Tribute to Dr. Virginia K. Newell

Virginia K. Newell

Tribute to Dr. Virginia K. Newell
March 31
07:24 2022

By Betty Walker

There are some stories that seem to “will” being told; this is just such a phenomenon.

It is an American story and to be faithful in its telling, it must, as all stories, be written with integrity, meaning fully encompassing simultaneously the multiplicity and inextricably bound experiences and connections in one intentionally integrated account, as lived or forced to live.

I desire, therefore, to acknowledge Dr. Virginia Newell’s boundary-breaking and transcendent life, evoking a “Woman for all Seasons.” 

There came a point in this exceptional life when, through her early dedicated and determined family nurturing and formal education respectively, Virginia K. Newell became an intellectual powerhouse, having doubly degreed in college and graduate school in the demanding scholarly discipline of mathematics – a discipline still dominated by white males and still bedeviled in 2022 by race and gender gaps in acquisition by both Blacks and all women.

She earned her degrees in mathematics approximately eight decades ago –  the undergraduate degree from Talladega, a prominent Black college in Alabama, and her master’s degree from New York University, a major white university up North.

Both were earned during the Jim Crow Era.

Additionally, Newell pursued and received a doctorate in the field of education from the University of Sarasota. (The University of Chicago earlier had extended an invitation for pursuit of her doctorate there, but she declined for family reasons.) 

It was with symbiotic, in tandem, scholarly leveraging that she maximized as teacher and administrator, “lifting multitudes of  Negro children as she climbed.”

The small slice of her life doing such lifting in my J.W. Ligon Junior Senior High School in the late ‘50s, in Raleigh, North Carolina, is what I know best and shall hone in on herein, hastening to add that there was nothing small about the immense ramifications of that brilliant and, indeed, productive portion of her profound journey.

She is now chronologically a centenarian at 104 years of age, possessing all that accumulated knowledge, wisdom and a rare testimonial record of achievement and service to her country and community. Possessing a sharp mind and memory as well as an amazing spirit and energy that has resisted aging, she continues to avail herself ready for the fight for humanity’s good.

For my classmates and me, she was our new mathematics teacher, a young woman, holder of two major degrees, and we didn’t know quite what to make of her. She was a tall, willowy beauty – sophisticated and friendly with the loveliest smile. This we soon learned was not to be confused as in any conflict with the implacable, “on a mission”  seriousness and “tough as nails” equal parts of her radiant persona. Her toughness had already been manifested in defiance in an encounter between her and the Southern white male superintendent of our segregated public school system in her employment interview. Upon his decision to hire her, he had directed in no uncertain terms and under no circumstances was she to teach us any higher mathematics beyond our presumed ability to master, being that arithmetic was all we would ever need anyway. It is important to note that this directive to that particular woman by that particular man in that particular racially inhospitable place approximately seven decades ago, carried potential severe professional consequences if disobeyed and discovered. It is equally or more important to emphasize here, not parenthetically, but as a central point, that these Southern “mind” encounters between the races were often deceptively misleading, with an unseen inversion of the presumed power relationship.

It was Virginia Newell who knew the intention of the superintendent, so confident of his legally enshrined racial position that he, of course, felt it natural to reveal, while he had not a clue of the intention of the Negro job applicant before him. He, therefore, was leaving himself at a distinct disadvantage while hiring and releasing a catalyst to the undoing of what he was demanding she preserve.

Disobedience and defiance were precisely what she had intended even before the moment of his dictate, part and parcel of the white supremacy bondage package to assure our second class education and second class lives. In this regard, Newell was mighty and courageous and also something else: an exemplar of many Negro teachers of that and preceding eras, who then had carried the label “colored teachers.”

Upon contemplation over many years of that “tribe” and their work, I have come to appreciate the major revolutionary role played surreptitiously and masterfully by them in the liberation of Negro children and youth. Up until the mid-’50s Brown v. Board of Education decision, we were legally in a legislated apartheid society. Negro teachers in our schools were imparting knowledge to liberate us and simultaneously massively perfecting our imperfect Union, being deprived of the educated contributions we could have made for betterment and taxable compensation rather than exploitation.

By the time that Mrs. Newell was our teacher, our J. W. Ligon Jr. High School faculty roster could boast teachers who were extremely well prepared, often highly educated with both undergraduate and graduate degrees in multiple disciplines, as she herself, but they were locked out of high level positions reserved “for whites only.” They were so underpaid comparably to their white counterparts that the NAACP legal giant Thurgood Marshall had to go into courts to litigate some parity in the salaries.

