Activist lauded for AIDS awareness efforts among African-Americans
Don Sneed, who will undoubtedly be remembered as the city’s most colorful and controversial AIDS activist ever, died on Jan. 4, apparently from an HIV-related illness.
Sneed, 54, died at the Veterans Hospital in Dallas after a brief hospitalization. He reportedly was in a coma at the time of his death.
In 2004 Sneed shocked the HIV services community and others by staging protests in Oak Lawn alleging the city’s LGBT community was racist and unconcerned about the plight of African-Americans infected by HIV. He and his followers attracted widespread attention during one protest by carrying a coffinthrough the streets.
But in contrast to the high profile he formerly maintained as an appointee to the President’s Advisory Board on HIV and through his flamboyant activism, Sneed had rarely been seen for the past two years. He reportedly struggled to maintain sobriety, a path he had taken 15 years ago after an illegal drug conviction, and suffered several bouts of pneumonia.
Serita Agnew, a former employee of Renaissance III, the South Dallas HIV services organization that Sneed founded, said she saw Sneed about two weeks before he died.
“He was upbeat,” Agnew said. “He seemed well. I was really shocked. It was just a week later he was in a coma. I had no idea he was ill.”
Sneed, who favored African-style dress, stepped out of public view in February 2005 when he resigned as executive director of his financially-troubled agency. At the time of his resignation, he said in an interview that he suffered from illnesses related to his HIV and Hepatitis C infections.
His resignation followed an audit by the Dallas County Auditor’s office, which subsequently demanded the repayment of $133,824 in government contract funds because of questions about documentation and compliance.
Efforts to save Renaissance III, which included a name change to the Dallas African American Resource Center, ultimately failed and the agency closed.
Sneed attributed his resignation to his health problems and denied that it had anything to do with the government audit, pending criminal charges against him related to an alleged assault on an agency employee in November 2003 or an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by five of his former employees who alleged he had created a hostile work environment.
After news of his legal problems became known, Sneed complied with a request that he step down from the president’s advisory board.
Agnew, along with Sneed’s stepsister and another employee, were three of the five EEOC complainants who attended the AIDS activist’s funeral on Jan 11 at Faith Memorial Church in South Dallas. The five employees were awarded a $200,000 settlement after the EEOC sustained the complaint against Sneed.
Agnew said that although she and the other complainants faulted Sneed for harassing them, they still recognized his contributions to the community. She and at least some of the others worked for Sneed for several years before filing the complaint.
“I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say you can’t take away what he contributed to the African-American community in the HIV and AIDS arena,” Agnew said. “Even though we had our ups and downs and crazy turn arounds, my being under his leadership took me to places I never thought I would go.”
Agnew described Sneed, who was buried at DFW National Cemetery, as a taskmaster who demanded that his staff take notes and report to him on what they had learned when they attended conferences on HIV and AIDS.
“He made sure we all went to every conference that would help prepare us in the war against HIV and AIDS,” said Agnew, who works as a volunteer HIV educator now.
Steven Pace, executive director of the AIDS Interfaith Network in Dallas, said his organization sent a representative to Sneed’s funeral in recognition of his contributions to the fight against AIDS. He noted that he had known Sneed for a long time and worked closely with him on several committees.
“He was hugely outspoken,” Pace said. “He really tried to be an advocate and a voice not just for HIV and AIDS but for African-Americans.”
Pace said Sneed was successful in drawing attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
“It takes everybody to draw attention to the issues around HIV and AIDS,” Pace said. “He did a lot of work over the years and brought a lot of people into the process.”
Pace acknowledged that Sneed tended to be controversial.
“With Don you didn’t know from time to time how it was going to go, but we were able to maintain over the years,” Pace said. “No matter what was said or done, it seemed like he would always revolve back around and was able to have contact and decent communication.”
Bret Camp, clinic director for the Resource Center of Dallas’ Nelson-Tebedo Health Resource Center, agreed that Sneed knew how to attract attention.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 18, 2008