Caribbean community remembers life of Charles Durham

Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke (lRight) and Durham’s best friend, Reggie Kelly.
Photo by Nelson A. King

The Caribbean community in New York on Sunday paid glowing tributes to Charles B. Durham, Jr., the long-time partner of Brooklyn Democratic Congresswoman, Yvette D. Clarke, who died unexpectedly in Brooklyn after shoveling snow on Jan. 29. He was 62.

In an emotional, two and one-half hour-long funeral service – at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church on Hawthorne Street in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where Clarke and her mother, Jamaican-born, former New York City Council Member, Una S.T. Clarke worship – mourners showed their last respects to Durham in songs, hymns, speeches, prayers, scriptures and drumming, among others, remembering him mostly as a loving and faithful “servant of the community.”

The service was presided over by the church’s priest, Jamaican-born the Rev. Fr. Donovan I. Leys, and assisted by the Rt. Rev. Daniel Allotey, Bishop in Residence, and the Rev. Canon Edmund Alleyne, Cathedral of the Incarnation.

Mourners at the packed church, despite the snowy weather, included other members of the clergy in New York, politicians and community activists.

Among the legislators were US Senate Majority Leader, Charles “Chuck” Schumer; Congressman Hakeem Jeffries; New York Attorney General, Letitia James; Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair, Haitian American New York State Assembly Member, Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn; New York State Assembly Member, Latrice Walker; New York City Council Member, Haitian-born Mercedes Narcisse; and former New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio and the former First Lady Chirlane McCray, who traces her roots to Barbados and St. Lucia.

Walker, who represents the 55th Assembly District in Brooklyn, read Letters of Condolence from, among others, James; Bichotte Hermelyn; President Joe Biden; Vice President, Caribbean American Kamala Harris; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Congressional Representatives Sheila Jackson-Lee and Dr. Alana S. Adams; New York Gov. Kathy Hochul; New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli; New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and New York City Council Member, Haitian American Farah N. Louis.

Charles B. Durham dead at 62. Jeanette Lenoir

“Jill and I offer our heartfelt condolences on the passing of your beloved partner, Charles,” said President Biden in his letter to Congresswoman Clarke, who represents the 9th Congressional District in Brooklyn. “We are keeping you and your family in our prayers. I know that this time must be difficult beyond words, and you feel like there is a hole in your heart.

“Though the grieving process never quite ends, from experience, I promise you the day will come when the memory of Charles will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye,” he added. “My prayer for you and your family is that this day comes sooner rather than later.”

Harris said she was “saddened to hear the news” of Charles’s sudden passing.

“I am so grateful to have had the chance to meet him and to spend time with him this past fall,” she said. “May the joy and love that you shared through the past 30 years carry you through this difficult time. I will be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers.”

Pelosi said in her letter to Clarke that it was her “solemn honor “to join her in paying tribute to Durham.

“Please accept my deepest condolences for your unimaginable loss,” she said. “Charles was a remarkable man, whose legendary smile and sense of humor never failed to spark joy in all those fortunate enough to know him.

“Whether leading in the community or joining Yvette on the campaign trail, performing on stage or lending a hand to his neighbors, he was revered in his beloved adopted home of Brooklyn,” Pelosi added. “All were in awe of his deep love for his family, especially his nieces and nephews. Personally, it was a great privilege to be with Charles, as he brought warmth and positivity to every conversation.”

Adams, who represents the 12th District of North Carolina, said: “Congresswoman Clarke, a ‘forever love’ is to be cherished, as is the love you shared with your college sweetheart, ‘Mr. Charles.’

“I pray that love, strength and cherished memories of Mr. Durham will bring comfort during this most difficult time,” the congresswoman added. “While you celebrate his life, cherish the memories you shared and take comfort in knowing he left a lasting impression on the lives he touched.”

In very terse remarks, de Blasio told mourners that he felt for “my sister (Yvette Clarke) particularly.

