By Matt de Simone
The Botetourt Historical Society and Historic Greenfield Preservation Advisory Council held an Oral History Event at the Botetourt County History Museum in Fincastle on Sunday featuring stories told by current residents and guests about local African Americans and their impact on the Botetourt community in celebration of Black History Month.
Cheryl Sullivan Willis, a member of the Greenfield Advisory Council, hosted the event that saw guests seated throughout the museum’s bottom floor.
“This is an event for us to come together honoring anyone who is in Botetourt County and the Roanoke Valley; anyone who is a part of this area who has a story of Black History that wants to share their stories so that those stories can be remembered, honored, treasured, and never forgotten,” Willis said at the beginning of the event.
Willis shared a brief history of her family in Botetourt and the importance of Black History to not only the Botetourt community and Virginia, but also to the world. She also spoke about Henrietta Lacks, a Roanoke native responsible for valuable medical research for cancer patients. Lacks is honored in Roanoke with Henrietta Lacks Plaza located between the Municipal and Commonwealth buildings.
Prominent Virginians were mentioned throughout the events like Carter Woodson, who is considered “the Father of Black History”—having initiated the birth of what would become the celebration of Black History Month each February. Other names mentioned included former educator Lucy Addison, Presidential advisor and educator Booker T. Washington, and Botetourt’s own Norvel Lee, an Olympic gold medal-winning boxer who was recently recognized with a historic marker in the Gala region of Route 220 last year.
Guests told stories about other local African Americans who impacted the community and beyond. Melinda Payne, a local journalist, shared stories about her cousin, Georgia Ragsdale Curtis, who was a Black educator in the area.
Mary Johnson spoke about the connections between families in Botetourt. Namely, local educator Westina Johnson who taught at Lord Botetourt High School. Additionally, Johnson spoke about the Thompson family, who worked on Col. William Preston’s plantation at Greenfield.
Curtis Brown spoke about four African American community members who lived to be 100 years old and older. Brown also shared a story about the heroic efforts of his father, Isom Baker Brown Sr., who saved a man’s life inside of a car garage after a jack gave out underneath the man.
Brown talked about Charles Follis, a Cloverdale native who was the first African American professional football player in America. Follis was known as “The Black Cyclone” and played for the Shelby Blues of the “Ohio League” from 1902 to 1906. Follis was also the first Black baseball catcher to move from collegiate baseball to the Negro Leagues playing for the Cuban Giants (New York).
Refreshments were provided following the event where guests were able to continue sharing their stories and appreciation for the contributions of African Americans in Botetourt County.
For more information about upcoming events at the Botetourt Historical Society & Museum, visit their website, bothistsoc.wordpress.com. The museum is open Monday thru Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Sundays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
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