GRTC Celebrates Black History Month: Local History-Makers Honored

In celebration of Black History Month, GRTC pays special tribute to local Black History-Makers each week in February. GRTC received more than a dozen submissions for this year’s local honorees, and will save those names for future consideration.

The following names will be displayed on bus destination header signs in February:

February 1-4:             “GRTC Honors Maggie L. Walker”
February 5-11:           “GRTC Honors Tom Mitchell”
February 12-18:         “GRTC Honors Nathan Burrell”
February 19-25:         “GRTC Honors The Payne Family” 

Maggie L. Walker devoted her life to civil rights advancement, economic empowerment, and educational opportunities for Jim Crow-era African Americans and women. As a bank president, newspaper editor, and fraternal leader, Walker served as an inspiration of pride and progress. Today, Walker’s home is preserved in Richmond as a tribute to her enduring legacy of vision, courage, and determination.

Maggie Lena Mitchell was born in Richmond, Virginia July 15, 1864. Maggie Mitchell was educated in Richmond's public schools. After graduation she taught grade school for three years. When she was a teenager, Maggie Mitchell joined the local council of the Independent Order of St. Luke. This fraternal burial society, established in 1867 in Baltimore, administered to the sick and aged, promoted humanitarian causes and encouraged individual self-help and integrity.

She served in numerous capacities of increasing responsibility for the Order, from that of a delegate to the biannual convention to the top leadership position of Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899, a position she held until her death. Under her leadership the Order's membership and numbers of councils were significantly increased throughout the country and its finances achieved solvency. Through sound fiscal policies, a genius for public relations and enormous energy, she took a dying organization, gave it life and helped it thrive.

In 1902 Mrs. Walker established a newspaper, The St. Luke Herald, to promote closer communication between the Order and the public. In speeches Mrs. Walker had reasoned, "Let us put our money together; let us use our money; Let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves." In 1903 she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Mrs. Walker served as the bank's first president, which earned her the recognition of being the first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States. Later she agreed to serve as chairman of the board of directors when the bank merged with two other Richmond banks to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Until 2009, the bank thrived as the oldest continually African American-operated bank in the United States.

In addition to her work for the Independent Order of St. Luke, Maggie Walker was active in civic groups. As an advocate of African American women's rights, she served on the board of trustees for several women's groups. Among them were the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the Virginia Industrial School for Girls. To assist race relations she helped to organize and served locally as vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was a member of the national NAACP board. She also served as a member of the Virginia Interracial Commission.

Mrs. Walker's health gradually declined, and by 1928 she was using a wheelchair. Despite her physical limitations she remained actively committed to her life's work including chairman of the bank and leader of the Independent Order of St. Luke until her death on December 15, 1934.

(This biography is from the National Park Service’s Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site.)

Tom Mitchell is a voice recognized by whole generations of Virginians. During the 1950s and 60s and right up until the 1980s, his reports and announcements informed and sparked the imaginations of Richmonders who listened to WANT at 990 on the AM radio dial. For years he was the voice of High School football including the epic Armstrong-Walker Classics.

A born communicator, Mitchell has been able to capture the spirit of the moment and convey that message in speech. But he has also described the signs of the times as a writer for many local and national publications.

Born in 1916, by the mid-20s Mitchell was aware of the life around him. He launched his career at age 14 working for the Maggie Walker’s St. Luke Herald paper on Baker Street in 1931-32 operating its printing press. He grew up to reporting for The Richmond Planet, the paper his great uncle John Mitchell made famous.

During World War II Mitchell worked as night editor (entertainment for the Norfolk Journal and Guide). He traveled to Richmond to find acts. After the war his writing appeared on the pages of The Richmond Afro-American. He edited The Virginia Journal, the publication of the black educators, the Virginia Teachers Association. When Jet magazine got started, Mitchell was brought on board as a "stringer," their reporter in Richmond.

Few people have been on the scene in Richmond and the East Coast more than Mitchell. His work as a newspaper reporter, radio personality and events promoter took him everywhere. Mitchell saw a lot of what was going on in town-from sports and entertainment to entrepreneurial businesses, crime, politics and the Civil Rights movement.

Mitchell worked for the Virginia Teachers Association from 1951 to 1959 before becoming a full-time employee of WANT.

