Kenneth Nunn held a photo of his wife, Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, to the webcam as he spoke at the end of an impassioned memorial service celebrating her life and legacy Wednesday evening.
She looks vibrant in the image, wearing a multicolored dress and headdress at the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville, speaking about the history of enslavement in Alachua County.
It’s from 2016. Why the surgical mask over much of her face? It was three days after Hilliard-Nunn, a senior lecturer in the University of Florida’s African American Studies program, underwent a bone-marrow transplant, her husband said. He urged her to not go to the museum. She ignored his plea, Nunn told the 300 people attending the two-hour virtual ceremony.
“That’s just to show you how important she thought the work that she was doing was,” said Nunn, a law professor and associate director of the Center on Children and Families at UF.
Hilliard-Nunn – Tricia, to her friends – died at age 57 on Aug. 5. The cause of death has not been shared publicly, and the several other speakers focused instead on the many ways they knew her.
The voice of reason, the life of the party and the social justice warrior. The lecturer, the storyteller, the empath and the filmmaker. Soror, big sister, African Queen, best friend.
They also all described the same relentless energy – and said her life’s work was loving and uplifting the Black community.
“Dr. Nunn, you were consistently amazing,” said Ashley Robertson Preston, a faculty colleague. “You were the listening ear. You were the fire to our feet.”
Sharon Burney, former administrative assistant for the African American Studies program and a longtime friend, said if there was a march for a social justice cause, Hilliard-Nunn was there.
And with her own personal bullhorn to make sure her voice was heard.
“She didn’t take enough breaks, that’s for sure,” Burney said. “She never stopped. That was her – she’d just say to you, ‘Hey, you just got to get it done. No excuses. Let’s just get it done.’”
The service was punctuated with drums, dance and poetry.
Keturah Acevedo and Tiffany Pineda, two of Hilliard-Nunn’s former UF students and members of her Makare African Dance Family, recited a poem in her memory. It ended: “Embodiment of Black excellence / Angel on earth, benevolence / We dance for her tonight.”
In a tribute video shown to the audience, the pair are seen gyrating in all white to the sound of beating drums. A framed photo of Hilliard-Nunn sat in the center of their circle next to a burning white candle. Old footage of her dancing played, too.
Hilliard-Nunn was revolutionary, said Sarah Louis, president of the UF chapter of the NAACP. She filled in the gaps where the public education system failed in teaching Black history, and she set the example for students to come, said Louis, a political science major from Orlando.
“She organized and understood the importance of putting in the tedious work to create change,” Louis said. “She truly was a shero.”
David Canton, the new director of the African American Studies program, introduced each speaker during the ceremony. He arrived at the university about a week after Hilliard-Nunn died, but said her contributions to the program and the community weren’t lost on him.
Whether writing books or mentoring students, Canton said, Hilliard-Nunn did it all.
“She’s in the ancestral realm now, but the Spirit will always live in the program, in the department, and is a model for all of us to follow,” he said.
Nunn asked everyone to continue supporting the projects that mattered to her. They included, among others, the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center, a nonprofit in Gainesville dedicated to preserving Black history, and Pace Center for Girls of Alachua, an alternative school for girls at risk of academic underachievement.
“Because that’s the biggest and best tribute you can give to my wife,” Nunn said.
A moment later, he added another request: consider donating blood.
“Maybe you’ll be able to help someone who’s in the same condition that Patricia was in, sometime in the future,” Nunn said.
In 2018, Hilliard-Nunn joined a panel discussion at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications as Alachua County was beginning to reckon with its history of lynchings. Here is that discussion.