To understand the legacy of civil rights activist Nia Imani Kuumba, go back to April of 1968, when riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left portions of the District in smoldering ruin.
Amid the chaos, a 39-year-old nurse turned activist stepped forward to protect her hometown and her people. That is the legacy Kuumba leaves behind, after she passed away April 5 at the age of 92.
“She worked tirelessly to make a difference to improve and uplift and advance all people,” Carolyn Woodfork-Richardson, Kuumba’s niece, said.
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A memorial service and community feast in honor of Kuumba will be held Saturday, April 24 at the Roots Public Charter School in Northwest D.C.
She had no biological children, yet to so many D.C. residents she was affectionately known as “Mama Nia.” Her niece said one would be wrong to consider that nickname a complete exaggeration.
“She is a spiritual mother to many people,” Woodfork-Richardson said. “You walked down the street with my aunt, somebody knew her. Somebody [was] always, ‘Oh Mama Nia, oh Mama Nia!’”
Kuumba was born Ethel Louise Woodfork in 1928. She was raised in a home near 3rd and K streets in Northwest D.C. and graduated from Francis Cardozo High School.
In 1959, she received her nursing degree from Georgetown University and moved to New York City to work as an operating room nurse.
Her deep faith in God drove her desire to help others, which in turn drew her into the civil rights movement.
“It just resonated with her and she just decided, ‘This will be my life's mission,’” Woodfork-Richardson said.
She returned to D.C. in the mid-1960s and joined the movement full time, marching with Dr. King and other icons of the struggle.
By the late '60s, Ethel Louise Woodfork had embraced her African roots and changed her name to Nia Imani Kuumba, a name inspired by the Kwanzaa principles of purpose, faith and creativity. It was fitting for a woman who found myriad ways to make her community a better place, from the revitalization of the 14th Street corridor to the installation of the African American Civil War Memorial.
“Any kind of redevelopment for improving, she was front and center,” Woodfork-Richardson said.
That’s what brought Kuumba and Bernadette Trowell together.
In 1987, they cofounded the group called Mothers on the Move Spiritually, to help families impacted by gun violence.
“More than anything, she was, like our mission meant and did, always reaching out to help others,” Trowell said.
There were plenty of awards and certificates, including recognition for 50 years of service to the District by then-Mayor Vincent Gray in 2011.
“Her life’s mission was working for what was just for all people,” Woodfork-Richardson said.
A decade later, that work continues, led by a new generation of young people raised to fight for freedom and dignity, just like Mama Nia taught them.