The notion of segregated schools in Chesterfield feels like a remnant of the distant past, long ago relegated to oral tradition as just one of many horrors visited upon Black people across the Jim Crow South.
To Charlotte Wood, the passage of time has done little to dull her memories of that era. Having lived through the movement to integrate the county’s public education system, she finds unique parallels to her own story.
Now a retired high school teacher in her early 80s, she remains passionate about the work of the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia’s African American History Committee: to collect, preserve, interpret and promote the rich history of African Americans in the county.
“That’s one of the things our group is about: telling the stories of the people who lived during that time,” said Wood, who currently serves as chair of the committee. “Much of our history has been neglected or is unknown.”
Born in Midlothian, Wood was educated solely in segregated schools. After graduating from Carver High School and earning a degree from Virginia Union University and Hampton Institute, she decided to pursue a career in teaching.
She taught at Carver until Chesterfield’s schools were integrated, then accepted a position at Midlothian High – which she had been barred from attending as a student because of the color of her skin.
“I remember when I was attending Virginia Union, I would commute home and sure enough there were signs for whites only and colored bathrooms. Same for restaurants. We lived that,” Wood recalled, noting history books at the time recorded little about African American history.
The local historical society created a standing committee dedicated to the research of Chesterfield’s African American history in 1999. Wood joined in 2010, having been urged to do so on several occasions by former student, fellow Midlothian native and avid historian Audrey Ross.
The following year, the committee launched its Four Score and More initiative, compiling biographies on Black county residents 80 years and older.
So far, more than 50 people have been profiled in the ongoing effort, one of several major projects undertaken by the committee. Another of its most important works is an exhibit about Cornelius Mimms, a lawyer and teacher who was the first African American elected to the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors.
“Our society will benefit if there’s an understanding that history is about people and what they experienced. History has to come alive to be relevant,” Wood said. “There are consequences of what happened to them. Some we understand, some we don’t understand. Sociological scars and financial issues have a lot to do with how our people have gone forward in life.”
While the number fluctuates, the African American History Committee currently has about 15 members. It’s a diverse group in both race and gender, comprised of some retirees and others who are still in the workforce.
Wood takes encouragement from renewed interest among the younger generation who want to “hear and research our authentic history.”
“One of the things we’re interested in is getting young people to pick up the torch and carry it on,” she said. “They have technology and devices where they can quickly pull up a fact. That fact takes on more meaning by talking to people – this is not always possible – but through researching of primary sources the history comes alive. This is the kind of work our committee does.
“African American history is American history,” Wood added. “You have to look back and learn from the past. The point is not to dwell on it, but we have to know our history so we can move forward with a certain amount of truth.”