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In Detroit, Grief Runs Deep as City Grapples with COVID-19 

Jamon Jordan sits outside of his home in Detroit, April 24, 2020. Jordan could not mourn his mother, Jacquelynne Jordan, in the traditional way.
Jamon Jordan sits outside of his home in Detroit, April 24, 2020. Jordan could not mourn his mother, Jacquelynne Jordan, in the traditional way.

Jamon Jordan could not mourn his mother in the traditional way. At Jacquelynne Jordan’s memorial in early April, there were just seven people. No hugs. No traditional dinner where family members could gather to honor the 66-year-old matriarch’s memory.

That stripped-down scenario has played out hundreds of times in Detroit — 912 to be exact, the number of city residents who have died of COVID-19.

So amid the pandemic, Detroit — the nation’s largest black city, the birthplace of distinctive soulful music and black cultural significance — grieves collectively.

Famed across the world as Motown, Detroiters know it as a big city with a small-town feel, with a connectivity that has only magnified the community’s pain.

“People always say that Detroit is like a northern country town,” said Marsha Battle Philpot, a cultural writer known as Marsha Music. “There tends to be very closely knit familial connections. In Detroit, there’s not six degrees of separation — there are only two and, most of the time, just one. Detroit has this character, which in a time like this, exacerbates the grief and the loss. But it will also be part of the recovery because Detroit is a fighting town.”

The virus has disproportionately impacted black Americans across the country, including Detroit, where more than 8,500 infections have been reported, with black people accounting for more than 64% of them. And nearly 77% of the city's residents who have died from coronavirus-related complications have been African American. The losses have shattered the city, compounded by a heightened economic uncertainty.

Among those lost: community pillars, dedicated public servants and Michigan’s youngest victim, 5-year-old Skylar Herbert, whose parents, LaVondria and Ebbie Herbert, have served Detroit for decades — as a police officer and a firefighter.

“They’ve been on the front line and they’ve served with honor and integrity,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said after Skylar’s death. “They did not deserve to lose their child to this virus. Nobody does.”’

Jamon Jordan, who runs the Black Scroll Network History and Tours company in Detroit, contracted COVID-19 himself, most likely while giving tours in early March.

While he was battling the virus, his mother also fell ill. Despite his mother having existing health conditions, he said they both struggled to convince doctors they needed to be tested and were told not to come to the hospital and instead self-quarantine for two weeks.

Jordan got better; his mother grew sicker. She died March 28.

“She did not make it to two weeks,” Jordan said. “She was brought in by ambulance and, within an hour of arriving to the hospital, she had already passed away. I made it, but she didn’t.”

And then her family could safely offer only an abbreviated farewell.

“In the African American community, homegoing celebrations, funerals, are just a part of a very spiritual experience that allows family and the community to move this ancestor onto the afterlife,” said Jordan, a black historian. “It’s a part of a communal practice that goes all the way back to our African roots.

“It’s a blow to this culture, our practices, our traditions, that we can’t really say goodbye,” he said. “When this is over, there are things that will not exist in our community, there are ideas that we will never see come to fruition. Detroit will be different.”

Tributes cascade in every day on a Facebook COVID-19 group memorial page created by Michigan State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo. Just weeks after she started it, Gay-Dagnogo’s own sister became one of hundreds honored on the page.

Julena Gay was Gay-Dagnogo’s backbone, everything a sister should be. She died April 14 at the age of 63.

“This type of collective loss, it’s profound,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “There’s a fear of ‘am I next?’ I started this page because people need to get beyond the thought that black people aren't dying — they're dying in record numbers.”

Beyond the grief lies deep economic pain.

Despite gains in recent years, including the city emerging from bankruptcy, swaths of neighborhoods remain blighted and 33% of Detroit residents live below the poverty line. And city leaders announced this month that the pandemic has created a projected $348 million budget deficit.

A poll shared exclusively with The Associated Press, conducted in early April by the University of Michigan’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study, found 35% of Detroiters employed full time or part time before March 1 have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. The study surveyed 1,020 residents across demographics.

Jeffrey Morenoff, one of the study’s faculty research leads and director of the university’s Population Studies Center, said roughly 1 in 5 Detroiters say they will run out of money in three months. And research associate Lydia Wileden said the survey also found 49% of black residents are concerned about access to food, water and other supplies and 42% said they wouldn’t be able to afford a $400 emergency expense.

For now, the focus is on how to help the city survive the widening ripples of devastating loss.

“There’s going to be an aftermath of this, not only physically, socially, spiritually but also, mentally,” said Bishop Edgar Vann, who has been senior pastor of Detroit’s Second Ebenezer Church for 45 years.

“It’s going to be difficult whenever you reopen because the norms that we had will be old and shattered. But there is a uniqueness about the city and, of course, one of them is the population being 80% African American. There is a certain spirit here, there’s a grit, toughness and resilience.”