The first person Kimberly Montgomery lost to COVID-19 was her aunt. She had trouble breathing, so her daughter dropped her off at the emergency room. It was the last time her daughter saw her alive.
Then, one after another, 14 other people in Montgomery’s world — family members, friends, friends who were like family — succumbed to the same disease.
There was the retired police officer who was an usher and deacon at her church. A friend’s brother who was a restaurant cook. A close friend who was a nurse caring for virus patients in Atlanta. A cousin who came home from the hospital after 12 days thinking she was getting better, but didn’t. An artist and drummer for an African dance company.
It was an unimaginable string of losses in the year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and all but one of those who died was Black, like Montgomery.
“I don’t know if I ever will … process all of them,” said Montgomery, 59. She added: “The shock factor, it never wears off. But it tempers.”
Nationwide, Black people represent about 12 percent of the population, but they account for nearly 15 percent of all coronavirus deaths of known race, according to the APM Research Lab, which is tracking mortality from the disease.
More than 73,000 Black Americans have died from COVID-19, and they have the second-highest mortality rate of all racial groups, behind Indigenous people.
At the same time, Montgomery has seen her community grapple with a nationwide reckoning on race and policing and other systemic issues. Her personal pain has only strengthened her resolve to work for the public good — including in her job as director of intergovernmental relations for the city of Milwaukee.
“Hearing the statistics … seeing the incidents in Minnesota and the George Floyd incidents and the Kenosha incidents, that’s what keeps me going,” she said. “Because these victims are looking like me.”
Montgomery has spent much of her time in the past year advocating for COVID-related funding for Milwaukee. She’s also working with the Milwaukee alumni chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a historically Black sorority, to raise awareness about vaccines and testing through social media and virtual events.
She works closely with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who says Montgomery has always known the importance of her work, but he’s recently sensed more urgency.
“This is not a theoretical exercise for her. It’s very real,” Barrett said.
Her experiences, he added, have sharpened his perspective as well: “It brings home how devastating this last year and this pandemic has been.”
Montgomery de-emphasizes her own bereavement, saying others have suffered greater losses, of spouses or parents. She grieves for her friends and family, especially her cousin Ingrid Davis, who took her mother to the emergency room, never to see her again.
Davis, who also lost a cousin to COVID-19, says she stays home a lot due to the pandemic, so she does not see Montgomery as much, but they talk often.
“Kim is a social butterfly,” she said. “I call her the second mayor of Milwaukee, but I think that with all that has happened, I have seen a little decline of that.”
Montgomery works mostly from home and is diligent about wearing a mask when she’s out. She gets tested before visiting her parents in Tennessee, terrified she will infect them.
“I get very emotional about that. I find myself getting upset if people, if I see individuals who don’t even have the mask over their nose. It’s ineffective. And it really bothers me,” she said.
But Montgomery also has a newfound appreciation for life, noticing things like the birds chirping in the background when she speaks to her 31-year-old son on the phone. She is one of those people who laughs easily and a lot, earning the nickname “Sunshine” throughout her life.
Still, COVID-19 is never far from her thoughts.
“My prayer every night is for any and everybody who’s dealing with this disease.”