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In Memoriam: Former Supreme Mary Wilson Leaves Legacy of Black Pride and Resilience

Gordy expressed his sadness over Wilson’s death. “The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown,’” Gordy said. “Wilson, along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, came to Motown in the early 1960s. After an unprecedented string of No. 1 hits, television and nightclub bookings, they opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others.”

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Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson, a co-founder of the best-selling girl group the Supremes, died in her sleep early Tuesday at her home in Las Vegas, Nev. She was 76.

A singer, best-selling author, motivational speaker, businesswoman, former U.S. Cultural Ambassador, mother, and grandmother, the legendary Wilson made great strides on her inevitable journey to greatness.

As an original/founding member of The Supremes, she changed the face of popular music to become a trendsetter who broke down social, racial, and gender barriers, which all started with the wild success of their first No. 1 song in 1963.

With her childhood friend Florence Ballard and lead singer Diana Ross, the Supremes achieved an unprecedented 12 No.1 hits in the mid-1960s and became international superstars by 1964 on the Motown record label, started just a few years before by Berry Gordy.

Gordy expressed his sadness over Wilson’s death. “The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown,’” Gordy said. “Wilson, along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, came to Motown in the early 1960s. After an unprecedented string of No. 1 hits, television and nightclub bookings, they opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others.”

Born in Greenville, Miss., on March 6, 1944, Wilson moved North with her family ending up in Detroit, Wis., where Berry Gordy’s Motown record label was just warming up.

She was a school friend of Ballard, who invited her to audition for the Primettes, a sister group to a boys’ trio called the Primes.

Wilson was accepted and she and Ballard would be joined by Diana Ross and Betty McGlown. By 1962, they were a trio and their first hit – “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” — came the following year.

“Where Did Our Love Go?” became their first song to reach No. 1 on the pop charts and a string of hits followed making them international superstars by 1964.

With the Supremes, Wilson achieved an unprecedented 12 No.1 hits, with five of them consecutive from 1964-65. Those songs are “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back in My Arms Again,” according to Billboard Magazine.

But all was not well. In 1967, Gordy decided to change their name to Diana Ross and the Supremes and Ballard decided to leave the group. Many years later, Wilson would express her disappointment and stick up for her friend, lobbying for a U.S. postage stamp with Ballard’s image.

“People forget that Florence Ballard not only gave us our name, but she formed the group,” Wilson revealed on “Fiyah!” a program sponsored by the Black Press of America.

“It was really Flo who formed us, and I want people to know that. I am putting together a program to get Florence Ballard a U.S. stamp, hopefully, so I want people to send their request and say something about Florence” Wilson said of her friend who died of a heart attack in 1976.     “All those hits were Florence, so when you are  listening to [The Supremes], it’s about Flo, so I want people who listen to those songs that bring back memories, think about Flo.”

Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong and the group continued to perform until 1970 when Ross would leave the group for a solo career in 1970. The group continued to have hits like “Stoned Love” in 1970.

By the mid-1970s, Wilson was doing half of the Supremes’ lead vocals but she left the group in 1977.

Nearly a decade later, Wilson found success in writing her memoirs: “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” in 1986 and “Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together” in 1990.

She became a frequent guest on TV talk shows and performed regularly in Las Vegas casinos and resorts.

Colin Powell named her a cross-cultural ambassador in 2002 and she appeared at events sponsored by the State Dept.

Wilson released CDs in 2006 and 2010, while also becoming a musical activist, going to court to prevent impostors from performing under the names of groups from the 1950s and ‘60s, including the Motown group the Marvelettes as well as the Supremes. The law was passed in 27 states.

She lectured all over the world giving advice on reaching goals and triumphing over adversity and became known for her charity work with the American Cancers Society, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the NAACP among others, including the Figure Skaters of Harlem, which encourages youth gain entry to the Olympics.

In 2019, Wilson appeared in a “Dancing With the Stars” segment and published “Supreme Glamour,” an appreciation of the fashion the Supremes wore on stage. A collection of the gowns has been on exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, since 2008.

With the Supremes, Wilson was inducted into the National Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame in 2013 and received a lifetime Achievement Award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association in 2020.

Wilson married Pedro Ferrer in 1974 and the couple had three children: Turkessa, Pedro Antonio and Rafael. She and Ferrer divorced in 1981. In 1994, Rafael was killed in a car accident.

“Ms. Wilson used her fame and flair to promote a diversity of humanitarian efforts, including ending hunger, raising HIV/AIDS awareness, and encouraging world peace. Mary was working on getting a U.S. postage stamp of her fellow bandmate and original Supreme Florence Ballard who passed away in 1976,” longtime publicist and friend Jay Schwartz said.

She was working on new projects for 2021, including an album she recently teased on her YouTube channel. Her primary love was preserving the legacy of the Supremes and introducing her music to new generations.

“I think that The Supremes had a lot to do with the awakening of the world in terms of what blackness was,” Wilson said in her 2020 NNPA interview. “The whole world was watching Black people in a way they’d never seen.”

Wikipedia, Stacy Brown/NNPA contributed to this report.

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Art

MC Arts Gallery Opens During the Marin Open Studio

The Gallery and its website display the art of a number of Black artists which includes: TheArthur Wright, Lumumba Edwards, and Maalak Atkins. Zwanda and Mitchell Howard also display their art at the Gallery. 

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From top: Oshalla Marcus (director/curator, MC Arts & Culture) with Osiezhe’s drawings to the right of the photo, Zwanda, Mitchell Howard , ISOJI’s Art Is Health Band: Carlton Carey (drums), Mwanza Furaha, (vocals), Jack Prendergast (bass), Ricardo Moncrief (keyboard), James Moseley (guitar, vocal). Photos by Godfrey Lee.

The MC Arts Gallery, located on 100 Donahue St. in the Gateway Shopping Center in Marin City, is open during the Marin Open Studios, which took place on Saturday and Sunday, May 1 & 2. 

The Gallery and its website display the art of a number of Black artists which includes: The Arthur Wright, Lumumba Edwards, and Maalak Atkins. Zwanda and Mitchell Howard also display their art at the Gallery. 

Zwanda seeks to be creative as she expands her ideas as a sculptress and painter. She is inspired by the human figure and dancers and is fascinated with music and the instruments themselves. Her art is a way to express this love and to share it with others.

Mitchell Howard studied art at San Francisco State University and the Computer Arts Institute of San Francisco. He was an art director at Cummingham & Walsh in San Francisco and has displayed his paintings at the Hannah Gallery, worked on the Rocky Graham Park Mural and has taught art at the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy Elementary School.

“Art can bring people together and illustrate things that people can relate to,” Howard says. “Art can also be powerful in sending social messages to society. Art makes you think, it expands your horizons and makes you use your imagination. People may see different things in the same painting.”

Osiezhe, Shakira Gregory’s son, will be displaying his drawings at the Gallery.

The ISOJI’s Art Is Health Band played last Saturday afternoon with Mwanza Furaha as their guest vocalist.

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Art

City Council Approves $480,000 in Arts Grants

The city made the announcement Tuesday about the grants, which will support 772 distinct arts events and activities that will expose more than 110,000 participants to cultural programming.

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The Oakland City Council approved $480,000 in grants to 17 Oakland-based non-profit organizations and 20 individual artists through the city’s Cultural Funding Program, Neighborhood Voices.

The city made the announcement Tuesday about the grants, which will support 772 distinct arts events and activities that will expose more than 110,000 participants to cultural programming.

The grant program seeks to bring Oaklanders together to create and support a sense of belonging within a community, to foster social connections that lift people’s spirits, to encourage community well-being and offer visions for a collective future, according to the announcement.

The following individual artists each won $7,000 Neighborhood Voices awards:

Frederick Alvarado; Karla Brundage; Cristina Carpio; Darren Lee Colston; Maria De La Rosa; Elizabeth D. Foggie; Rachel-Anne Palacios; Laurie Polster; Hasain Rasheed; Kweku Kumi Rauf; Carmen Roman; Michael Roosevelt; Fernando Santos; Teofanny Octavia Saragi; Kimberly Sims-Battiste; Cleavon Smith; Lena Sok; Babette Thomas; Ja Ronn Thompson; Joseph Warner.

Each of the following organizations received $20,000 Neighborhood Voices awards:

Asian Health Services for Banteay Srei;

Beats Rhymes and Life;

Chapter 510 INK;

Dancers Group for dNaga GIRL Project;

Dancers Group for Dohee Lee Puri Arts;

Dancers Group for Grown Women Dance Collective;

East Oakland Youth Development Center;

Higher Gliffs for Endangered Ideas;

Hip Hop for Change;

Junior Center of Art and Science;

Mycelium Youth Network;

Oakland Education Fund for Youth Beat;

Oakland Theater Project, Inc.;

Sarah Webster Fabio Center for Social Justice;

The Intersection for Alphabet Rockers;

Women’s Audio Mission;

Youth Radio/YR Media.

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Art

Student Work – Nayzeth Vargas

There is freedom with the Zentangle; there is no expected visual outcome and students are less prone to creative blocks and self-criticism. 

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This piece was created by Nayzeth Vargas, a senior at Oakland Technical High School. The Zentangle Method is a therapeutic technique which uses combinations of contrasting patterns and values to create an image. Students were introduced to the Zentangle Method to offset the mental stress they were experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social isolation.  

There is freedom with the Zentangle; there is no expected visual outcome and students are less prone to creative blocks and self-criticism. 

Nayzeth is enrolled in the West Oakland Legacy and Leadership Project, an integrated arts program that supports youth in developing thoughtful, educated voices for their communities. Though art, youth practice mindfulness and boundless creativity. Enrollment for the West Oakland Legacy and Leadership Project is open to youth ages 13-18 through AHC, for more information visit ahc-oakland.org/legacy.

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