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Ridgeway's work inspired others

Citizen of the Year
Apr. 06, 2013 @ 10:42 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Sylvia Ridgeway retired in 2000 after 24 years of teaching, but those who are close to her say she has never stopped inspiring people to become leaders in their community.

The lifelong Huntington resident has been a driving force behind the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in West Virginia, first becoming the president of the Huntington chapter and now serving dual roles as the local president and leader at the state level.

Because of her relentless efforts with the NAACP and a lifelong commitment to education, The Herald-Dispatch is honoring Ridgeway with its Citizen of the Year award for 2012.

"Sylvia is very protective of those who have been left out of the mainstream, but she's also worked tirelessly to make sure everyone she comes across reaches their full potential," said Joseph L. Williams Jr., one of several people who nominated Ridgeway for the award. "It's quite apparent that she's a leader who can bring out the best in all people."

Ridgeway, 73, taught English at Huntington High School from 1976 to 2000. After her retirement from teaching -- she still serves as a substitute teacher -- she wanted to get more involved in community service and saw the NAACP as the perfect avenue.

Ridgeway joined the organization when she was a teenager. The black community was strong in Huntington in the 1950s, due in part to close-knit families and churches, she said. But racism was prevalent everywhere she went.

The Orpheum Theater on 4th Avenue was the only place in Huntington where blacks could see a movie, Ridgeway said. They had to sit in the balcony even if the ground floor was empty.

"I also remember colored day at Camden Park," she said. "It was the one day out of the year that we could go there. Our moms always got new dresses for us."

But there was a specific incident that Ridgeway says changed her direction in life. She was home from West Virginia State College one summer and was looking for a job. The only openings she could find were in department stores. Ridgeway's mother, who worked at an attorney's office, asked her boss if he could help her daughter get a job at the Cabell County Courthouse updating voter registration lists.

The attorney obliged and gave Ridgeway what she thought was a letter of recommendation. As she took the letter to the courthouse, she noticed the envelope containing it was unsealed. She opened it to see what the attorney had written about her.

"All it said was, 'Please give this poor little black girl a summer job,'" Ridgeway said. "It was an insult and demeaning. I wanted to be recognized for my intelligence and because I was dependable."

Ridgeway spent much of the 1960s working for the Job Corps and raising four children with her husband, Ray. In 1969, she returned to college, this time at Marshall University, to pursue her bachelor's degree in education. She worked in the dean's office of the College of Education and attended classes during her lunch breaks and in the evenings. She finally accomplished her goal in 1975.

"She had social skills like you wouldn't believe," said Sally Plymale, who taught at Marshall while Ridgeway was a student. "I was struck by her personality and the way she could work with people.

"She has always had a purpose in life, whether it's her family, the church, teaching or the NAACP. To see someone go and go like she has is a wonderful thing."

When Ridgeway became more involved with the Huntington chapter of the NAACP in 2000, the president wanted to step down and membership had dwindled. She was asked to assume the leadership role and accepted.

"It became part of me because I felt there was a need," Ridgeway told The Herald-Dispatch in 2004. "It was not something I sought out. It was something that found me."

Ridgeway is now in her fourth term as president of the Huntington chapter and was elected president of the West Virginia Conference of Branches of the NAACP in August 2011. In her time with the organization, she has resurrected local chapters across the state and brought structure to its mission, says Jerome Reed, a regional field director for the NAACP whose office in Baltimore oversees seven states.

"She's been an amazing advocate for elevating the civil rights agenda at the state level," he said. "She has a very team-oriented approach and had a clear sense of what needed to be done with other state leaders to make the NAACP in West Virginia much stronger and more pro-active."

Ridgeway has fought for fair housing, job equality, exposing cases of institutional racism in the criminal justice system, and, not surprisingly, education.

"My main mission has been education," she said. "It's the root of everything else we do. It influences our health, our employment opportunities and our politics.

"We still have a long way to go with education. I see a breakdown between the middle school and high school levels, and I see a lot of emphasis placed on sports instead of academics. I also think we need to tell our students that not everyone is meant for college and that you can still make a good life for yourself by going to vocational school."

Reed said one of Ridgeway's crowning achievements with the NAACP came in 2012 when the West Virginia Legislature created the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs. Efforts to establish the cabinet-level office had stalled for four consecutive years.

"The issue was always with funding," Ridgeway said. "I took a different strategy and gathered up as many local and state NAACP officers that I could. We went directly to Gov. Tomblin's office and spoke to him face to face about why it was vital to have this office."

The office deals with issues affecting minorities and funds programs to serve minority groups' needs. The legislation creating the office defines minority as any gender, religious, ethnic or other groups making up 10 percent or less of the population or groups that have historically been discriminated against.

"Sylvia's strongest asset may be that she can enhance the lives of minorities by bringing everyone to the table," Williams said. "That's not an easy thing to do. A lot of people in her position might be viewed as threatening to a majority of citizens."

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.

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