Jacqueline Avant's Daughter Says Late Activist Gave Her a 'Superpower' by Teaching Her Black History

Speaking with PEOPLE nearly three months after her mom’s tragic death, Nicole Avant celebrates the beloved philanthropist’s legacy

Jacqueline Avant, on left, Nicole Avant Clarence Avant
Photo: Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

When Jacqueline Avant was shot and killed in her Beverly Hills home on Dec. 1, 2021, the socialite became a household name with one tragic incident.

The crime shocked the nation. Hollywood — especially Black stars, artists and filmmakers — publicly mourned the loss.

Oprah Winfrey told Variety that Avant was the "softness around every edge." Meanwhile, Tyler Perry tweeted that "every available resource will be used" to find the person responsible for killing the 81-year-old during the home invasion.

But who was the philanthropist, well known among Hollywood's elite as the wife of legendary music and film producer Clarence Avant?

"A lot of grit and gratitude and grace — those are the adjectives for Jacquie," Nicole Avant, 53, tells PEOPLE about her mom, a former model who was born in Queens, New York. "The things that you've been reading, I'm sure a lot of it's about her elegance and her grace and her [art] collections and things like that."

"But I think what people are now really understanding is what a natural philanthropist she was," Nicole continues. "She was a philanthropist before it became popular to become a philanthropist and say you were one."

Jacqueline Avant Nicole Avant
Jacqueline Avant with her husband Clarence, their children Alexander and Nicole, Nicole's husband Ted Sarandos, and legendary music producer Quincy Jones in 2018. Courtesy of Nicole Avant

The scope of Jacqueline's charity work and advocacy was wide and went beyond just donating money to causes and sitting on boards tackling issues like poverty, education and rape.

"I remember being in the car with my mom after school, thinking that I was going to go to the park or to play with my friends, and we would drive all across town to Watts in South Central L.A.," Nicole says of her mom, who was on the board of the Neighbors of Watts organization, which is devoted to helping low-income families.

"I would be sitting in the backseat [asking], 'Where are we going? And why are we here? And what are we doing?'" Nicole recalls. "But my mother turned around and said, 'We are sharing our blessings, and we are making a difference in other people's lives. There are people who don't have the opportunities that you do. We can't fix everyone or save everyone, but at least we [can] show up and give as much as we possibly can to whomever is here to receive it.'"

"Whether it was donating books, or bicycles, or bringing speakers, or whatever it was, my mom was always reaching out to help other people," Nicole adds. "And she gave me that gift."

Jacqueline Avant Nicole Avant
Jacqueline with Muhammad Ali and her children Alexander and Nicole in the early 1990s. Courtesy of Nicole Avant

Something else that Jacqueline bestowed on her two children (including son Alexander, 50) was pride in their Black heritage.

"By the time I was 6 years old, she gave me a superpower and that was knowing the stock that I came from," Nicole remembers. "My superpower was, no matter what was coming against me or what people might think about Black Americans, I already knew the stories of [late Congresswoman] Shirley Chisholm, or Ida B. Wells, or Lorraine Hansberry, or Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall."

Nicole says "it wasn't just about civil rights for my mom," who told her "every day [that] there are great doctors and educators and artists… [Black people] in every arena of life, who are accomplished and who didn't quit."

She remembers hearing her mom say, "All these people, they had such courageous heart that they didn't give up, because they didn't give up on you…"

While making her children aware of Black history was a priority at home, Nicole believes her mother was also motivated to take Black artists like Winfrey "under [her] wing" to help influence the way the community is represented now. It was her way of making sure Black Americans are shown in "a non-stereotypical way," Nicole says.

Days after Jacqueline's death, a suspect, Aariel Maynor, was arrested and charged with her murder. He has pleaded not guilty. While that case makes its way through the legal system, Nicole, who is a former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas, is working through her grief by focusing on the causes that were dear to her mother's heart, like raising money for the MLK Wellness Center in Watts.

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Jacqueline with her family in 2019, two years before her tragic death. Courtesy of Nicole Avant

It's something that her 90-year-old father is encouraging her to do.

"He's doing as best as possible," Nicole says of her dad Clarence, whose life story is the subject of the Netflix documentary The Black Godfather. "I'm keeping him busy and he's keeping me on my toes. He's a very strong man."

Through all their heartbreak, Nicole credits her dad with helping her stay present.

"He has given me something that I didn't grow up with. It's a tool that has actually really helped me, which is, life doesn't stop," she explains. "Life never stops. So, you can grieve, but you still get up and move forward. You have to live your life."

And he honors his late wife's memory while giving Nicole words of encouragement, Nicole says: "He tells me every day, 'The best way you can honor your mom is to live your life.'"

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