I had been in a meeting with a colleague and the dean of the College of Education and Human Development on the Minneapolis campus. In this meeting, we were developing strategy for a partnership between historically Black colleges and universities in an effort to increase Black candidates for the public school teacher applications. I left the conference room at the end of the meeting and returned to my office. When I checked my phone messages, there was one from General Colin Powell. I couldn’t imagine why General Powell would be calling me at this time of day. I returned his call right away, only to hear the most devastating news anyone could ever imagine receiving: he had called to tell me that a plane carrying Patrice and Congressman Mickey Leland had gone missing. As chief of staff to Congressman Leland, who was chair of the House Subcommittee on Hunger, Patrice was traveling with him and a delegation of fifteen on a government mission to bring relief to Sudanese refugees in the Fugnido refugee camp, which was located in a remote area in Ethiopia.
The rest of the day, and in fact the next period of my life, was confusing and sad. Chuck, Norrene, Josie, and I tried to keep up hope and relied heavily on our spiritual faith. We were blessed with the support and prayers of our family, friends, and all who knew Patrice.
During the search period, because Congressman Leland’s trip to Africa was a government initiative mission, General Colin Powell became our family contact during the long search. The plane had vanished while attempting to fly through heavy rain, wind, and thunderstorms to its destination of Addis Ababa. He called every night to update Chuck and me; we had late-night conversations with him. We felt General Powell became personally involved in the search for the small plane.
My life became an unbelievable experience during those horrible seven days of waiting. As much as I tried to maintain a sense of normalcy, I could not. I tried to work but couldn’t focus. I began to feel that I had died; it was as though I couldn’t find myself. I started putting my personal things in neat stacks and keeping them in places where they could be easily found if I died. I saw Patrice in everything I did. I saw her as a young girl playing on the swings in her elementary schoolyard at the University of Minnesota, as a teenager, a college student, and as a grown woman. And I dreamed of her every night. In my dreams, she talked with me and tried to tell me not to worry. In one vivid dream, I saw her dressed in white, as though she were an angel, and she said, “Mom, I am okay. Don’t worry.” That experience will stay in my memory forever.
Chuck had returned to Minneapolis several years before this tragic event and was living in a condominium on Dean Boulevard, near Lake Calhoun (now Bde Maka Ska). We were at his home when General Powell called seven days after the plane was reported missing to tell us that the wreckage had been found. He gave us the official Pentagon report: “The plane had hit a mountain that was forty-three hundred feet above sea level, having missed clearing the peak by about three hundred feet. There were no survivors.” They were only seventy-five miles from their destination. My precious child was gone, and all they were able to retrieve of her remains was her Seiko watch. I still have it, and I wear it every day.
I immediately left Chuck’s home and went back to my place to call and talk with Josie and Norrene. Josie had received a call from an official person and already had the news when I called her. Over the next days and weeks, we received many lovely cards and messages from officials, both American and Ethiopian. That was meaningful to us.
Chuck and I were so proud when Patrice Yvonne was born. We were living in Cambridge, in student housing as Chuck was working on his graduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We had the good fortune of giving birth to Patrice on June 2, 1954, in a hospital in Worcester. How could we possibly know that we would lose her two months after her thirty-fifth birthday, causing us the most profound grief a family could ever endure?
We knew early that Patrice had much promise and that she would eventually continue our family legacy of a dedication to service to the Black community. Over her short life, she proved our perception to be true. This was evident when she was a small child, by the way she helped with her two younger sisters and in the care she showed her friends throughout elementary, middle, and high school. At a very young age, she became the friend to go to for advice and counsel. After her death, I found many notes from her friends in a small trunk, thanking her for listening and for helping them solve a problem. She loved theater and dance, and during the summer months she volunteered for park and recreation activities in our Bloomington community.
Though we lived in Bloomington when she entered Abraham Lincoln High School, she and her sisters joined me during my community engagement activities and were able to know the places and people I worked with. The girls knew staff and volunteers at The Way and Wheatley House in North Minneapolis. Chuck and I included our girls in our interest and community efforts.
