Women - Woven With Words
Notable African-American Women of Berks
Several people contributed to this article, including Mary Gbaya-Kanga and Christopher Zinkowicz
Although their efforts and accomplishments are too often hidden from view, African American women in Berks County have a long legacy of caring about and fighting for women’s equality, human rights, and better lives for those in their community. The alphabetical list below includes just a few of the many important African American women in Berks County history.
Tiffenia Archie, a graduate of Reading High School, Albright College, and Temple University, is the Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at Albright College. Dr. Archie holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Temple University.
Cheryl Brown, financial consultant and co-owner (with her husband) of Practical Financial Solutions, LLC, and Waxberry Refillable Oil Candles, is a columnist for The Drum.
Tonya A. Butler graduated from Albright College and Widener University School of Law. She was a Berks County Public Defender for three and a half years before going into private practice in 2001. After working at a law firm she decided to open the Law Office of Tonya A. Butler. Butler states, “I am now in a position to serve the people in my community.” Butler handles criminal and family law, wills, landlord-tenant matters, and represents complainants in housing discrimination cases for the city of Reading.
Dinah (Bell) Clark was born in Bern Township in 1794 to parents who were slaves. After being freed under the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery of 1780, Clark became an indentured servant, finally earning her freedom at the age of twenty-one. She walked the streets with a sawbuck on her shoulders the same way that a man would, cutting customers’ boards and planks on the curb, earning more money than she would have doing laundry. Clark is buried at the Charles Evans Cemetery in an unmarked grave on the lot of Aaron and William Still (Goda 2004-05, 12-13).
Mabel Davis was the first African American vice-principal in the Reading School District.
Vermie L. Farrell, an early advocate for education for African Americans, was born some time around 1895. Farrell has been honored by the Pennsylvania Museum and Historical Commission for her contributions to the community; her son, Dr. H. Alfred Farrell, credits his own success to his mother’s sacrifices, which include scrubbing floors and washing windows.
Mary Foster, Elizabeth Jackson, and Delilah Singleton, along with Rev. William E. Wansley, founded the Black Heritage Center in Reading in 1969.
Grace Asberry Jones, who retired in 1993, worked in the Reading school district as a teacher and principal for thirty-five years. She was the first African American teacher hired under contract and the first African American guidance counselor in the Reading school district. When she became principal of Lauer’s Park Elementary School in approximately 1968, it was the first time in ninety years that the Reading district had hired an African American principal. Jones was also the principal of 13th and Union Elementary School and Amanda Stout Elementary School, as well as an adjunct instructor at Albright College.
Although she had planned to attend West Chester State Teachers College (now West Chester University), Jones chose East Stroudsburg because of racial discrimination at West Chester—although she had been accepted to West Chester, she was not permitted to live in the dormitories. Moreover, to fulfill the swimming requirement, Jones would have had to swim at the YMCA for African Americans rather than at the school facilities. She later received a master’s degree in guidance and administration from Temple University. Jones was the first African American member of the Delta Kappa Gamma-Beta Chapter and the first African American to be inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at East Stroudsburg (for field hockey and basketball). She was a recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Image Award, 1993 and recipient of the Bethel A.M.E. Service to Mankind Award, 1993. In 1993, Jones received a key to the city of Reading, and February 20, 1993, was declared Grace Asberry Jones Day. Jones was the commencement speaker at East Stoudsburg’s winter commencement on December 13, 2003. She died at the age of seventy-one.
Barbara A. Key, a church and community leader in Reading, was the assistant vice president and senior branch manager of a bank, as well as a board member of the YMCA, Berks Women in Crisis, Junior Achievement, Leadership Berks, and the United Way. Key was a member of the Bethel AME church and a past president of the senior usher board. She died in 2002 at the age of sixty-one.
Velma King was chosen by the Reading school board in 1957 as the first African American teacher in its integrated school, seventy years after it was first integrated. King is the widow of Reverend James C. Bannerman, former pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church.
Daisy (Adams) Lampkin, a civil rights activist dubbed “Mrs. NAACP,” was born in Reading some time between 1884 and 1888. In 1909 she moved to Pittsburgh, where she served as national field secretary for the NAACP from 1935 to 1947, and was a major fundraiser for the organization. Lampkin was a founder of the Lucy Stone Civic League and the National Council of Negro Women. She was the vice-president of the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company, the most widely circulated African American newspaper in the world in the 1940s and 50s, and twice served as an alternate delegate to the National Republican Convention (she later changed her party allegiance to support Franklin D. Roosevelt). A March 11, 1965, editorial in the Pittsburgh Gazette states, “[Lampkin] struggle[d] for Negro rights before the justice of the cause was popularly accepted” and was “instrumental in advancing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and, indirectly, the case [Brown v. Board of Education] which led to the legally enforced desegregation of public schools.”
Pattee Miller, who died in 2002, was a community leader and “a source of inspiration and support for thousands of Berks Countians” (Amprey, “Lodge Members” 9). Miller worked as a radio personality, social worker, and a community and church organizer. As a Democratic candidate for city council in 1971, Miller was the first African American woman to run for public office in Reading (she lost), and she was the first woman elected president of both the board of trustees at Wernersville State Hospital and the Greater Reading Council of Churches. She was the first African American to host a talk show (“Night Mayor”) at WEEU Radio in Reading. Miller was an organizer and member of the Berks County Commission for Women, founded in 1993, a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Council, and she was active on the Human Relations Council of Berks County. She was assistant director of Family Guidance Center, Reading, and coordinator of HELP, a 24-hour telephone emergency service in Berks County.
Precilla Miller was superintendent of the Bethel A.M.E. Church Sunday School in Reading for forty-five years (Goda 2004-05, 16).
Jenny Terry, a former slave, was the head of an important family in Reading’s history. After being freed, Terry and her nine children came to Reading, where four of her sons became successful barbers and businessmen, and two fought in the Civil War (14). Moses Terry, her oldest son, was a part of the Underground Railroad and was Reading’s first African American postal worker, later becoming principal of the Phillippi School, a “colored school” on North 10th Street in Reading, from 1873 to 1876. Terry’s daughters worked for the Washington Presbyterian Church, her grandson was Reading’s first African American police officer, and her great-grandson was Reading’s first African American doctor (Goda 2004-05, 11-14).
Chloe Walker, who died in August 1910, was born a slave on a farm in Virginia to African parents. Walker moved to Reading, via Chambersburg and Harrisburg, with her ten children in 1864; her husband, Edward Walker, a carter and city scavenger, had come to Reading after the Civil War (“Mrs. Chloe Walker” 1909).