There was, however, no process then or subsequently to address and ameliorate the enormous psychological costs of rank discrimination in the workforce to these teachers,

So fortuitously for us, if not personally for them, we became beneficiaries of their scholarly presence and the richness of the enormous intellectual gifts that we received, an irony delivered by the operation of Southern segregation. However, for many, educating the young was their honorable position of choice. And clearly it was not made for money.

Virginia Newell and her historic “cavalry to our rescue” were behind those closed segregated doors, not only superbly prepared, but they loved us, knew what we would face and what we surely would need. She and other teachers, way before their coming, knew that there was more to us than the belittling and reductionist perceptions of a society that despised us when bothering to consider us at all. With personal and professional investments in students, they gave their all, fully persuaded that our preparation was for a free existence. Evoking the Old Testament Book of Habakkuk 3:19, our God through our teachers was preparing our feet to walk on higher places. “We shall be free someday” was more than a song.

The Negro teacher was mercifully, for many children, the first role model to be imitated in every aspect as speaking, dressing, how to carry oneself, and assuredly motivation for the choice of education as a popular major later in college. But the most powerful and impactful influence of Negro teachers as Mrs. Newell was the embodiment of racial progress, actualization of possibilities and the indisputable breathing truth that we could “hold fast”  to our dreams.

Historically, the consistent objective of our teachers through the ages was to raise a standard of our excellence, courage, dignity and determination to never give up. Books that denigrated us with lies that made us “uncomfortable,” such as we were happy as enslaved people, or containing no positive imaging, or with torn-out pages, or before there even were books, proved sometimes no match for the creativity of people acquainted with lived models and experiences of “making a way out of no way.” And at other times, the cruel, unrelenting challenges and burdens of segregation won.

But these teachers persisted.

Dr. Virginia Newell had a dear friend, Dr. Maya Angelou, who wrote about us as a people always “rising,” in spite of being written “down in history with bitter twisted lies.” Dr. Angelou also coined the title “Phenomenal Woman,” a perfect description of our teachers.

A couple years ago, a former mathematics student and my junior high school classmate, Lt. Colonel, Ret. Joseph H. Holt Jr., applicant son of pioneering first and only family in our hometown to challenge the segregation of public schools in 1956, pursuant to the Brown decision, wrote Dr. Newell a letter informing her of her propitious impact upon his education and life. He shared pertinent documentation and “The Exchange,” an article between him and me, published in our time-honored newspaper, The Carolinian, regarding the solitary, dangerous and courageous family struggle for equality of education for him and for all of us.

Dr. Newell called me immediately after reading it, absolutely devastated by her lack of timely knowledge of those horrendous intimate details of the almost four-year Holt family trailblazing experience, expressing great passion and fury that “reparations must be pursued and paid to Joe”! That was the essential Virginia Newell, caring for her advanced math student after over half a century. She was still on that “battlefield,” leading with that same passionate fire for justice and righteousness in her good soul, the soul that determined that we would never be diminished by low expectations on her fierce watch, that we would be taught and thrive with understanding of higher things beyond arithmetic.

In the tradition of a modern day Harriet Tubman, she did not intend to lose anyone under her tutelage. It was through our close mutual Raleigh friend, Judge Beryl Sansom and her husband, the renowned historian, Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore (fittingly both from educator families) that I was able to reconnect after so many years. That compelled first a “musing” that I composed about her meaning to students and I called and read it to her. 

There needed to be more from me, a record, even if modest and incomplete as this one, of the magnitude of the loving and genius commitment to Negro students by her and Negro teachers.

Dr. Newell, please accept this as that note of gratitude of Ligon School and, indeed, all your fortunate mathematics and other students everywhere, and on behalf of your honorable colleagues, here or in another realm, for the good fight waged generation after generation by you and symbolic of folks like you.

Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, an history authority on matters of Black education, has summed up you and our educators perfectly as this: “Excellence without excuse and commitment to Race.”

You, “the Negro teachers,” were God’s divine instruments, inspiring and mentoring and “saving” us as required by no other teachers on American soil and are responsible in a major manner for “how we got over.”

Much love, 

Betty Stevens Walker, Ligon High School, Class of 1960; Spelman College, Class of 1964; Harvard Law School, Class of 1967.

This tribute is an abridgement of Walker’s completed work also entitled “A Tribute to Virginia Newell” – the editor.

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