Great Virginians

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

Virginia has contributed more than its fair share to the history of this great republic of ours. From the first President, George Washington, to the nation’s first elected African-American governor, Doug Wilder, Virginia’s sons and daughters have contributed an enormous amount to the rich tapestry of America, perhaps especially in the fields of statesmanship, politics, athletics, the arts, and education.

These contributions have come from Virginians in all walks of life, from the four corners of the Commonwealth, from the 17th century to the present day, and from Virginians of all ethnic backgrounds, from black to white to the Native Americans whose ancestors lived in this bountiful, blessed land for countless generations before the first Europeans touched its shores.

We are pleased to feature in this month’s issue a fascinating portrait of one of Virginia’s most outstanding citizens, Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery near Roanoke, and through grit and hard work later became a world-class educator, orator, author and the founder of Tuskegee Institute. In the course of doing background research on him, we bumped into another, perhaps less-known black Virginian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who was equally influential in his own way and as accomplished in his own right as was the legendary Booker T. Washington.

For those not familiar with Dr. Woodson (which, I must confess, would include yours truly before doing this research), he was born in New Canton, a crossroads village in Buckingham County, in 1875. Over the next three-quarters of a century, till his death in 1950, he became one of the most powerful voices in the African-American community. Through his work as a teacher, author, journalist and, especially, historian, he served as a passionate advocate for the importance of black history and a chronicler of the myriad contributions of African-Americans in virtually every realm of American life. 

In fact, in becoming the “Father of Black History,” Dr. Woodson in 1926 almost single-handedly promoted the celebration and study of black history by designating the second week of February as a time to study the lives and contributions of two icons of the black community, President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. This week later grew into what we know today as Black History Month, still celebrated in February.

To learn more about the contributions of black Virginians, go to the state’s “Virginia Is for Lovers” Web site, at www.virginia.org, and under “Attractions” click on “History and Heritage,” and then on “African American.” In this section you’ll find a wealth of fascinating historical and cultural information, including brief

biographies on just a few of Virginia’s many

notable black citizens, including such female

luminaries as Richmond’s Maggie Walker, who became the first woman bank president in the nation; Clifton Forge’s Roger Arliner Young, the first African-American woman to be awarded a doctorate in zoology; and Newport News’ Ella Fitzgerald, the “First Lady of Song” and a Grammy award-winning jazz singer whose amazing range and exhilarating vocal runs thrilled audiences worldwide as she performed with some of the world’s greatest musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra.

Also included on the list are such notables as Halifax County’s (Clover’s) own Willie Lanier, whose stellar career with the Kansas City Chiefs led him to election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and who has since contributed to the philanthropic and business life of his adopted home of Richmond; Norfolk’s Tim Reid, an outstanding TV actor and director; and Richmond’s Arthur Ashe, a Medal of Freedom award winner whose later contributions as a humanitarian and inspired and inspiring writer and commentator perhaps overshadowed even his excellence as one of the world’s greatest tennis players, the latter cemented with his Wimbledon championship in 1975.

The list, of course, goes on ... and on, and continues to expand. A month to celebrate this rich history will, we hope, only serve as a prompt for all of us to study in greater breadth and depth the fascinating narrative of our Commonwealth, our country and our world. Let’s

resolve to explore, examine, research and honor our best and brightest citizens, from all cultures and backgrounds and eras, from George Washington to Booker T. Washington, in the fullest, worthiest way possible, by doing so month in and month out, year in and year out.


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