Our love wasn’t enough to save them: Black women celebrities taken by breast cancer

By Amber Hudson
NABJ Black News & Views

They’ve broken race and gender barriers on stage and screen, but none of their fame, glamour or amassed wealth could protect these admired Black celebrities from breast cancer, one of the great equalizers.

Diahann Carroll

July 17, 1935 – Oct. 4, 2019

The Bronx-born member of Hollywood royalty known for her television portrayals of Julia, a nurse and mom who was the center of the first weekly series to portray a Black woman positively, and the saucy Dominique Deveraux on primetime soap opera Dynasty was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. Radiation therapy successfully beat back the disease, but years later it resurfaced. Carroll, also noted for her nine-year affair with late actor Sidney Poitier, lost her battle Oct. 4, 2019, in Los Angeles. She was 84.

Alaina Reed Hall

Nov. 10, 1946 – Dec. 17, 2009

Springfield, Ohio, native Alaina Reed Hall became a lovable fixture in American living rooms when she played Olivia Robinson on public television’s Sesame Street and later chatty neighbor Rose Lee Holloway on the NBC sitcom 227, sharing the screen with a young Regina King. Hall died of breast cancer in a Santa Monica, Calif., emergency room in 2009. She was 63.

Syreeta Wright

Aug. 3, 1946 – July 6, 2004

Singer and songwriter Syreeta Wright, known professionally as Syreeta, created timeless classics like the Spinners’ “It’s a Shame,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” and “If You Really Loved Me” with husband-turned-ex-husband Stevie Wonder. Her vocal duet with Billy Preston made “With You I’m Born Again” an international hit. Wright was born in Pittsburgh but later moved to Detroit, where she was a secretary and later backup singer at Motown headquarters.  She died at home in Los Angeles in 2004 from congestive heart failure,  a complication from chemotherapy and radiation treatments she was receiving for breast cancer. She was 57.

Nina Simone

Feb. 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003

Former child prodigy Nina Simone was born in Tryon, N.C., as Eunice Kathleen Waymon and spent her singing career using music to express her thoughts promoting civil rights and refusing to be boxed in as a particular character. She wrote and sang “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the 1963 assassination of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers by a white supremacist, and the bombing the same year of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by the Ku Klux Klan, killing four little girls. After battling breast cancer for years, Simone died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, on  April 21, 2003. She was 70.

Minnie Riperton

Nov. 8, 1947 – July 12, 1979

Chicago native Minnie Riperton, a singer and songwriter whose unique voice evoked images of nature, was best known for her 1975 single “Lovin’ You” and a massive vocal range that spanned four octaves. Riperton’s daughter, actor and comedian Maya Rudolph, is the “Maya” whose name Riperton repeats in “Lovin’ You.”  By the time Riperton’s breast cancer was diagnosed in 1976, prompting her to undergo a radical mastectomy, it was stage four and she was given six months to live. Riperton was one of the first celebrities to go public with a breast cancer diagnosis and she became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society. In 1978, the year before her death, President Jimmy Carter presented her with the American Cancer Society’s Courage Award. She died July 12, 1979, at 31.

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