Influential Black Virginians

There are many powerful stories of Black men and women who courageously rose above adversity and hardship. Virginia is home to many Black history figures, some well-known and others not widely heard, but all have contributed greatly to our culture. From early freedom seekerseducators, inventors, and public figures, to today’s greatest athletes and musicians, we celebrate the following Black Virginians for their unequivocal accomplishments and legacy they left or will leave behind.

Freedom Seekers

Sally Hemings (1773-1835) had at least six children fathered by her owner, Thomas Jefferson. She left no written records of her life; therefore, details are extracted from plantation records, descendant stories, and most importantly, recollections written by her son, Madison. Hemings’s relations with Jefferson are believed to have begun when she was between the ages of 14 and 16 during Jefferson’s term as Minister to France. In Paris, Hemings was legally a free servant and refused to return to Monticello once Jefferson’s term ended in 1789. She returned only after negotiating freedom for their unborn children, and decades later Jefferson freed all of Heming’s children once they reached 21 years of age. Jefferson did not grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit. Learn more when visiting the The Life of Sally Hemings room at Monticello illuminating the life of one of the most famous and least understood Black women in U.S. history.

Nat Turner (1800-1831) was an enslaved mystical preacher who led a two-day rebellion, known as the Nat Turner Rebellion, of both enslaved and free Black people in Southampton County, Virginia. Beginning August 21, 1831, the rebellion caused the death of approximately 60 white men, women and children and 120 slaves and free Blacks. The rebellion was suppressed at Belmont Plantation on August 23, 1831 and resulted in state legislatures passing new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free Black people, restricting right of assembly and other civil liberties for free Black people, and requiring white ministers to be present at all worship services. Turner survived in hiding until later captured and hanged for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection.”

Henry “Box” Brown (1815-unknown) was an enslaved man who shipped himself to freedom in a wooden box. Born on a plantation in Louisa, Virginia, Henry was sent to work in a tobacco factory in Richmond at age 15. He had a wife and four children who were later sold to a plantation in North Carolina. This tragic, irrevocable loss of his family fueled his ambition for freedom. In 1849, Henry made a 27-hour journey from Richmond to Philadelphia tangled in a box labeled “dry goods.” Henry’s story of perseverance is one that is not widely known. Not only did he accomplish an unfathomable feat, but he then turned his freedom narrative into an anti-slavery stage show as Henry “Box” Brown. In remembrance of Henry “Box” Brown, a metal replication of the box he escaped in can be viewed on Richmond’s Canal Walk not far from the tobacco factory in which he worked.

Mary Richards Bowser (1846-unknown) was born a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond. After being freed by her owner, and following her schooling in Philadelphia, Mary returned to Richmond where she posed as Van Lew’s servant and joined her ring of spies. Bowser made her way into the Confederate White House as a full-time servant to Jefferson Davis during the Civil War. As Davis’s servant, Bowser read plans and documents laid out or hidden throughout the house and relayed her findings to Van Lew. Jefferson Davis knew there was a leak of information coming from his house but never suspected Bowser. In 1995, Mary was honored by the U.S. Government for her spying during the Civil War and inducted into the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame.

John Dabney (1824-1900) spent the first 41 years of his life enslaved while simultaneously acquiring his reputation as a renowned chef and bartender in Richmond. To earn money, Dabney’s owner would hire him out to work in restaurants and hotels allowing him to earn tips. He was able to marry and purchase his wife’s freedom and was in the process of purchasing his own freedom when slavery was abolished. Although free, he continued to pay off his last bit of debt to his previous owner, which earned him a reputation and ability to secure credit at any bank in Richmond. Learn more about John Dabney’s legacy as a 19-century renowned chef and bartender through the film "The Hail-Storm".

Educators & Inventors

Booker T. Washington — (1856-1915) Hardy; Educator, Founder of Tuskegee Institute.

Robert Russa Moton — (1867-1940) Amelia County; Educator, Lawyer, successor to Booker T. Washington as President of Tuskegee Institute.

Virginia Randolph — (1870-1958) Richmond; African-American educator. She was named the United States' first "Jeanes Supervising Industrial Teacher” and was posthumously honored by the Library of Virginia as one of their "Virginia Women in History" for her career and contributions to education.

Roger Arliner Young — (1889-1964) Clifton Forge; Zoologist; The first African-American woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in zoology.

Henrietta Lacks — (1920-1951) Roanoke; The progenitor of the HeLa cell line, one of the most notable cell research discoveries ever made. Her cells lead to many important breakthroughs in biomedical research, including the polio vaccine. Today, the HeLa cell line has been recognized as a globally significant contribution to medicine and research.

 

Public Figures

Mildred Loving — (1939-2008) loving_posterMildred Loving and her husband Richard, an interracial couple living in Caroline County, were plaintiffs in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in 1967 the Supreme Court ruled in their favor and ordered Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and all state anti-miscegenation laws as unconstitutional violations of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case remains relevant today and frequently cited in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Learn more about Mildred and Richard’s unwavering love and battle for justice in the film, Loving.

Maggie L. Walker — (1864* –1934) Richmond; First woman bank president in America, Advocate of Black women's rights
* A discovery in 2009 revealed bank records showing Walker's birth earlier than the widely believed 1867 date.

L. Douglas Wilder — (1931-present) Richmond; First elected African-American Governor in U.S. history.

Barbara Johns — (1935-1991) New York City, but grew up in Farmville, Prince Edward County. Sixteen year old junior at Robert Russa Moton High School who organized a student strike for a new school building (1951). The NAACP advised the students to sue for integration. The Farmville case was one of the five eventually rolled into the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that declared segregation unconstitutional (1954).

Oliver White Hill — (1907-2007) Richmond; Lead attorney with Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which was consolidated with Brown v. Board of Education at the Supreme Court; First African American Richmond City Council member (1949). Highly decorated with the top-prize being the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed by President William J. Clinton (1999).

Vernon Johns — (1892-1965) Prince Edward; Uncle of Barbara Johns and minister at several Black churches in the South and a pioneer in the civil rights movement. He is best known as the pastor 1947—52 of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. He was succeeded by Martin Luther King Jr.

Royal L. Bolling — (1920-2002) Dinwiddie; Massachusetts legislator and father of Boston politicians Bruce and Royal Jr. While serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1965, he sponsored the state's Racial Imbalance Act, which led to the desegregation of Boston's public schools.

Henry L. Marsh III — (1933-present) Isle of Wight County; Attorney involved with Brown v. Board of Education on the Virginia front; first African American mayor of Richmond (1977-82); Virginia State Senator (1991-2014).

Joseph Jenkins Roberts — (1809-1876) Norfolk; Born free at a time when many were born into slavery. Boarded a ship to Liberia with his mother, six siblings, and wife in 1829. Became a sheriff in 1833; first Black governor of the colony of Liberia (1840-1847); elected the first president of the new Republic of Liberia (1848). Served as president twice (1848-1856, 1872-1876). Helped found Liberia College (1851); served as a professor and president.

Randall Robinson — (1941-present) Richmond; African-American lawyer, author and activist, noted as the founder of TransAfrica. He is known particularly for his impassioned opposition to apartheid, and for his advocacy on behalf of Haitian immigrants and Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. 

Anthony W. Gardiner — (1820-1885) Southampton; Gardiner was born in Virginia, but relocated with his family to Liberia. He became Vice President of Liberia in 1871 and was elected President of the country from 1878 to 1883.

William Harvey Carney — (1840-1908) Norfolk; First Black Medal of Honor recipient, decorated for his "extraordinary heroism on 18 July 1863 ... when the color sergeant was shot down, Sergeant Carney grasped the flag, led the way ... was twice severely wounded."

Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. — (1865-1953) Franklin County; Yale University graduate, prominent minister for Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York between 1908 and 1936. By the time his son took over the pastorate in 1937, church membership totaled 7,000, making it one of the largest Protestant churches in the world.

Musicians & Entertainers

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson — (1878-1949) Richmond; Dancer, stage and screen actor in early 1900s.

Ella Fitzgerald — (1917-1996) Newport News; "The First Lady of Song;" Grammy Award-winning Jazz Singer.

Pearl Bailey — (1918-1988) Newport News; Actress, Singer and Author; Tony Award (1967); Medal of Freedom Award (1988).

Lonnie Liston Smith  (1940-present) Richmond; Jazz pianist and keyboardist recording with notable musicians Pharaoh Sanders and Miles Davis. Meshed jazz with rap in the 90s.

Don Pullen  (1941-1995) Roanoke; Jazz pianist, organist, and composer. Well-received in Europe for his avant-garde jazz. 

Tremaine "Trey" Aldon Neverson, aka Trey Songz — (1984-present) Petersburg; Singer-Songwriter, Rapper, Producer, and Actor.

Tim Reid — (1944-present) Norfolk; Actor, writer, director, producer. WKRP in Cincinnati, Simon & Simon, Sister, Sister. Co-founder of New Millennium Studios in Petersburg, VA.

Joseph B. Jefferson — Richmond/Petersburg; songwriter. "One of a Kind (Love Affair)" performed by The Spinners and released in 1972, topping the R&B Singles Chart and reaching number eleven on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in 1973. Other songs include "Games People Play," and "Sadie," sampled in "Dear Mama" by Tupac Shakur.

Wanda Sykes — (1964-present) Portsmouth; Comedienne and actress. Film and television credits include The Wanda Sykes Show, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Evan Almighty, Monster-in-Law, Nutty Professor 2, Chris Rock Show;  Emmy Award Winner (1999, 2002, 2004, 2005).

Blair Underwood — (1964-present) Tacoma, WA moved to different states and graduated from Petersburg High School; Actor, film and television credits include Dirty Sexy Money, Full Frontal, Rules of Engagement,City of Angels, LAX, L.A. Law, The Event; NAACP Image Award Winner (1992, '95, '99, 2001).

Jesse L. Martin — (1969-present) Rocky Mount; Actor. Broadway and television credits include Rent, New York Undercover, 413 Hope Street, Alley McBeal, Law & Order, and Smash.

Missy Elliott — (1971-present) Portsmouth; Songwriter, Producer, Arranger, Talent Scout, Record Mogel. Considered the top female hip-hop artist of all time. Four-time Grammy Award Winner (2001, 2002, 2003, 2005).

Timothy Z. Mosley, aka Timbaland — (1972-present) Norfolk; Songwriter, Producer, Rapper. One of the highest paid musicians according to a 2007 Forbes article, "Hip Hop Cash Kings." Grammy Award Winner (2006)

Pharrell Williams — (1973-present) Virginia Beach; Composer, Singer, Producer, Rapper, Fashion Designer. Part of hip-hops most successful production team, The Neptunes, and the performing group N*E*R*D. Three-time Grammy Award Winner (two Grammy Awards in 2003, and one in 2006).

Maxie Cleveland "Max" Robinson, Jr. — (1939-1988) Richmond; First African-American broadcast journalist in the U.S., most notably serving as co-anchor on ABC World News Tonight alongside Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings from 1978 until 1983. Robinson was a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Spencer Christian — (1947-present) Charles City; TV weatherman for ABC's "Good Morning America"

Chris Brown — (1989-present) Tappahannock; Singer-Songwriter, Dancer, Actor.

D’Angelo (Michael Archer) — (1974-present) Richmond; American R&B singer, songwriter, and record producer. Four-time Grammy Award Winner (two in 2001, two in 2016).

Caressa Cameron — (1987-present) Fredericksburg; 2010 Miss America.

Athletes

Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson — (1899-1971) was the force behind integrating tennis. As his nickname “Whirlwind” suggests, he stormed across the American tennis landscape for three decades (1940-1970) and changed tennis forever. The former football All-American built a tennis dynasty in Lynchburg, VA, that produced the first two African-American grand slam champions, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.

Arthur Ashe — (1943-1993) Richmond; Tennis player, writer, commentator; Wimbledon champion (1975); Medal of Freedom Award (1993).

Wendell Scott — (1921-1990) Danville; First (and only, as of this publication) African-American to win a NASCAR race (1963); "State Hero" Resolution by the Virginia General Assembly (1991); International Motorsports Hall of Fame Inductee (1999); Virginia Sports Hall of Fame Inductee (2000).

Pernell Whitaker — (1964-2019) Norfolk; Boxer; Olympic Gold Medalist (1984); member, International Boxing Hall of Fame (2006).

LaShawn Merritt — (1986-present) Portsmouth; Olympic Gold Medalist (Beijing 2008)

Gabrielle Douglas — (1995-present) Virginia Beach; Gymnast. Olympic Gold Medalist (London 2012). First African-American all-around gymnastics champion.

BASKETBALL PLAYERS

Allen Iverson — (1975-present) Hampton; Basketball player; Philadelphia 76ers (1996-2006; Rookie of the Year, 2001 league MVP); Denver Nuggets (2007-2008); Detroit Pistons (2009). Olympic Bronze Medalist (Athens 2004)

Dr. Edwin B. Henderson — (1883-1977) Washington, DC, settled in Falls Church for more than 50 years; "Grandfather of Black Basketball;" Introduced basketball to African-Americans on a wide-scale, organized basis in 1904; Author of The Negro in Sports (1939); Principle organizer of the first rural branch of the NAACP.

Moses Malone — (1955-2015) Petersburg; basketball player; ABA Utah Stars, St. Louis Spirits (1974-76); NBA Buffalo Braves, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers (1976-95); NBA MVP (1979, '82, '83); named "One of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History" (1996); member, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (2001).

Ralph Sampson — (1960-presentHarrisonburg; basketball player. First Overall Draft Pick (NBA Draft, 1983). Houston Rockets (1983-1987), Golden State Warriors (1987-1989), Sacramento Kings (1989-1990), Washington Bullets (1991), Unicaja Ronda of Spain (1992), Rockford Lightning of CBA (1994-1995). Four-time NBA All-Star (1984-1987), NBA Rookie of the Year (1984), NBA All-Star Game MVP (1985).

J.R. Reid — (1968-present) Virginia Beach; American Basketball player; Charlotte Hornets (1989–1992); San Antonio Spurs (1992–1996); New York Knicks (1996); Paris Basket Racing (1996–1997); Charlotte Hornets (1997–1999); Los Angeles Lakers (1999); Milwaukee Bucks (1999–2000); Cleveland Cavaliers (2000–2001); Strasbourg (2001–2002); Baloncesto León (2002–2003). Assistant coach for the Monmouth Hawks. Third-team All-American – NABC (1989); First-team All-ACC (1988); Second-team All-ACC (1987); ACC Tournament MVP (1989); ACC Rookie of the Year (1987) and more.

Alonzo Mourning — (1970-presentChesapeake; Basketball player; Second Overall Draft Pick (NBA Draft, 1992), NBA Charlotte Hornets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-2002, 2004-08), New Jersey Nets (2003-04); Olympic Gold Medalist (2000).

FOOTBALL PLAYERS

Willie Lanier — (1945-present) Clover; Football player, Kansas City (1967-77); member, pro football Hall of Fame (1986).

Lawrence Taylor — (1959-present) Williamsburg; football player; Second Overall Draft Pick (NFL Draft, 1981), New York Giants (1981-93); member, pro football Hall of Fame (1999).

Charles Haley — (1964-present) Gladys; American Football Player; San Francisco 49ers (1986-1991); Dallas Cowboys (1992-1996). The first five-time Super Bowl champion and second only to Tom Brady who has six, Haley attended William Campbell High School and James Madison University.

Bruce Smith — (1963-presentNorfolk; American Football Player; Outland Trophy winner at Virginia Tech (1984) , First Overall Draft Pick (NFL Draft, 1985), Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins; member, Virginia Sports Hall of Fame (2005); member, College Football Hall of Fame (2006).

D.J. Dozier — (1965-present) Norfolk; American Football Player; Minnesota Vikings (1987-1990); Detriot Lions (1991); Heisman Trophy finalist (1986); Dozier scored the winning touchdown of Penn State's 1987 National Championship Fiesta Bowl victory over Miami.

Jamie Sharper — (1974-present) Richmond; Baltimore Ravens (1997-2001); Houston Texans (2002-2004); Seattle Seahawks (2005)

Atiim Kiambu Hakeem-ah "Tiki" Barber — (1975-present) Roanoke; American Football player, sports broadcaster, author; NFL New York Giants (1997-2006); NBC's "Today," "Football Night in America" and "Sunday Night Football" (2007-present); identical twin brother of "Ronde" Barber.

Jamael Orondé "Ronde" Barber — (1975-present) Roanoke; American Football player, author; NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1997-2012); Super Bowl XXXVII winner vs. Oakland Raiders (2003); identical twin brother of "Tiki" Barber.

James Farrior — (1975-present) Ettrick; American Football player; New York Jets (1997-2001); Pittsburgh Steelers (2002-2012); Super Bowl XL and XLIII winner

Darren Sharper — (1975-present) Richmond; American Football Player; Green Bay Packers (1997-2004); Minnesota Vikings (2005-2008); New Orleans Saints (2009-2010)

Plaxico Burress — (1977-present) Norfolk; American Football Player; Pittsburgh Steelers (2000-2004, 2012-2013); New York Giants (2005-2008); New York Jets (2011); Super Bowl XLII winner.

Erron Kinney — (1977-present) Ashland; American Football Player; Tennessee Titans (2000-2005)

Damien Woody — (1977-present) Beaverdam; American Football Player. New England Patriots (1999—2003), Detroit Lions (2004—2007), New York Jets (2008—2011); Super Bowl XXXVI and XXXVIII champion; Pro Bowl 2002 and 2004. On August 5, 2011, he joined ESPN as an NFL analyst and can be seen on SportsCenter, NFL Live and other shows.

Michael Vick — (1980-present) Newport News; American Football player; Atlanta Falcons (2001-2006); Philadelphia Eagles (2009-2013); New York Jets (2014); Pittsburgh Steelers (2015); First African-American quarterback to be drafted first overall in an NFL Draft (2001). First Archie Griffin Award winner (1999). NFL Pro Bowl (2003, 2004, 2005)

DeAngelo Hall — (1983-present) Chesapeake; American Football Player; Atlanta Falcons (2004-2007); Oakland Raiders (2008); Washington Redskins (2008-2017)

Michael Robinson — (1983-present) Richmond; American Football Player; San Francisco 49ers (2006-2009); Seattle Seahawks (2010-2014); Super Bowl XLVIII winner.

Melvin Upton — (1984-present) Norfolk; Baseball Player; Tampa Bay Rays (2004-2012); Atlanta Braves (2013-2014); San Diego Padres (2015-2016); Toronto Blue Jays (2016)

Kendall Langford — (1986-present) Petersburg; American Football player; NFL Miami Dolphins (2008-2011); NFL St. Louis Rams (2012-2014); Indianapolis Colts (2015-2016); Houston Texans (2017)

Kam Chancellor — (1988-present) Norfolk; American Football player; Seattle Seahawks (2010-2017); Super Bowl XLVIII winner.

Percy Harvin — (1988-present) Virginia Beach; American Football player; Minnesota Vikings (2009-2012); Seattle Seahawks (2013-2014); New York Jets (2014); Buffalo Bills (2015-2016); Super Bowl XLVIII winner.

Russell Wilson — (1988-present) Richmond; American Football player; Seattle Seahawks (2012-present); Super Bowl XLVIII winner.

Tyrod Taylor — (1989-present) Hampton; American Football player; Baltimore Ravens (2011-2014); Buffalo Bills (2015-2017); Cleveland Browns (2018-2019; Los Angeles Chargers 2019-present

Chandler Fenner — (1990-present) Virginia Beach; Football player; Seattle Seahawks (2012-2013); New York Giants (2014-2015); Bristish Columbia Lions (2016-2017); Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2018-present); Super Bowl XLVIII winner.

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