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.
Lonnie Liston Smith
Richmond native Lonnie Liston Smith is an influential jazz musician who played with the likes of Miles Davis. In 1973, Smith formed his own group called Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes. The group went on to produce 15 albums, several of which became mainstays of jazz-funk and with DJ's and audiences worldwide. Smith was also able to crossover and have hits in the disco and R&B world. He's also greatly appreciated in hip hop. Artists such as Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and Chance the Rapper have sampled Smith's music.
Danville native Wendell Scott is not only NASCAR's first black driver, he's also the first black driver to win a race at NASCAR's highest level in 1963. In his lone career victory, Scott wasn't initially declared the winner, even though he beat the field by two laps. It would take two more years before Scott was awarded with the win. Scott would go on to compete in 495 races at NASCAR’s highest level. He had 147 top 10 finishes. Scott was posthumously inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Born a slave in 1846, Richmond’s Mary Elizabeth Bowser would go on to become a spy, serving a pivotal role for the Union during the Civil War. Bowser was part of spy ring called, "The Richmond Underground" while working as a servant to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and his family in the Confederate White House. The information Bowser gathered helped several military leaders including General Ulysses S. Grant. Her contribution to the Union would later earn her an induction to the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
Richmond native Virginia Estelle Randolph was a pioneer in vocational education. She taught at, opened, and oversaw dozens of Henrico County schools during her 57-year career. Randolph developed the first in-service training program for black teachers and also worked on improving the curriculum for black students. Her methods were adopted throughout the country and internationally in the early 1900's. In fact, the site in Glen Allen where she first started teaching is now home to a museum and a school named in her honor.
John Mercer Langston
Born a free black in Louisa County, John Mercer Langston held many titles: abolitionist, attorney, educator and politician. In 1855, Langston was one of the first African Americans in the United States elected to public office when elected as a town clerk in Ohio. Then in 1888, Langston became the first black man to represent Virginia in U.S. Congress. In education, Langston helped establish the country's first law school for minorities at Howard University. Then in 1885, he became the first president of what is now Virginia State University, a Historically Black College in Chesterfield. To say his legacy will live on for generations would be an understatement. In 1890, an all-black town was named after him in Oklahoma, that is also home to the state's only HBCU: Langston University.
Richmond native Pleasants Roper "Snowball" Crump is a self-taught tap dancer who started out performing in Jackson Ward and at local black nightclubs. In the early 1930s Crump danced alongside another prominent Richmond Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in New York Hotels and Clubs. He'd eventually tour nationally and internationally and became one of the first African Americans to appear on “The Bob Hope Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and “What’s My Line?” Crump also entertained local Richmond baseball fans by dancing on top of minor league dugouts for more than 40 years.
Willie Lanier graduated from Maggie Walker High school in Richmond. There used to be stereotype that black athletes couldn't play a major role on defense in professional football. But in 1967, Lanier proved otherwise. The second round pick out of Morgan State University became the first black player to start at middle linebacker in the NFL. Something he accomplished in his rookie season. "Contact" as he was known for his tackling technique, played 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. He helped the team win a Superbowl, was selected to six Pro Bowls, and was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996. Four years later he was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Leslie Garland Bolling
Leslie Garland Bolling, a graduate of Virginia Union University, was the first black artist to have an exhibition at what is now the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1935. His piece, "Cousin on Friday” one in a series called, “Days of the Week” is on display there today. It's one of a small number of his documented sculptures that's still shown and preserved. Bolling was a self-taught carver, but he didn't keep that knowledge to himself. In 1938 he helped create and teach at the Craig House Art Center for black children in Church Hill
Vernon Johns of Prince Edward County is a pioneer in the civil rights movement. He may not get the credit he deserves as a pioneer, but he was an inspiration to those that lead the movement. The minister was a pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. His sermons on race relations were considered ahead of their time. His activism there paved the way for another preacher who succeeded him in the mid-1950s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The steps Johns took to fight segregation may not be in history books, but a TV biopic called Road to Freedom was made in 1994 starring James Earl Jones. In 2009, a school in Petersburg was renamed Vernon Johns Middle School.
Joseph B. Jefferson
Richmond's Joseph B. Jefferson taught himself how to play the drums and is also skilled at keyboards and bass. Jefferson is not only a multi-talented musician, he's also an accomplished songwriter. Jefferson wrote three number one songs on the R&B charts for the legendary group “The Spinners.” Jefferson would also write for the Stylistics, Dionne Warwick and the O'Jays. His music was later used and sampled by artists such as Luther Vandross, Jay-Z and Tupac.
Considered the most recruited prospect of his generation, Ralph Sampson was also the nation's top-rated basketball player coming out of Harrisonburg High School in 1979. The 7'4" center lived up to the hype at the University of Virginia when led Wahoos to their first Final Four in school history. He was the Naismith National Player-of-the-Year and a consensus first-team All-American for three consecutive seasons. He was the number one overall pick on the 1983 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. Sampson won NBA Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 1984 and led the Rockets to the NBA finals in 1986. He would later be inducted into both the College and Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley
Born into slavery in Dinwiddie, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley eventually bought her freedom, then went on to become a highly sought-after seamstress and author. Keckley became the dressmaker for president Abraham Lincoln’s wife. You can find one of her dresses in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. She later became a close personal friend and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. Three years after President Lincoln’s assassination, Keckley published her autobiography, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. She was also one of the rare formerly enslaved women to write and publish her own life story. It was considered controversial for breaking the privacy of the first family. Keckley's life has also been portrayed in other books, plays and in the 2012 film “Lincoln.”