RICHMOND, Va. — In celebration of Black History Month, CBS 6 is honoring local figures who made significant contributions in the arts, history, sports and civil rights. Join us throughout February as we highlight these trailblazers and historical figures who you may or may not have heard about.
Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker
Civil Rights icon Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker is a graduate of Virginia Union University and a former pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg. Walker was the chief of staff for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He helped organize the march on Washington in 1963 where Dr. King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Walker is known as a key strategist behind civil rights protests that turned the tide against racial injustice in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s.
Charles Sydney Gilpin was one of the most successful black entertainers of the early 20th century. The Jackson Ward stage actor, singer, and dancer was cast as the lead role of Brutus Jones in the 1920 premiere of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. He was also the first black American to receive The Drama League's annual award as one of the 10 people who had done the most that year for American theatre. Gilpin was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1991, 61 years after his death.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
Richmond native Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was an actor, dancer and the highest paid African-American entertainer in the first half of the 20th century. He was the first black performer to headline a mixed raced Broadway production and the first black man to appear in a Hollywood film that involved an interracial dance team with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel, 1935. Robinson’s birthday, May 25 is designated as National Tap Dance Day in his honor.
Basketball Hall of Famer and Petersburg native Moses Malone was the first player to go straight to the pros out of high school, when he graduated from Petersburg High School and signed with the American Basketball Association's Utah Stars in 1974. He went on to play for the NBA's Houston Rockets, Washington Bullets, Atlanta Hawks and the Philadelphia 76ers, leading them to the title in 1983 and taking home the Finals MVP award. The 6-foot-10-inch big man earned the moniker “Chairman of the Boards” for his rebounding prowess, leading the league in the category six times.
Black History Month: Douglas Wilder
Richmond native Douglas Wilder, a Korean War Army veteran, was the first to black person to be elected to the Virginia Senate in 1969. The Virginia Union graduate was also the first African American to hold a statewide office in the Commonwealth when he became the Lieutenant Governor in 1986. In 1990, Wilder became the first African American to be elected governor. In 2005, Wilder returned to elected office as the first directly-elected Mayor of Richmond.
Angela Edwards Roberts
Caroline County native Angela Edwards Roberts was the first black woman to serve as a judge in Virginia. She was elected by the General Assembly to the Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and served for 26 years, from 1990 to 2016.
Civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns helped end school segregation in America. Johns was a teenager in 1951 when she helped organize a student strike to protest unequal conditions at segregated Prince Edward County schools. Johns fight for equality arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court, and her plea was combined with what became the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education which declared school segregation unconstitutional. In 2017, the state building that houses the Office of the Attorney General was named in Barbara John’s honor.
Maggie L. Walker
Richmond native Maggie Lena Walker was a teacher, businesswoman and community leader. She was the first woman to open a bank in the United States in 1903. She was also a civil rights pioneer, entrepreneur, and mother who pushed for economic empowerment and independence in her Jackson Ward neighborhood. In 2017, Walker was honored with a 10-foot bronze statue located in downtown Richmond at Broad and Adams streets, which is a gateway to the Jackson Ward neighborhood where many of her life accomplishments occurred.
Samuel Lee Gravely Jr.
Richmond native Samuel Lee Gravely Jr. attended Virginia Union University, before leaving to join the Naval Reserve in 1942. In his Navy career that spanned 38 years, Gravely broke multiple racial barriers. He was the first African American to serve aboard a fighting ship as an officer, the first to command a Navy warship, the first fleet commander, and the first to become a flag officer, rising to the rank of vice admiral. During his illustrious career, Gravely served during World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. A US missile destroyer, USS Gravely (DDG-107), was named in his honor in 2010.
Richmond native Maxie Cleveland "Max" Robinson, Jr. paved the way for minorities in journalism as the first African-American broadcast network news anchor in the United States. Robinson began his career in radio at WSSV-AM in Petersburg, where he called himself "Max The Player," and later at WANT-AM in Richmond. Max Robinson as he was known on television, served as co-anchor on ABC World News Tonight alongside Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings from 1978 until 1983. Robinson is also a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalist which works to increase diversities in newsrooms across the country.
Richmond native Dorothy Height was a civil and women’s rights activist. Height served as president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and won numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. Some of her work included encouraging President Dwight D. Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African-American women to positions in government. Height also played a key role in organizing the march on Washington in 1963 where Dr. King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Before 1967 a person of color could not marry someone who was white in the commonwealth. That is until Mildred Loving and her husband, Richard, challenge the Virginia law. The Caroline County couple was arrested in July 1958 for violating Virginia’s laws against interracial marriage. In 1959, they were convicted and sentenced to a year in jail, with the sentence suspended on the condition that they left the Commonwealth for 25 years. But in 1963, Mildred wrote Attorney General Robert Kennedy for help. Their case would eventually be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court who unanimously struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage. Mildred and her husband were then able to return to Caroline County to live and raise their three children.
John Andrew Bowler
African American education pioneer John Andrew Bowler organize the first school for black students in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood in 1982. That school grew into what is now George Mason Elementary. Bowler would work there for 52 years. Recognizing his love and dedication for black students, the Richmond School Board later rename Springfield School in his honor. In addition to his work in education, Bowler was a minister at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Church Hill.
Richmond native and tennis great Arthur Ashe is a three-time grand slam winner and the first and only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. Ashe, who has a statue on Monument Avenue, was also widely known as a humanitarian. He was to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985. Months after his death in 1993, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Ashe the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Earlier this month, Richmond City Council voted to change the name of the Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
Henry L. Marsh III
Civil rights attorney and Richmond native Henry L. Marsh III has a long history of public service for the Commonwealth. The Maggie Walker High School and Virginia Union University graduate was elected as Richmond’s first black mayor in 1977. He also served on Richmond City County for more than a decade before he was elected to the Virginia State Senate in 1991. Marsh was reelected 10 times before he retired in 2014.
Ethel Bailey Furman
The daughter of a Richmond contractor, Ethel Bailey Bailey had a builder's bloodlines. She is known as the first black female architect in Virginia. The Richmond native completed over 200 projects in the Commonwealth including projects in the Church Hill neighborhood. Her most significant work is an educational wing at the Fourth Baptist Church at 28th and P Streets. The 1962 design is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1985, a park in Church Hill was named Ethel Bailey Furman Park in her honor.
Look for more updates throughout Black History Month.