This story appears in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
From the time they began dating, Lillian Phillips realized Larry Hammond was different from other boys she knew in their New Orleans high schools. “He had charisma,” she says. “He was always there. He was always kind.”
Lillian and Larry married, had a family, and built friendships. Just as in high school, Larry joined group after group, including the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a community organization whose Krewe of Zulu members and floats have appeared in Mardi Gras parades for more than a century.
The Larry Hammond that I and many others came to know over decades was the same man Lillian met in high school: charismatic, helpful, kind. He was like that through 47 years of marriage: In June the two planned to celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary.
That didn’t happen.
Lillian Phillips Hammond lost the man of her dreams to COVID-19 on March 31. Larry’s sudden death shook Lillian, their family, and the village that surrounded Larry, 70, a retired post office employee.
Lillian can’t believe Larry’s gone. And she’s saddened that COVID-19 is taking the lives of so many African Americans.
But like others in Black communities, Lillian Hammond knows that we’ve been particular targets of the virus based on underlying conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.
A highly respected, personally admired member of the Krewe of Zulu, Larry served as Zulu king in 2007. Early in the pandemic, on the heels of Mardi Gras, several members of the krewe fell ill. Then Larry did.
Within a matter of weeks, COVID-19 caused the deaths of several of Larry’s fellow Zulu members, the leader of Larry’s cherished fraternity chapter, and Larry himself.
New Orleans city councilman Jay Banks, a former Zulu king and one of Larry’s Omega Psi Phi Fraternity brothers, has seen too many friends get sick and die. Earlier this year, Banks told me he knew at least a dozen Black people who had died. A few weeks later, the number was 30.
“The statistics are real. The fact that this disease is disproportionately affecting people in our community cannot be disputed,” Banks told a radio audience in the weeks after Larry’s death.
Across the United States, Black people have suffered high rates of COVID-19 sickness and death. Nationally, some sources say we’re 2.5 times as likely to die from COVID-19 as our white counterparts.(1)
(1) Halfway through 2020, the COVID-19 death rates in the U.S. for Hispanic and Black people were higher than the rates for white and Asian people in all age groups, according to CDC data.
In Louisiana, many were shocked when spring data showed that more than 70 percent of the state’s deaths from COVID-19 were among African Americans. That share of deaths subsequently fell below 60 percent—but in a state where nearly 33 percent of the population is Black, that’s far too high.
Larry loved New Orleans, and the city loved him back. His funeral service at Boyd Family Funeral Home was limited to 10 people. Those who couldn’t attend gathered at a shopping center not far from the Hammond home. On cue, we formed a procession and drove by the house in a slow-moving motorcade, expressing our sympathies with glances, waves, and honks. We were his Omega fraternity brothers and his fellow alumni of L.B. Landry High School, his fellow youth mentors of the Silverback Society, his fellow members of Beautiful Zion Baptist Church, and many other friends and admirers.
Those viewing the procession from the lawn included his widow, Lillian; his daughter, Nicole Hammond Crowden; his granddaughter, Kailyn Hammond Gouch, whom he called “K”; his brother Barry Hammond, and niece Dominique Irvin. As we drove by, they waved at each of us, drying tears, laughing and shouting as they saw familiar faces. “We would think it was over, and more cars would come by,” Irvin said. “There were hundreds. I don’t think we knew how much he meant to so many people.”
If times were normal, there might have been thousands. Larry was a king, from his days playing the lead role in his high school production of The King and I to his final days. There’ve been only about 100 Zulu kings in the group’s history, and a departing king gets a royal send-off. A jazz procession. Festive regalia. A second line, a uniquely New Orleans celebratory parade at parties, weddings, and funerals.
We would have heard funny stories and remembrances about Larry. We would have laughed and cheered. I can imagine Larry looking on with a smile. There would’ve been lots of waved handkerchiefs, initially to dry tears and then to pierce the air with joy for his life. It was the life of a family man—a husband, a father, an uncle, a grandfather. His actions were those of a patriot, a believer, a hard worker, an advocate. He graduated from Our Lady of Holy Cross College. He served in the U.S. Air Force. He worked many years for the U.S. Postal Service before retiring. Then he did even more with groups such as the Silverbacks, who mentor boys in the community as they become young men.
Larry’s spirit was evident to all who met him, and in his home in New Orleans’ Algiers neighborhood. He cherished his relationships with different groups, proudly wearing their colors. On any given day, his family knew what he’d be doing based on what he chose to wear. A Beautiful Zion or Silverback Society shirt. An Omega jacket. A Zulu cap. The mementos fill the home, reminders of what Larry considered essential: friendship, scholarship, perseverance; helping and uplifting others.
As 2020 nears its end with the pandemic on an uncertain course, we can honor Larry Hammond and all he stood for by demanding equality in the COVID-19 response. We can work to eliminate disparities in health-care access, to get more Black youth into health-care careers, and to combat the causes of African Americans’ disproportionately high death rates.
That would be a fitting send-off for this king of a man—not a COVID-19 statistic, but an example of what’s best in our community.
New Orleans native Will Sutton is a columnist at his city’s newspaper The Times-Picayune | The Advocate and a life member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. Max Aguilera-Hellweg is a photographer and a medical doctor; he attended medical school at Tulane University and loves New Orleans and gumbo.