A Maine woman whose life’s work was dedicated to uplifting Black and Indigenous children and families was killed last weekend in a hit-and-run crash in Acadia National Park. Authorities say they are searching for a black BMW registered to her long-term boyfriend.
Nicole A. Mokeme, of South Portland, was attending the Black Excellence Retreat at the Schoodic Institute, an event she had helped organize, when she was fatally injured on the institute’s campus sometime late Saturday or early Sunday, according to the Maine State Police.
Mokeme, 35, died from her injuries. She was the mother of an 11-year-old girl.
State Police have since been searching for a 2016 BMW X3 registered to Mokeme’s boyfriend, 35-year-old Raymond Lester. “The vehicle may have front-end or undercarriage damage,” Maine State Police said in a statement.
Lester has not been charged in connection with Mokeme’s death, police said Wednesday.
Mokeme was a beloved activist in her Portland community, where she was well-known for her contagious smile, big heart, and commitment to sharing her passions for wellness and nature with Black and brown youth.
In 2014, she created the Rise and Shine Youth Retreat program, which offers self-development getaways for children of color. She opened a wellness retreat center and cooperative living-space four years ago on a 135-acre farm in Bowdoin, Maine.
“She was just a really, really great person, a very driven person,” said her friend, Marion F. Sloan. “I don’t know anybody else like her. She was very caring, a lovable, lovable person. It’s really, really hard to describe a person that’s like a light in the world, really.”
Rev. Kenneth I. Lewis Jr., pastor of the Green Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Portland where Mokeme was a parishioner for a decade, said his congregation is heartbroken.
“She was a bright, lively, passionate, and caring young lady who brightened the room,” Lewis said. “She cared deeply about people and very much wanted the Black and Indigenous community to be strengthened.”
A Philadelphia-area native, Mokeme was a gifted singer who participated in the church choir and youth advocacy program. She enjoyed fashion and worked occasionally as a model. She was also a performer and co-creator with the Portland-based Theater Ensemble of Color, according to the Portland Press Herald.
“If you ever saw her smile, she had the brightest smile,” Sloan said. “She always attracted all kinds of different people and had a big heart for everybody. It didn’t matter what you are, what you believed in or what your sexual orientation was. Nothing bothered her. She just loved people.”
Her uncle, Emeka Mokeme, said Mokeme was planning on visiting him and his family in Lagos, Nigeria in December. Mokeme’s family belongs to the Igbo tribe, and she wanted to learn about her tribe’s cultural and spiritual traditions, he said. He last saw his niece in 1993, when she visited the country for her grandfather’s funeral, but they chatted often on the phone.
“It’s like a dream. I’m dreaming,” he said. “I want to wake up from this bad dream.”
Mokeme helped organize the Black Excellence Retreat that was underway at the Schoodic Institute when she was killed. The retreat, which was held June 14-20, was intended as a getaway for Black Mainers to celebrate “Juneteenth, liberation and resilience,” according to an Instagram post promoting the event.
Her loved ones were reeling with the troubling circumstances surrounding her death.
”I can’t believe that it was Juneteenth, that it was her event,” said her friend Samara Cole Doyon, a children’s book author. “Everything she did was just to create more freedom for the community, for Black and Indigenous folks, and especially for Black folks on Juneteenth…. ‘Freedom’ was the word that encompasses who she was.”
”I just don’t understand,” she added. “I just don’t understand how this could happen.”
Maine artist Adeline Goldminc-Tronzo mourned Mokeme’s passing while poring over the oil portraits she’d painted of her friend. Goldminc-Tronzo, 69, said she met Mokeme about six years at the Maine College of Art & Design, and was immediately taken with her generosity, sense of humor, and intelligence.
Mokeme spent hours posing for Goldminc-Tronzo at her Eliot, Maine studio, and they would chat the entire time about race and discrimination, and how to be and do better, Goldminc-Tronzo said. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Goldminc-Tronzo said she could empathize with Mokeme’s struggles as a Black woman in the United States.
“She was an exceptional person,” Goldminc-Tronzo said. “I don’t know that I ever did her justice, but she was beautiful.”