I will never forget the day Patrice came home from school upset. “Mother, you won’t believe this!” she exclaimed. She told me that her school was gearing up for a big game, probably football. I don’t remember what school they were going to play, but in her school’s entryway there was a poster of an Indian head along with the words “Massacre the Mohawks.” Patrice wanted to make the school aware of this racism and to request that the poster be taken down, and she asked me to accompany her. I was proud of her desire to create change and went back to the school with her to support her. She eloquently presented her argument to the principal, teachers, coaches, and others in the principal’s office. Her effort didn’t have an effect at that time: the poster stayed up and the game went on. Many years later, racism in the athletic world depicting negative images of Native Americans became a national issue. Public schools, college programs, and professional organizations have indeed become more sensitive. Looking back, I can see very clearly that she showed great awareness and sensitivity before it became a broader issue. She became class president in her junior year at Abraham Lincoln.
Like her father and me, Patrice went to Fisk, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1976, with a double major in political science and public administration. She was junior class president and a member of Who’s Who in American Schools and Colleges. She achieved membership in the Gold Key and Phi Beta Kappa national honor societies and was elected president of the Fisk student body. For her college internship in 1974–75, she worked for Representative Alvin King of the General Assembly of Tennessee.
Upon graduation from Fisk, and with a recommendation from John Hope Franklin, Patrice was accepted to a joint degree program at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton University. There she studied urban and domestic policies. She was a Root-Tilde Scholar and received her law degree from New York University and a master’s degree in public administration at Princeton in 1980. During that graduate study period, she served as an intern for Vice President Mondale.
After graduating from law school, Patrice moved to Houston and began her life of public service as a law clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Gabrielle K. McDonald, the first Black person to be appointed by President Carter to U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. When she completed her clerkship, she joined the law firm of Mayor, Day, and Caldwell. There, she continued our family’s legacy of dedication to public interest and civil rights. Patrice participated in the National Urban League’s first Class of Trustees Under Age Thirty and was once arrested along with others during a civil rights protest. On a pro bono basis, she coordinated the culmination of the Delores Ross v. Houston Independent School District, a case that had its start with Brown v. Board of Education, the year Patrice was born. She settled it twenty-eight years later, drafting a settlement agreement that mandated the Houston Independent School District to be racially desegregated. Until this day, the agreement continues to be the monitoring document for that district’s compliance.
Congressman Leland was a family friend, and Patrice often helped out in his Houston office. She joined his staff, and in 1987, he promoted her to join him in Washington, D.C., to become his legislative director. In this position, she concentrated on issues addressing the telecommunications arena. She was a tenacious negotiator. For the congressman she drafted legislation dealing with increased opportunities for Black people in media ownership and employment. In January 1989, Patrice was promoted to chief of staff of Congressman Leland’s Washington and Houston offices. She worked closely with his initiatives on the energy, health, and communications committees on which he served and on the Committee on Hunger, which he created and chaired. It was the pursuit of the goals of this select committee, to help eradicate the insidious problem of world hunger, that took Patrice to Ethiopia on August 7, 1989, where she surrendered her life, striving as always to serve. Her tombstone reads, “And she served.”
We held her funeral service at Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Zion’s pastors, Reverend Curtis Herron and Reverend William (Bill) Smith, officiated and spoke at the funeral. She is buried at Lakewood Cemetery near the condominium where her beloved father lived. Multiple services were held in Minneapolis and Houston to honor Patrice and Congressman Mickey Leland. Among those who came to pay their respects were Congressman Leland’s pregnant widow, Alison, and his mother, Alice Rains; his press secretary, Alma Newsom; and most of his staff. Also attending were Kathy Whitmire, the first woman mayor of Houston along with several members of Houston’s city council; Atlanta mayor Andrew Young; U.S. Representatives Gary Ackerman (D–New York), Al Wheat (D–Missouri), Ron Dellums (D–California and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus), and Harold Ford (D–Tennessee). Dellums’s aide Joyce Francine Williams, an expert on child health and nutrition issues, was among those killed in the crash.
We will always miss our dear Patrice. Her sisters will always speak fondly of her. When talking about her to the African American Registry, Josie said, “She was an inspirational role model who led the way with humor and insight well beyond her years.”