Mitchell comes from a family directly involved in the most important moments of Richmond's black history. His great uncle, John Mitchell, was the powerhouse of the Richmond Planet Richmond's oldest newspaper started in 1882. His Father Roscoe Mitchell wrote for both the Planet and The Richmond Times Dispatch.

As a child, Mitchell could witness close-up charismatic personalities such as Maggie L. Walker. As an adult he was centrally positioned in Richmond's interlocking network of families, friends, club members and business associates.

Now at 100 years old he is still sharing his views on history and opinions about the human race. Ever the pragmatic optimist he believes there are no heights that we cannot climb. As long as we continue to report the truth. Report it without favoring any side. Then encourage all people to take responsibility and action to make things better.

(This biography of John Thomas Mitchell is slightly updated from the biography by Community Magazine/John Mitchell Media, shared by the Mitchell Family.)
To view another recent biography of Tom Mitchell,
visit here.

Nathan Burrell is a native of Essex Counties Virginia who moved to Richmond in 1999 to pursue a degree in Parks and Recreation management from Virginia Commonwealth University. Upon completion of his degree at VCU in 2003, Nathan became the Trails Manager for the City of Richmond’s Parks and Recreation Department and held that position until he became the Superintendent of James River Park System in May of 2013. 

During this time Nathan has been recognized as a leader in our Richmond community with awards ranging from “1 object of affection” by Richmond Magazine to “Top 40 under 40” by Style Weekly and most recently awarded “Stewards of the River - Guardian Award” by the James River Advisory Council.   In addition to his formal job, Nathan also sits on a number of local boards and National Advisory Councils including Groundwork RVA Founding board member, Richmond Region Ride Center steering committee and The East Coast Greenway Advisory Council.     

(This biography was submitted by Nathan Burrell.)

The Payne Family is a trio of living siblings: Robert L. Payne, Sr., Karen Payne-Woods, and Dr. Haywood A. Payne, Jr. (pictured from left to right). These children of Haywood Payne, Sr. and Rose Payne were born and raised in Battery Park in the Northside of Richmond, VA, and have each contributed locally and notably.

Robert L. Payne is dedicated to the education, preservation and advancement of Jazz, and is described as the “Godfather of Jazz in Richmond.” One of the founders of the Richmond Jazz Society (RJS), Mr. Payne is currently the President of the Richmond Jazz Society. He still resides in Battery Park today. Mr. Payne graduated from Maggie L. Walker High School in 1969, and then attended Hampton University. Although receiving no pay for his role in the RJS, his career is a testament to his commitment to inspire and educate the community about Jazz, the Arts and Culture. The Richmond Jazz Society has a Virginia Jazz exhibit that will be installed at The Valentine in September 2017.

Karen Payne-Woods is a graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia State, and is currently the Dean of Students at Rolfe Middle School. Although she led a productive career with Toyota Corp., she chose to pursue an additional degree in teaching to work with children with special needs. Ms. Payne-Woods humbly says, “I only do what educators are supposed to do.” Described by her siblings as the “rock” of the Payne Family and the “fulcrum” between her two brothers, she provides balance, congeniality, love and wise counsel, inspiring her brothers through the years to their respective successes.

Dr. Haywood A. Payne, Jr. attended Virginia Union University and then became the first African American student at Randolph-Macon College (R-MC), where he held the distinction of having the university’s highest class GPA, in Chemistry and Physics, and served as president of his class. Later he served as the first African American on the R-MC Board of Trustees and received the Honorary Doctor of Humanities degree. Dr. Payne earned an M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1977 and completed post-graduate work in Carnegie-Mellon University’s Program for Senior Executives in 1994. He joined Gulf Oil Corporation in 1970 as a systems analysis chemist and remained with the company after it merged with Chevron in 1984. He retired in 2010 as president of Chevron Business and Real Estate Services. In 2016, Dr. Payne gave the R-MC Commencement speech to graduates. (Read more about Dr. Payne in this R-MC Magazine article).

(These biographies were submitted by members of the Payne Family.)

GRTC would like to thank The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, The Valentine, the Payne Family, the Mitchell Family, and the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia for their research assistance and publicly accessible documents in helping GRTC celebrate Black History Month.

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