“That kind of love that lasts forever, it’s not temporal,” he said. “Yvette, you will miss him and his heart, and that’s eternal.”

Clarke’s brother, Deacon Leslie L. Clarke, Jr., said that, when he first met Durham, he called him “Chuck D,” adding that he “had a lot of names.

“And that’s a lot of love,” he said in his eulogy. “To know him was to have a constant protector. He was annoying with the love he gave to you.

“Charles was an activist and community organizer; he was a real activist,” Leslie Clarke, Jr. added. “Charles really, really, really loved my sister. He did a lot of things to take care of my sister.

“He was the ‘Mayor of Nostrand Avenue (loud applause),” he continued. “He was someone who sees you – whether or not you saw him. He was someone who was involved in family.”

Durham’s sister, whose name was not indicated in the funeral program, said her brother had no regrets moving to New York from Cleveland, OH.

“I grew to love New York, as he did,” she said. “I hope to be like him when I grew up.”

Durham’s younger brother, also not identified, said Durham “loved to say things that made your mind wonder.

“My brother approached everything with commitment, loyalty, with a passion.”

Durham’s niece said she was “born the day after him” – Sept. 18, 1959.

“My uncle was a doer and giver,” she said. “My uncle was born and raised in Ohio. Thank you for nursing him from 413 miles away.

“Yvette, I love you,” she added. “Words don’t express how I feel about you.”

The Yao Ababio drummers perform at the funeral of Charles Durham. Photo by Nelson A. King

In her homily, Jamaican-born the Rt. Rev. Sylveta Hamilton Gonzales, a very close friend of the Clarkes, described Durham as “a man of God, a magnificent soul, an intellectual genius, an outstanding role model, a man of profound integrity, pure love, compassion, empathy and unbreakable perseverance.

“Charles B. Durham, Jr. was a magnificent role model, who lived his life showing us that the way is our service to humanity,” she preached. “Charles B. Durham, Jr. in his earthly tent was a charismatic, phenomenal soul. Unlike Paul, he was not a man of the ecclesiastical cloth, but an esoteric (enigmatic) servant of God.

“He was a unique man of God, who proclaimed the power of the social gospel during his audacious (impudent) mission to serve,” Bishop Hamilton Gonzales added. “He was a humble, remarkable foot soldier who always traveled in the trenches in search of those people in our society who were atrociously treated and were lost.

“The people he served were intergenerational and ecumenical (non-denominational),” she continued. “Some were golden in years, middle aged, young and cheerful. He had the restless, the homeless, the retired elder, the children, the sister, the brother, the rich, the poor, the weak, the strong. He was a man of God, who advocated on the behalf of the downtrodden members of our society. He was a respecter of all God’s people.”

During the service, Yao Ababio saluted Durham on drums; Tatiana Overton sang “His Eyes on the Sparrow”; Falina Backer paid tribute in song; and Durham’s best friend, Reggie Kelly, sang “Our Journey” to a standing ovation, crying loudly afterwards.

Clarke had told Caribbean Life exclusively that firefighters, from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), found Durham, after 10:00 pm, on Jan. 29, unresponsive in a chair at her campaign headquarters on Nostrand Avenue, between Maple and Midwood streets, in East Flatbush, near the popular Caribbean bakery, Allan’s.

The congresswoman said her “forever fiancé” had a “major cardiac event” after shoveling snow earlier at the couple’s residence on Midwood Street.

She said Durham had also shoveled snow from the major Nor’easter, which blanketed the northeast United States on Jan. 29, at Clarke’s parents’ residence, also on Midwood Street, as well as reportedly at other neighbors’ on the block.

Clarke said her fiancé’s sister had even cautioned her brother about shoveling too much snow, and that he had also told Clarke that he was not feeling too well and was “going to rest.”

The congresswoman said Durham had also shoveled snow from the side walk at her campaign headquarters.

Clarke said she first met Durham in 1986, when she was in her senior year at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Durham’s body was cremated on Monday. His ashes will be subsequently taken to Cleveland for interment.

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