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 Strong Men & Women honorees for 2021 are educator and entrepreneur Evelyn Reid Syphax, state senator Louise Lucas, physician and community health advocate Dr. Lerla G. Joseph, social justice activist Rev. Stan Maclin, and political activist and mentor Krysta N. Jones.
Resource materials for Strong Men & Women in Virginia History are available online through the Library of Virginia. Educators may also request free posters through our Contact Us page. The Strong Men & Women program provides two copies of a panel exhibition (as well as free educational posters) that travel across the state to dozens of public libraries, museums, and schools. The education department at the Library of Virginia has also created an interactive online component of Strong Men & Women in Virginia history. Virginia Changemakers features short biographies of Virginians who have been honored through the Library of Virginia’s signature programs Strong Men & 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 contest where high school students in Virginia are invited to respond to a prompt related to Black history. Previously an essay contest, the contest was broadened in 2021 to include submissions of performances (a song or a dance), digital projects (photography, digital art, a website, a digital exhibit, or a documentary), and creative writing entries (poetry, short stories). Four winning entries were chosen, one each from four regions in the state (Northern, Central, Eastern, and Western). Each winner received an Apple MacBook and $1,000 for their school, and was invited to present their winning submission 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 Tamia Booker, a junior from Appomattox Regional Governor’s School; Madisyn Ford, a sophomore from Oscar Smith High School; Zahria Ford, a sophomore from Rock Ridge High School; and Julie Thomas, a freshman from Harrisonburg High School. See their winning entries here.
Do you know an inspiring African American Virginian who deserves recognition for making a difference? This is your opportunity to tell us about one of Virginia’s outstanding citizens, past or present. Anyone can nominate an honoree for Strong Men & Women in Virginia History 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 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!
–Emma Ito, Education & Programs Specialist, and Mari Julienne, Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography