A summit meeting of leaders convened in Winchester on Saturday night. However, the gathering’s agenda wasn’t about elections or public policy, although each of the attendees certainly understands “power politics” as well, or better, than most Washington politicians. Rather, the evening honored eighteen Northern Shenandoah Valley men and women who have improved the course of their local communities, and in some cases their country, through endless hours of selfless service and dedication.
The Northern Shenandoah Valley Legends Ball was the dream of Nancy Barbour and Alverna White. The two women modeled their event on a 2006 event hosted by Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey’s three-day celebration honored twenty-five African American women in the fields of art, entertainment, and civil rights. The celebration included a luncheon, white-tie ball and Gospel brunch.
“Tonight marks a significant milestone in our community as we convene the first Northern Shenandoah Valley Legends Ball” Ball Coordinator Barbour told over the event’s over two hundred attendees. “Legends, we see you. We have followed your many accomplishments through the years and benefited from your tireless efforts and innumerous contributions. Our communities are improved and enriched because of you.”
While Oprah Winfrey’s Legends list focused on nationally-known African American women, the Northern Shenandoah Valley Legends Ball included both men and women and delivered, in some ways, a more poignant message through its recognition of the local and on-going civil rights struggles that fuel continued human rights efforts on both the national and world stage.
For example, Legend honoree Betty Ann Kilby Fisher Baldwin traveled to the event from her home in Cleburne, Texas. Kilby was the infant complainant in the 1958 Virginia landmark civil rights lawsuit Betty Ann Kilby v. Warren County Board of Education. Kilby’s position in the suit was ultimately upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on September 11, 1958 prompting then-Virginia Governor James Almond to close Warren County’s only high school under the infamous Massive Resistance laws.
“The lawsuit was filed by our father and he used Betty Ann as the claimant in the suit” Kilby’s brother James said. “Our father was a janitor in Warren County who didn’t finish high school but he knew education was the way for his children to get ahead in life. That’s why he filed the suit.”
On September 27, Almond later closed six all-white Norfolk schools rather than submit to desegregation. Rather than integrate, Almond chose to engage in “massive resistance” against court-mandated racial integration of public education. Kilby’s lawsuit forever changed the civil rights landscape of Virginia.
Community activist Dee Dee Liggins, also honored at last night’s event, focuses her efforts on promoting diversity acceptance and racial unity in her hometown of Berryville, Virginia.
“I was shocked when I found out that I was being honored!” Liggins said at Saturday’s event. “I’m humbled by the honor” she said.
Liggins simply never tires of working to improve the community and often works on multiple causes at once.
Liggins recently finished a multi-year effort to gain the release of two Berryville men from prison through community petitions that culminated in a successful clemency petition approved by former Virginia Governor Kaine. She is currently spearheading an effort between the Josephine Community Improvement District, Town of Berryville and Clarke County Board of Supervisors to fund a community center and after-school facility on land donated several years ago by the Byrd family.
“Kids need a place to go and do things to help them stay out of trouble” Liggins said.
Other Legends honored Saturday night have contributed their service in less high-profile ways. Juanita Thornton Finley continues to make a daily impact in the lives of her community using more traditional, but no-less effective methods.
“I always like to work in the background” Finley said. “I don’t know why, that’s just how I am”.
Finley is a long-time fund raiser for the Millwood Center where she also serves as treasurer of the Millwood Goodwill Association Center. In addition to caring for her husband, Finley serves on the board of the Love and Charity Cemetery and the Little Chapel Cemetery.
Finley has been a member and served as clerk at the Guilfield Baptist Church in Millwood for many years.
“I just love serving our community” Finley said.
Finely has lived her entire life in Millwood, less a 20 year period when she followed her husband as he was stationed around the world while serving in the US Air Force.”
“I always longed to come back to Clarke County” she said. “The people here are just so nice.”
The list of accomplishments of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Legends is nothing if not profound. An entire volume could easily be written about the accomplishments of each.
Brenda Jones served 39 years as a teacher and administrator in the Clarke County Public School systems. Jones’s description of her career as a “remarkable and rewarding journey” hardly scratches the surface of the enormous impact she contributed to the lives of her students and faculty.
Many of the Legends performed the local “heavy lifting” that ultimately saw success in the Civil Rights act of 1964. Dorothy Davis was educated at Johnson-Williams High School in Berryville before going on to teaching positions in both the Alexandria and Howard County Public School Systems. Davis integrated Alexandria’s Hammond High School faculty in 1963 and continues to fight of civil rights today.
Davis is vice president of the NAACP’s Martinsburg, West Virginia chapter. She is also a regular volunteer at Winchester’s Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum.
In addition to recognizing the seventeen Legends present at Saturday night’s event (Anna Jackson, a long-time resident of Boyce who passed away on July 5 was honored posthumously) the event also was a fundraiser to help with the renovation and preservation of local African American education landmarks including Douglas High School in Winchester and Josephine School Community Museum in Berryville.
“Your event [â€¦] serves to remind us of the history of Douglas High School as the first and only black high school in Winchester” said former Virginia governor and current US Senator Mark Werner in a letter addressed to the gathering. “This building now proudly houses the Shenandoah Valley Boys and Girls Clubs and the city’s Head Start program. The Josephine School Community Museum has preserved Clarke County’s African American heritage and history.”
Speaking also to the fundraising efforts of the Legends ball supporters, a letter from House of Representatives member Frank Wolf said “”These programs are very valuable in promoting educational growth for the youth of the community and your efforts to raise funds to help in the renovations of the school are commendable.”
The Northern Shenandoah Valley Legends Ball was a formal “black-tie” event held at the George Washington hotel in Winchester, Virginia. The catered affair featured live music performed by the Old School Singers and local vocalist Susan Summers.
Other Legends honored at Saturday’s event included:
Sharon Williams Harris
Louanna Holmes Blackman
Donald L. Finley, Sr.
Michelle Walker Harris
Anna Jackson (posthumously honored)
Clarke County was officially represented at the event by Boyce Mayor Franklin Roberts while the City of Winchester’s Mayor Elizabeth Minor was also present.
Local Fox news broadcaster Allison Seymour spoke briefly at the close of the ceremony honoring the Legends and expressed her profound appreciation for their efforts in advancing equal opportunity for everyone.
“I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I would be broadcasting for Fox News today if it wasn’t for you.” Seymour said. “Our community can’t thank you enough.”
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