February 04, 2008|
As we all know, February is Black History Month. There are well-known persons who lived in Henry County who have certainly made their mark on our luminous history as Dr. Dana Baldwin who was the first physician of Martinsville to volunteer for service in World War I. Dr. Baldwin launched various businesses and to this day is remembered for Baldwin's Block or simply “The Block.”
Another person that is remembered in this community is Richard H. Clarke for whom a Henry County elementary school was named. Mr. Clarke was instrumental in education, took great interest in improving education for blacks, as well as in other civic ventures. Clarke was responsible for public transportation for students, especially for the high school in Martinsville.
The only child of Joel Cephus and Sarah Louise Bannister was born in Henry County on February 8, 1882, a little girl named Anne. She had a love of reading and a love of nature that inspired her to write poetry. She married Edward Spencer and the home that Edward built for them at 1313 Pierce Street in Lynchburg in 1903 is one of the few historical landmarks in Virginia that pays tribute to an African American. Anne Spencer was a famous poet and her poetry represents her belief that the earth was the source of her strength. She died in 1975 at the age of 93.
Other well-remembered African Americans, much younger than those above, were Carl Hairston who played professional football with the Philadelphia Eagles and Lou Whitaker, both graduates of Martinsville High School. Whitaker played professional baseball with the Detroit Tigers.
One of the lesser known people of this community was born a slave. John Watt "Uncle Watt" Perkins was the oldest of six children born to Paul Perkins who had taken the surname of his last owner, Patsy Perkins. Uncle Watt never attended school but taught himself to read after getting someone to teach him the names of the letters in the alphabet. He read from the Bible and from the "Ladies Birthday Almanac" and these he carried with him when he visited the people who lived in his community, both black and white…all people were the same to him.
During the great flu epidemic of 1918, Uncle Watt was the guardian angel of the Marrowbone and Fontaine communities. He took care of entire families, administered home remedies, made soups and broth and fed them, chopped and carried in wood for the fires. He was a member of Marrowbone Primitive Baptist Church, a very zealous Christian. Uncle Watt farmed but he never owned land as he sharecropped and moved quite frequently. His specialty was growing watermelons. He took them along with butter and eggs to market on Saturdays and special court days and “hawked” up and down the streets of Martinsville. He married Hannah Hairston in 1872 and they had seven children. This family is well remembered, as Uncle Watt never met a stranger nor did he refuse to help anyone that he could.
Another important person to many people was Hattie Smith Via Finney. Hattie was born in 1898 near Stoneville, North Carolina, the daughter of Jackson Lee and Mary Foster Smith. The family later moved to the Preston area of Henry County. Hattie was a mid-wife for 53 years and brought more than a thousand babies into this world. Her first husband was Dennis Via, and after his death she married Flem Finney.
I could never write anything about the African American community in Henry County without mentioning John Bruce Harris, Sr. Mr. Harris was a soft-spoken person. He was a friend and one of the true historians in this area. When he was telling you about history, you listened and you learned. First and always the educator, Mr. Harris taught school and became the first African American principal in the county at Campbell Court Elementary School in Bassett. He did research on African American local history that included personalities as well as happenings. Mr. Harris spent many hours seated in front of the old microfilm reader/printer at the Bassett Public Library copying census records and marriage records that not only included his family but his community. We owe a debt of gratitude to this man for the information he left us, as his is the only African American collection that is accessible to the public other than those at the Library of Virginia.
These are just a few of the people that we are celebrating during Black History Month this year. I’m certain that you know others who are important to the history of Henry County. Share your information with us so that others will know of them, too.
“The Roots that make Us One are Stronger than the Branches that Divide Us.” Author Unknown