The memorial service for pioneering journalist Gwen Ifill ended Friday night at the historic Metropolitan AME Church in Washington D.C., a church that used to be a safe place for runaway enslaved people. Ifill had worshiped there since 1989 and received a plaque on a pew in her honor, joining such luminaries as Frederick Douglass.
Thousands of people, including writers, politicians, members of Ifill’s sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, former classmates at her alma mater, Simmons College, and church members were among those in attendance.
Michelle Obama – D.C. Memorial for Gwen Ifill 1:45 pic.twitter.com/Zi6ceHYakH
— Brent Staples (@BrentNYT) November 19, 2016
Additionally, there were also those The Root’s Richard Prince called “self-described ordinary people,” who, during the portion of the memorial allotted for tributes, expressed the many ways that Ifill encouraged and inspired them. There were reportedly two planned services: the first, on Friday, Nov. 18, had over 1,000 people in attendance. The second was scheduled for the morning of Nov. 19.
The tributes were numerous and heartfelt:
Michel Martin, a host at NPR and close friend of Ifill, explained why she wore the jacket she was wearing, which Ifill had given her as a Christmas present: “I wanted to remember what it felt like to be held by her.”
Martin expressed the great lengths Ifill would go to and the gentle care she provided to friends by sharing an anecdote about a “a dangerous situation” she once found herself in. She said Ifill could sense from a telephone conversation that something was wrong and decided to act. Ifill, with her brother and parents in tow, drove from Philadelphia to New York to get Martin to safety. On the way back to Philadelphia, Prince wrote, Martin said, “They stopped to scalp tickets to the Rockettes and they all watched the performance at Radio City Music Hall.
“She never asked me questions, never judged me for the fact that I was in a dangerous situation,” Martin recalled.
Jeffrey Brown, a colleague of Ifill’s from “PBS NewsHour,” told those in attendance that he was always questioned about his co-worker. He said he was always asked, “Is she as wonderful as she seems?”
After noting that she was in fact wonderful, he would ask Ifill, “Why do I have to go through life praising you?” To which Ifill replied with a smile, “I can’t help it if people love me. If you’re a good journalist, you have to tell the truth.”
Gwen’s lovely portrait @ her memorial service Fri nite, DC’s Metropolitan AME Church. Her pew now has her nameplate. pic.twitter.com/JTTkt6yFe8
— Jackie Calmes (@calmesnyt) November 19, 2016
According to Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times, Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. expressed how he and Ifill bonded over Barbados, which both of them had a connection to, and how, though they were close enough to call each other “cuz.” “My dear Gwen, unexpectedly to me, went from ‘cuz’ to newsperson,” Mr. Holder recalled. “She was fair, but she was piercing, serious but unfailingly nice, smiling the whole time as she forced me out of my prescribed talking points.”
Holder told his story and also read a letter from President Obama.
Rochelle Riley, a Detroit Free Press columnist, reportedly told mourners that she and Ifill had been friends for the past 29 years. She told a story about how Ifill “never forgot her friends.”
While Ifill was covering the 1988 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign, she called Riley from “somewhere out in America” just to give her a heartfelt congratulations for Riley’s first front-page byline.
Riley also recalled some playful memories. She said that when Ifill moderated the 2004 vice presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, she called Riley to express immense excitement and invited Riley to come experience the excitement firsthand at the hotel suite where she was staying. “We ran around that presidential suite like we were teenagers,” Riley said.
Michelle Obama attended, yet her presence was unknown to most of the 1,373 people who packed church until Rev. William H. Lamar IV told those in attendance near the end of the service, which lasted almost three hours.
Mrs. Obama, with her hair pulled back and dressed in black, greeted and hugged several mourners. She did not speak publicly.
Ms. Ifill died Monday, Nov. 14 after battling uterine cancer. She was 61.