Column – Amy Palmer was a happy, and effective, warrior

Published 7:10 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was led nationally by some amazing people, men and women who gave up whatever personal comfort and security that might have been possible in those days to insist that all men and women are indeed created equal. They paid a heavy price, including, for some, their lives.

The movement could not have succeeded, however, without local men and women who, by that point in American history, had, as the old saw goes, “had enough.” And across the nation, particularly in the South, men and women by the thousands answered the call. They led voter registration drives, demanded better education facilities, insisted on access to restaurants and other public accommodations, chided local government for failing Black residents in numerous ways and challenged the business community to open more doors of opportunity to African Americans. 

No activist stood taller in Isle of Wight County than did Amy Palmer. She was a lifelong resident of Carrollton and a lifelong champion for the county’s Black community. 

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Mrs. Palmer was a happy warrior. She would walk into a Board of Supervisors or School Board meeting with a smile on her face and then speak with fire in her eyes.

Her demands weren’t outlandish. Often, they were quite simple. She and her husband of 60 years, Otis, lived on Smiths Neck Road. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, residents of the largely Black neighborhood walked along the road because they didn’t have cars. At night, it was dark and dangerous, so Mrs. Palmer lobbied the supervisors for years to have Virginia Power install lights on several poles along the road. Eventually, the company did, at county expense, and they burn today, lighting the path for pedestrians and thus making the community safer. 

She lobbied the School Board, back before the schools were integrated, to put the same textbooks in Westside High School (the Black high school) that were used in Smithfield High School. Traditionally, used and often outdated books were sent to Black schools. Mrs. Palmer was largely responsible for changing that.

She worked tirelessly to help Black county residents register to vote, accompanying them on what was too often an intimidating trip to the registrar’s office.

She founded the local chapter of the NAACP and was its president for 25 years, almost until her death in 1991.

Much of what Mrs. Palmer did was on behalf of children. She and her husband never had children, but she was known as the “community mother” along Smiths Neck, working on behalf of children throughout the community as well as raising her sister’s three children, including Henry Marsh, who would go on to become a state senator.

She operated a small country store and converted half its shelf space to shelves for books, thus creating her own community library. Literacy, she knew, could be a poor child’s salvation.

“She was always doing everything she could to make the community better for the African American child,” her niece Brenda Lee said when interviewed by The Smithfield Times for Mrs. Palmer’s 1991 obituary. “If there was a child who needed something, she would do her best to make sure they got it.”

Late in life, it became increasingly difficult for Mrs. Palmer to get around, and I recall her showing up at supervisors’ meetings with a walker, and eventually in a wheelchair. But ill health wouldn’t stop her activism.

And when she wasn’t lobbying for improvements, she was working quietly within the church that was her lifelong spiritual home — Macedonia A.M.E. She organized the church’s first choir and served as the church treasurer.

In her obituary, we quoted relatives and friends about this remarkable lady, who was known as “Aunt Amy,” to far more than her actual nieces and nephews. 

For “every African American person in Isle of Wight, many of the advantages they are enjoying right now, they owe to Aunt Amy,” Lee said at that time.

Today, streetlights still burn along a portion of Smiths Neck Road, a modest monument to a remarkable woman.


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