The black men and women featured below have had a significant impact on Virginia's history. Learn their stories below.
1895 – 1915 | educator, author, orator, and adviser
Booker Taliaferro Washington was an American educator, author, orator, and adviser to multiple presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African American community and of the contemporary black elite.
1864 – 1934 | Businesswoman and Teacher
Maggie Lena Walker was an African-American businesswoman and teacher. Walker was the first African-American woman to charter a bank and serve as its president in the United States. As a leader, Walker achieved successes with the vision to make tangible improvements in the way of life for African Americans.
1823 - 1862 SEAMSTRESS AND EDUCATOR
Born a free person in Norfolk, VA, Mary Peake devoted her life to the education and betterment of African Americans. A seamstress by day, Peake violated state law to teach her fellow blacks at night. She founded the first black school in Hampton at Brown Cottage in September 1861. Her school was a forerunner of Hampton University.
1863-1929 BUSINESSMAN, EDITOR, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST, COUNCILMAN
As editor of the Richmond Planet, Mitchell was a leading voice in favor of racial equality and against segregation. Influential in Jackson Ward, the Black Wall Street of America, Mitchell founded and served as president of the Mechanics Savings Bank. Born a slave in Richmond shortly before the end of the Civil War, Mitchell's mother taught him to read. Her son went on to serve as a city alderman and even ran for governor as a Republican in 1921.
1912-2010 CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, Richmond native Dorothy Height worked for racial justice and gender equality for more than 50 years. As president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, she advised U.S. presidents. She worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
1924-1992 | Attorney at Law
Gregory Hayes Swanson, a Danville native, was a 26-year-old practicing lawyer when he filed a federal lawsuit to gain admission to UVA to pursue a master’s in law. The law faculty had supported his entry, but the UVA Board of Rectors opposed it. After he won his lawsuit, he was admitted in 1950, setting a precedent for racial integration at the University. Swanson was the first African-American student admitted to the University of Virginia.
1869-1933 | CONCERT AND THEATRICAL SINGER
Born in Portsmouth 1869, Matilda Sissieretta Jones studied music at the Providence School of Music and the New England Conservatory in Boston. She was a trailblazing African American pioneer of the concert and theatrical stages and sang for several U.S. presidents and at the 1803 Chicago world’s fair. Her popularity spanned the globe, and she received medals and lavish gifts from many foreign heads of state.
1953-2021 | SOCIAL JUSTICE ACTIVIST
Stan Maclin (December 27, 1953–January 11, 2021) was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of nonviolence to effect social change. He became a Mennonite minister, advocated diversity and inclusion, and worked with the local chapter of Virginia Organizing to bring immigrant groups together to combat anti-immigration legislation. He promoted criminal justice reform to eliminate lengthy mandatory sentencing, and taught on empowerment and reentry after incarceration. In response to police shootings of unarmed Black men, Maclin co-founded Americans Resisting Minority and Ethnic Discrimination in 2016. The peaceful rallies he organized during the summer of 2020 led to establishment of the People's Equality Commission of the Shenandoah Valley, which provides a collective platform for citizens to combat institutional racism.
1926-2000 | EDUCATOR AND ENTREPRENEUR
When Evelyn Syphax could not find a preschool in segregated Arlington that would accept her son, she established the Syphax Child Care Center in 1963. She offered a high quality education while emphasizing respect for each child and his or her culture and ethnicity. She also taught and served as a reading specialist in the county's public schools until retiring in 1972. A champion for children and women, she organized a local Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter to provide scholarships and mentoring programs and established a local chapter of the Coalition of 100 Black Women. In 2010, Virginia Union University named its School of Education for Evelyn Reid Syphax.