‘She was the entire right side of my body’: Detroit honors COVID-19 victims

Tiona Barksdale-Matthews mourns her older sister, Laneeka, while visiting the Detroit Memorial to Honor Victims of COVID-19 on Belle Isle. | Ken Coleman

Omari Barksdale described Monday’s city of Detroit tribute to COVID-19 victims as “honorable” and “overwhelming.”

”It allows people to see the faces instead of just hearing the numbers. It is a beautiful display of unity amongst people who are now ancestors,” Barksdale said about Detroit Memorial to Honor Victims of COVID-19 in an interview with the Advance on Sunday.

Laneeka Barksdale with mother, Stephanie, grandmother, Maxine, and two of her four children Cassidy and Terrence | Barksdale family photo

He lost his “big sister” and “protector” Laneeka Barksdale, a 47-year-old mother of four, to coronavirus earlier this year. They attended several Detroit schools together, including Courtis J.R. King, Longfellow, Beaubien and Cody High School. 

“She was the entire right side of my body,” Barksdale said. 

City government created a visual tribute to 1,500 coronavirus victims, led by Rochelle Riley, the former Detroit Free Press columnist who’s now Detroit director of arts and culture. It featured poster-sized photos, including state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) and former Sen. Morris Hood III (D-Detroit), who also served in the Michigan House. 

The celebration of life featured 15 funeral processions traveling on a dedicated route on Belle Isle, the city-owned 982-acre island park. The effort, according to city officials, is the nation’s first citywide memorial to honor coronavirus pandemic victims. 

“Members of this community are grieving, it is important and necessary to provide an opportunity for families to celebrate those lost to this terrible disease and begin to heal,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “We are taking this time to reflect on what has been a very hard time for so many Detroiters and commemorate the lives of our neighbors who are no longer with us.”

COVID-19 has claimed 6,473 Michigan lives to date. Detroit, the state’s largest city, has been rocked by the pandemic. Blacks compose 14% of the state’s population; yet they account for about 33% of COVID-19 total cases and 40% of COVID-19 related deaths. Detroit is 80% African American. 

Nearly six months after the first case was reported in Michigan on March 10, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pointed out that COVID-19 remains a significant public health concern. During her formal remarks, she called on state residents to take the virus seriously. She lifted up in memory 5-year-old Skylar Herbert, the state’s youngest coronavirus victim, as well as former lawmakers Robinson and Hood III. 

“We owe it to all of them to build a safer and stronger and smarter Michigan,” Whitmer said.    

Detroit native Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist noted he has lost 23 people, including 20 Detroit residents, in his life to COVID-19.

“We are here to honor the memory, mourn the loss, and grieve in the name of the 6,000 lives who have passed in our state due to COVID-19,” Gilchrist said.

Over several decades, the island park has been the site of family reunions, picnics, fireworks watches and sporting events. Barksdale believes that Belle Isle is a fitting site for the tribute. 

Detroit Memorial to Honor Victims of COVID-19 program cover

“Many of their lives are connected to Belle Isle in that way,” Barksdale said. “A lot of their lives were spent on Belle Isle. It is part of our spirit.”  

Laneeka’s parents, Stephanie Barksdale and Dale Frederick, would be proud of her, Barksdale said. He and members of his family viewed a portion of the visual tribute on Belle Isle on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. 

Tiona Barksdale-Matthews, Omari’s and Laneeka’s younger sister, visited Belle Isle on Sunday and Monday. She described Laneeka as her “first friend” and someone who she also looked up to. Laneeka taught Tiona how to ballroom dance and they never missed a concert for New Edition, the 1980s and ‘90s popular R&B vocal act. 

“It’s a beautiful gesture that Detroit took a moment to honor those and show appreciation,” said Barksdale-Matthews. “I’m glad that they were able to do something like this.” 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.