Remembering those who worked tirelessly for civil rights

Published 7:01 pm Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Black History Month began Monday. This year, in particular, it’s an observance that deserves a heightened level of attention.

The past 12 months have seen the most significant movement in the last half century toward fulfilling the Declaration of Independence’s belief that “all men are created equal.” The Black Lives Matter movement released pent-up frustration over what all-too-often is a justice system with tragically uneven results.

As we attempt to build a better future, it is always good to examine the good as well as the bad of our past, and that includes recalling people who have had a positive impact on our own community. During nearly half a century with this newspaper, I have had the honor of getting to know and writing about many of the good people, as well as some of the bad, who have lived among us. They included some awfully good examples that can be held up to young people as they study Black History Month.

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Among them were the Rev. S.R. Williams of Main Street Baptist Church and his formidable wife and partner, Georgia Lacy Williams. They were a remarkable couple. Together — and I do mean together — they ministered to the community during Rev. Williams’ 45 years in the Main Street Baptist pulpit.

Together, they worked across racial lines during the 1960s and 1970s, a period during which too few church or civic leaders of either race made the effort. Mrs. Williams was the driving force behind the construction of Church Manor Apartments and for years managed the low-income housing as well as a day care program on behalf of Main Street Baptist, always striving to make a better life for the county’s poorest Black residents.

Rev. Williams was recognized as the dean of the ministerial community in northern Isle of Wight and was respected by ministers of white as well as black churches. The Williamses didn’t shy away from social inequities and were respected spokespersons when they felt the need to be so.

Then, there was Amy Palmer of Carrollton. Ms. Palmer was an activist for civil rights. She organized the local NAACP chapter and was especially active in promoting voting rights, working tirelessly to encourage Black Isle of Wight residents to register and go to the polls.

In a lesson for all of us, no community need was too small for her attention. She worked for basic improvements, including adding a school bus stop for neighborhood children and street lights along Smith Neck Boulevard.

She would appear before the School Board or Board of Supervisors whenever she felt an issue needed a strong voice. She continued attending meetings as her health failed, carried to the upstairs meeting rooms of the supervisors in a wheelchair when there was no handicap access.

Vivian Pretlow was physically a tiny woman, but she was a giant within the county. She was born in Maryland and moved to Charles City as a young teacher with a master’s degree and there met her husband-to-be, Kenneth Pretlow, a school principal. They later moved to Isle of Wight, where she became a teacher at Georgie Tyler High School. She always demanded excellence from her students and expected better from her county.

Woodrow Odom was an extension agent back when Southern society didn’t think white farmers and black farmers should receive advice from someone of the opposite race, so there were Black agents for Black farmers and white agents for white. He went on to serve as a respected member of the county Planning Commission, back in the formative days of that organization.

Mr. Odom’s wife, Clementine, was a Smithfield native, daughter of local barber and local civil rights pioneer Fred Wrenn. She could be one of the gentlest and kindest people I ever encountered, but she could get fired up in a minute when she thought there was a local injustice to be addressed.

These are just a few of the recent local African American heroes in our community, and Black History Month is a good time for today’s students to learn about them.

But not all of our local heroes are deceased. James Chapman just turned 92. He was Smithfield’s first black mayor and served in that capacity with great distinction for 19 years. He was forward-looking and even-handed in his dealings with the community, and all the while worked for a better life for his race. He continues to be a “go to” adviser for anyone who has questions about race relations here.

And even more recently, I would count Karra Johnson and the other young people who organized a Black Lives Matter protest march here last summer. They are following in the footsteps of local greats and their efforts bode well for the future.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is