The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A beloved mayor’s suicide devastated his city and left an agonizing question: Why?

Hyattsville Mayor Kevin Ward’s sudden death is part of an uptick in suicides among Black people

Hyattsville Mayor Kevin Ward was sworn-in in the spring of 2021. (City of Hyattsville)

HYATTSVILLE, Md. — They needed a place to grieve, so they funneled into Kevin Ward’s quiet church, looking for the community he had taught them to seek.

It was here that Ward, the mayor of this small Maryland city, had helped set up the church’s coronavirus vaccination clinic, facilitated a weekly food distribution and delivered a moving sermon on hope and helping each other.

But now he was gone.

Three days earlier, Ward had been found dead in a public park with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The news first reached his husband and sons, then devastated the tightknit community of Hyattsville, where he had made history as the city’s second Black and first openly gay mayor.

Ward had been their nucleus — the one to offer diplomacy amid heated local politics, the perfect gospel song for a struggling friend or a handwritten note to his husband and sons to remind them how much he cared. He had seen a therapist and spoken openly about the toll of the pandemic and racial injustice, how heavily he felt the grief of his mother’s death and how difficult it had been to battle cancer twice.

But nobody in his life saw this coming. Everyone was trying to understand.

His death came amid a spate of high-profile suicides of Black people — Regina King’s 26-year-old son; Cheslie Kryst, 30, a former Miss USA; and “Walking Dead” actor Moses J. Moseley, 31 — bringing awareness to a growing crisis that experts say has too long been unacknowledged. Even as suicide deaths among White men dipped 3 percent in the United States from 2019 to 2020, they increased 3 percent among Black men, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November.

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Those inside and outside Ward’s circle were left wondering about Ward and the national conversation about mental health and stigma in the Black community, and even those closest to Ward were struggling for answers.

At the church, though, the moment was pushing them to check in and reach out, to create new spaces in his legacy where they could share their struggles.

Ward’s sermon from last year was streaming on a television in the lobby. They paused to take it in, his deep and soothing voice moving between their silence.

“I stopped by here this morning to tell you that it’s time to come together,” the mayor said. “We must come together as an immovable force, for the power is in us being together.”

‘Like the sun shines on you’

Long before he was elected mayor, before he ran for city council and before he left Texas for the East Coast, Kevin Ward was a human magnet. He drew people in.

He had grown up an only child in suburban Dallas, raised mostly by his mother while navigating a complicated relationship with his father, whose nickname, “Scooter,” he adopted as his own. Though he didn’t talk about it much, his childhood had been hard and often lonely.

So he committed to building a vibrant chosen family.

On the campus of Texas A&M, Stephannie Oriabure became one of his first recruits.

She first spotted him at freshman orientation, one of the only other Black kids in a sea of 200 new students, transfixing the crowd as he danced with abandon to a hip-hop jam.

“Who,” Oriabure remembers thinking, “is that dude?”

A few days later, while making introductions in their leadership program, she found out.

He reached out for a handshake — a gesture she found hilariously formal for two 17-year-olds.

“Hi,” he said, “I’m Kevin L. Ward.”

It was a testament, even then, to Ward’s cool confidence, a kind of assertive warmth he would model in politics and life for so many — and draw out of them, too. For Oriabure, it was also her first glimpse of the “mover and shaker” her new friend was about to become on campus, where Ward touched so many social circles that a 10-minute walk would take him twice as long.

Soon the “rowdy crew of two” were so deeply enmeshed in each other’s lives that they earned veto power over significant others.

When it came to attorney Chad Copeland, Oriabure never had to use it.

Copeland entered the picture in 2004 at a human rights fundraiser in Dallas, and he describes his introduction to Ward like a romantic comedy meet-cute — there was a window, a sunset, their locked eyes from across the room.

“I like your glasses,” Ward said.

For Copeland, it was a “Cupid’s arrow” compliment.

Minutes later, he met Ward’s then-boyfriend.

A still-smitten Copeland accepted temporary defeat and spent the next two years developing a deep friendship with Ward — yearning for something more. The two balanced each other out. Copeland was reserved and easygoing. Ward was a gregarious extrovert who always had a joke and strong opinion, about fashion, about politics, about people.

“When he talks to you,” Copeland said in an interview, “it is like the sun shines on you.”

By 2006, the two were together.

After her first hangout with the new couple, Oriabure pulled Ward aside.

“Kevin,” she remembers saying, “you better not mess this up.”

The chosen family

By 2007, all three of them had relocated to the Washington region, and Copeland and Ward were already thinking about their next generation.

They always knew they wanted a family. Copeland was adopted as a child. Ward had mentored kids since college, returning to Texas every summer for RYLA, the leadership camp he attended as a teen and served for decades as a counselor and featured speaker. They signed up to be foster parents in D.C., and when they got a call one winter night saying a 3-year-old named Norman needed a home, they said yes.

