On this day of Jesus’ leaving from the tomb, I ponder what has been resurrected in me: An appreciation of home, and home cooked meals, and order. An acceptance of solitude and stillness. Conversations with my sons, phone calls with family and friends. Gratitude for my job and material comforts. Beating back the terror that besets me, getting my affairs in order, for what could come. Hope that I will be spared, jubilation for survivors.”

Even now, as the curve in new COVID-19 cases appears to be flattening in Detroit, Music’s mind drifts back and forth between cautious optimism and worry.

She says she’s started sewing as yet another way to take her mind off her fears. Her plan is to use the time at home to complete a dress, a new piece of clothing to enjoy as Detroit recovers, should she survive the outbreak.

“I only hope I get to wear it someday,” she says.

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As she got ready for bed one night at the end of April, it dawned on Music that for the first time in a very long while, she’d gone nearly an entire day without news of a single death or having to write “R.I.P.” for another life taken.

“I thought maybe we’d turned a corner,” Music says.

Then just before midnight, her Facebook feed delivered more bad news.

The virus had killed three more people she knew.


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