2020 Strong Men & Women in Virginia History honorees

African Americans and people of African descent have been a part of Virginia’s—and America’s—story since European colonization of the North American continent began. Yet the contributions of African Americans often have been ignored, obscured, or underappreciated by those who recorded history. In observance of Black History Month, the Library of Virginia and Dominion Energy honor distinguished Virginians, past and present, as Strong Men & Women in Virginia History for their important contributions to the state, the nation, or their professions. These individuals demonstrate how African Americans have actively campaigned through education and advocacy for better lives for all Americans.

The Library started honoring notable African Americans in 2007, drawing from the Library’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Short online biographies were published during African American History Month to highlight the achievements of African American Virginians who had been ignored by the history books. In 2009 the Library partnered with Capital One to expand the program, which was renamed African American Trailblazers in Virginia History, and included a poster sent to schools, a traveling exhibition hosted by public libraries, and a public celebration recognizing the honorees. The Library also began sponsoring an annual student essay contest. African American Trailblazers honored distinguished Virginians throughout the state’s history who served as powerful examples of individuals who refused to be defined by their circumstances and who persevered during challenging times. In 2013 the Library’s African American Trailblazers program merged with Dominion Energy’s Strong Men & Women: Excellence in Leadership series to create the Strong Men & Women in Virginia History program.

2011 African American Trailblazers in Virginia History poster

Resource materials for Strong Men & Women in Virginia History are available online through the Library of Virginia. Educators may also request a set of materials through our contact us page. The Strong Men & Women program mails free educational posters, and two copies of a panel exhibition travel across the state to dozens of public libraries, museums, and schools. Last year, the education department at the Library of Virginia created an interactive online component of Strong Men & Women in Virginia history. Virginia Changemakers features short biographies of Virginians that have been honored through the Library of Virginia’s signature programs Strong Men and Women in Virginia History (celebrating Black History Month), Virginia Women in History (celebrating Women’s History month), and New Virginians (celebrating the state’s diverse immigration history).

Dominion Energy and the Library of Virginia co-sponsor an annual student essay contest where high school students in Virginia are invited to honor outstanding African Americans. Four winning essays are chosen, one each from four regions in the state (Northern, Central, Eastern, and Western). Each winner receives an Apple MacBook and $1000 for their school, and is invited to read their winning essay at the annual Strong Men & Women in Virginia history awards program. Past essays have addressed questions around voting rights, perseverance, fairness, and more. This year’s contest winners are Massaponax High School senior Rebekah Bautista, Great Bridge High School senior Jy’Mir Starks, Forest Park High School senior Ilaria Cabell, and Gate City High School senior Ava Seagle. Read their winning essays here.

Do you know an African American Virginian who changed the way others think? Would you like to encourage students to learn more about African American role models? This is your opportunity to tell us about one of Virginia’s outstanding citizens, past or present. Anyone can nominate here. We highly encourage school classes to nominate; if a class’s nominee is chosen, the nominating teacher will be eligible to receive $250 toward school supplies or instructional materials, along with a complimentary three-volume set of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography (a $150 value) for the school library. The teacher and class will also be recognized at the Strong Men & Women reception in Richmond. This is a chance to let students be historians and participate in the commemoration of worthy accomplishments!

This year’s honorees include judge and musician Marcus D. Williams; community activist Penny J. Franklin; chemical engineer and inventor Joycelyn S. Harrison; government official Kaci M. Easley; and football player and philanthropist Torrey Smith.

-Emma Ito, Education & Programs Specialist, and Mari Julienne, Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography

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