They immediately knew they wanted to become dads to the little boy, whose quick wit and mannerisms began to mirror Ward’s. At the adoption ceremony nearly two years later, Ward wept. Next they adopted Sydney, their eldest son who at the time was 14 years old. The couple wanted to buy a house for their boys to grow up in — and in 2014 chose Hyattsville as their new home.

As a father, Ward was both warm and stern. He shared his passions, including an affinity for sneakers so big his collection had its own storage unit, and dished out hugs and kisses. When his sons sat on the sofa, he was known to wrap an arm around them. But he also held them to high standards in school and life, preparing them for the racism they would face as Black men in America.

Ward’s love for kids was also at the center of his professional life. He served as the deputy chief information officer for D.C.'s Child Family Services Agency and most recently as the director of technology for KIPP DC, which runs a network of charter schools. But he was always looking for more ways to give back, especially to kids, Copeland said, and that desire was what propelled him into local politics. In 2015 he decided to run for Hyattsville City Council, vying for the seat being vacated by the woman who would eventually become the city’s first Black mayor.

He wrote to Candace Hollingsworth that year on Facebook and within a few hours was sitting across from her at brunch. They bonded over their Southern roots. She hadn’t planned to pull for anyone in particular, but by the time they were done eating, Hollingsworth couldn’t help thinking: “Oh, I hope he wins.”

“I felt like I was talking to a person who cared about the right things,” she said.

About a week later, Ward invited her to the house to meet Copeland. Knowing she was from Memphis, he made biscuits. She kicked off her shoes and sat at the counter to eat, and with that Hollingsworth became part of their family, too.

After winning their respective races, they set about making Hyattsville — a quirky, diverse enclave outside D.C. — a place that welcomed all its residents. They passed a law to make it a “sanctuary city” and laid the groundwork for a teen center with mentoring and homework support. For years, Ward also tried to establish a city program for free or low-cost child care, Hollingsworth said, but red tape kept him from getting it off the ground.

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In the fall of 2020, after nearly six years as mayor, a burned-out Hollingsworth realized she might be too tired to continue. Ward, then the council president, was the first person she called. She knew he may lead differently from her, but she trusted him with her legacy. On the phone, she told Ward she wouldn’t resign unless he was ready to take the helm.

“I’m ready,” he replied.

He was named interim mayor Jan. 1 and in May officially ran for the title. Ward, a Democrat, was up against another party establishment candidate who had served on the city council and infused tens of thousands of dollars into his campaign. Still, he coasted to victory.

On the day of his swearing-in, Hollingsworth knew there was one integral member of Ward’s crew missing. His mom, who shared his strong personality, had died three years earlier. So the former mayor bought the new one a light pink flower, his mom’s favorite color, to pin to his chest.

This past Thanksgiving, their large, chosen family — Hollingsworth, Oriabure, Ward, Copeland and their kids — gathered at the couple’s home. Copeland, the best cook, prepared a Martha Stewart spread. Hollingsworth brought rolls, Oriabure the cheesy potatoes and whiskey sours. Ward was responsible for the laughter.

Since his death on Jan. 25, the three have been replaying their last moments with him.

For Oriabure, it’s Christmas, when he gave her a pair of black-and-white sneakers despite her insistence he not get her presents. Their final goodbye was the same consistent hug and “I love you” that had always made her feel like she mattered — one of her friend’s greatest gifts.

For Copeland, it’s the series of sweet moments in what would become their last week together: extra hours of morning cuddles before they got up for their workday; Ward insisting, while the family watched a movie, that he needed to wash Norman’s hair — one of his most treasured dad duties.

And for Hollingsworth, there are the unanswered texts from the day he died. They were trying to schedule a time to meet the following day. After hours without a response, she wrote: “You ok?”

Next she got the call from Copeland.

“I know without a doubt that Kevin knew that he was loved. I also know that Kevin loved his people hard and deeply,” Hollingsworth said. “Despite not knowing any person’s reasons, or any why, my feeling is that it was a decision that he made not because he wanted to but because he felt he had to.”

The final sermon

Inside Kevin Ward’s quiet church on the Friday after his death, his loved ones kept listening — to his words in the lobby, to their own inside the sanctuary.

There was the city administrator, who had not stopped wondering how she could have helped. The city council president, who promised to do what he could to fill Ward’s “very large tennis shoes” as interim mayor. The state delegate who wrapped Hollingsworth in a long hug, tears staining both their faces.

They said February would be a month of remembering Ward’s legacy, that the city would be lit up in his favorite color, purple, that mental health counselors would be sent to the church, that they’d try their best to move forward with the warmth their mayor had made them all feel. They would mourn him at a formal funeral planned for Friday morning.

After an hour of praying and sharing, they filtered back out to the lobby and the TV, where Ward’s voice was still delivering his final sermon.

“We must not look outside for the answers because I know where the answers are,” he said. “What we need to do is bring ourselves together. What we need to do is remember that we are repairers of the breach.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.