Women helped shape the Peninsula we know today, but their contributions are sometimes overlooked or obscured.
Here are ten women who contributed to the physical, spiritual and cultural growth of this community. Some managed to make a mark on the world.
The charismatic favorite daughter of Indian chieftain Powhatan, Pocahontas was only about 12 years old when the first English settlers arrived in 1607 to found the Virginia colony at Jamestown. But she personally intervened to save the struggling settlement twice, bringing much-needed food in a time of starvation and alerting the colonists to an impending Indian attack.
Following her conversion to Christianity and her marriage to John Rolfe in 1614, she traveled to England and was received as royalty by the Court. Her premature death there in 1617 only added to the romance of what has long been one of America's most enduring founding legends.
Cynthia Beverley Tucker Washington Coleman
Inspired by the rich history of the town where she grew up and lived, this far-sighted Williamsburg woman co-founded the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities — now known as Preservation Virginia — which became the first private, state-wide preservation society in America in 1889.
Beginning with the restoration of the ancient gravestones at Bruton Parish Church in 1884, Coleman planted the first seeds of the preservation movement that ultimately led to the establishment of Colonial Williamsburg. She played key roles in saving the Powder Magazine and Governor's Palace land in Williamsburg, followed in 1893 by the APVA's acquisition of 22.5 acres at Jamestown Island and the federally funded construction of a sea wall that saved the buried 1607 town site from eroding into the James River.
Talent seemed to effortlessly ooze from singer, actress and Newport News native Pearl Bailey. Born in 1918 — about a year after the great Ella Fitzgerald was born in the same town — she was already winning amateur night awards in Washington, D.C. at age 13. She eventually toured with Cab Calloway, starred in movies with greats including Nat King Cole and sang a duet with Frank Sinatra ("A Little Learnin' Is a Dangerous Thing"). She briefly hosted her own variety show on ABC television show in 1971, but she's better remembered for her role in an all-black Broadway production of "Hello, Dolly!" in 1968.
There were brains behind that talent, too. She wrote books and earned her bachelor's degree in theology from Georgetown University at age 67. She was appointed a special ambassador to the United Nations in 1975. President Ronald Reagan gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. She died in 1990, but two years earlier, she returned to her hometown as the Wickham Avenue library branch was renamed in her honor.
The influence of Ella Fitzgerald, known as America's First Lady of Song, is strong and enduring. That voice — swinging, pure and optimistic — had an almost universal power to charm.
Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79. When she last performed near hometown of Newport News in 1992, residents from her former neighborhood presented her with a plaque honoring her achievements, which include more than a dozen Grammy awards and more than 40 million albums sold.
"I'm just so proud to have passed through Virginia," she told the crowd at the Hampton Jazz Festival. "I was a little bitty baby here. My mother was the real representative here, and so I'd like to accept this for her ... She'd be so proud."
The Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival was launched in 1998 to highlight the connection between the musical giant and this shipbuilding city. The event would eventually draw big names including Natalie Cole, Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson.
That festival, formerly held at Christopher Newport University, continues at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in southeast Newport News each April.
When you drive past the Hampton Coliseum, you're seeing a little bit of Ann Kilgore's handiwork.
Kilgore served 22 years on the Hampton City Council and was the city's first female mayor, serving six terms before she retired in 1980.
It was a time of transformation for the city, which was once described as moving from "a sleepy community into a vibrant, vital city" under Kilgore's watch.
The bold and imaginative mayor helped create the city's commerce department — a forerunner to today's economic development and tourism efforts. The retail corridor on Mercury Boulevard and the opening of Coliseum Mall were directly related to her growth efforts.
The Hampton champion died in 2001, a few days before her 78th birthday.
Across city lines, Jessie Rattley pioneered the position as first black and first woman elected to the Newport News City Council. From 1986 to 1990 — the last four years of a 20-year council stint — Rattley served as the city's first black and first female mayor.
Remembered as an advocate for the southeastern community, Rattley fought to win millions in urban renewal funds for the city. She also championed investments into what is now known as Jefferson Lab, and much of the northern and western parts of Newport News grew under her watch, attracting employers like Canon to the area.
Her fighting spirit was memorialized in 2001, when her body lay in state in city council chambers for five hours. Local historians believe she was the first person ever accorded such an honor in the city.
Mary T. Christian
Described as a woman of perseverance and inspiration, Christian has been a noted educator and champion of health issues and families. In 1985, she became the first black person to be elected to the Virginia House of Delegates since Reconstruction. She served for 18 years before retiring in 2004.
Raised in Hampton, she graduated from Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, with highest honors and a bachelor's degree in elementary education. After obtaining a master's degree from Columbia University in 1960, she joined the HU faculty and eventually became dean of the School of Education. Christian earned her doctorate from Michigan State University in 1967.
Christian is the first black woman to serve on the Hampton City School Board, from 1973 to 1979. She has been a strong advocate for numerous community initiatives. The Mary T. Christian Auditorium at Thomas Nelson Community College is named for her.
This free black Hampton woman ran a clandestine school for African-Americans before the Civil War, helping to create an unusually literate, well-educated community of slaves and free blacks who played crucial roles in the "contraband" slave settlements that led to emancipation.
She also was the first teacher hired by the American Missionary Association for the pioneering contraband slave schools that later developed into Hampton University, and she continued to be a symbol of African-American aspiration long after her premature death in 1862.
Since 1965, The Sarah Bonwell Hudgins Center in Hampton has provided services for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. It sits on 38 acres, includes four group residential homes, a child development center open to all, and day programs and workshops for adults and seniors. It carries the name of the mother-in-law of a major benefactor, Chester Carlson of New York, but it owes its existence to Sylvia Feldman Zucker.
A behind-the-scenes powerhouse, Zucker, herself a New York transplant, raised millions for the center, which operates on private donations. She was its first executive director and held that position for almost two decades. She continued her involvement with the center's foundation until her retirement in 1994, when James C. Windsor, chairman of the board, said, "Sylvia is the best validation I know of the notion that one person can make a difference."
Zucker died in 2009 at the age of 91. Friends described her as personable, driven, unselfish, and having a passion for helping those with intellectual and developmental disabilities lead productive lives through work and play.
Flora D. Crittenden
A former educator, whose name is now on a Newport News middle school (formerly G.W. Carver High School) Flora Crittenden's influence is felt all through the region. She was born in Brooklyn in 1924 and her family moved to Newport News in 1937, where she attended Huntington High, a segregated high school. She recalled that the supportive atmosphere and committed teachers she encountered there "made me blossom." In 1949, she started teaching at G.W. Carver High School, having earned a degree in health and physical education. In all, she spent more than 30 years as an educator and guidance counselor.
She went on to become a council member and served in 11 sessions of the Virginia General Assembly as a state delegate representing the 95th district. She was known throughout her career for her support of public education, welfare reform and voting rights. She was honored for her support of the Newport News Drug Court and was inducted into the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board Hall of Fame for her commitment to its mission. She retired from public service in 2003 at age 78.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun