- Associated Press - Monday, October 23, 2017

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - It’s not every day a pivotal figure in Winston-Salem’s history turns 100.

And in the case of Virginia Newell, a former member of what was then the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen, the birthday milestone was a surprise to many people who thought her century-benchmark was decades away.

“I always kept my age hush-hush and now people don’t believe I’m 100,” said Newell, who celebrated her birthday Saturday. “I still feel young. I feel just like I did when I was 50 years old as a grown-up with my kids.”

Newell’s 100th birthday was announced nationally by U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield on the House of Representatives’ floor earlier this week, her daughter Glenda Newell-Harris said.

“Up until 48 hours ago, Mom was refusing to publicly acknowledge her 100th birthday,” Newell-Harris said Thursday. “But after being announced at the Capitol yesterday, it’s out there and she’s enjoying some feedback.”

In 1977, Newell and now-Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke became the first two black women elected to the board of alderman, which later became city council.

“Back then, there were no black people in positions of power, so I wanted to be a politician so I could change things,” Newell said. “I’d been interested in politics ever since I could remember because my daddy would take us to the polls.”

Newell grew up in Davidson County in a segregated world where she would have to walk 5 miles to elementary school because the school bus didn’t drive black children, she said.

Her father was one of a select few black men allowed to vote because one of his ancestors had been white. He always emphasized the power of voting and the role of politics in shaping the future, she said.

He educated his nine children on black history over the dinner table and even named one of his sons after a U.S. president.

Newell’s family moved briefly to Winston-Salem when she was a child, but black workers were being paid only 10 cents an hour and her dad, a builder, was making up to 70 cents an hour in Davidson County.

This inequity stuck with her, molding her future agenda as a politician, Newell said.

“God made black people just as well as he made white people,” she said, lamenting on the racism of the time. “You’ve got to be taught to hate and you’ve got to be taught to love. This world could use more love.”

When she was young, Newell used to help her father draw pictures of the houses he would build, and she learned the ins and outs of construction.

This fueled her passion as a proponent of housing in the eastern part of the city, which she represented as an alderman.

Other accomplishments she cited were her contributions to economic development, including a shopping center on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and a bank near neighborhoods that were mostly black, she said.

“Black people had to go 3 or 4 miles to get a loaf of bread because we did not have a shopping center close to our neighborhood,” Newell said. “I raised so much hell, the people voted for it. We had one of the first black shopping centers in North Carolina.”

While Newell was a driving force on the board, Burke said one of Newell’s greatest legacies was as a teacher.

Newell, a graduate of Atkins High School, returned to Winston-Salem to teach at the high school level after college. She married her former biology teacher, George Newell, who became her husband of 43 years.

The couple taught in Atlanta and Raleigh before accepting positions at Winston-Salem State University, where Newell taught math.

Burke, who has known Newell for 50 years, said she will never forget when Newell came to her house after working a long day at the university to help her high school-aged son with his math homework.

“She believed in my son and in all the youth she has taught that they could do whatever they put their minds to,” Burke said. “Throughout her life, Mrs. Newell has been a strong leader and an inspiration to many.”

Newell, a retired professor emeritus at WSSU, was credited as the force behind acquiring computers for the university and creating the foundation for a computer-science program at the university.

Burke said Newell has always been outspoken and strong in her beliefs.

“Any time a woman, especially a minority woman, becomes elected it’s breaking a barrier,” Burke said. “She did what other women wanted to do and took a strong stand, so that we all looked at her with admiration.”

Burke said the city is planning something special to commemorate Newell’s birthday later this month.

Friends and family of Newell celebrated her birthday at a party Friday.

Newell attributes her longevity to eating vegetables and drinking milk as a kid and living an overall healthy lifestyle.

She was driving up until last year and many of her relatives lived to be well over 100, she said.

“She’s still very sharp, she reads The New York Times every day and she has an excellent memory,” Newell-Harris said. “We just hope we’ll come close to being as sharp as she is at her age.”

Retirement has given Newell time to catch up on much-needed sleep and spend time with her two daughters, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“I’m blessed. I’m so grateful the Lord has given me my health and strength, so I’m not bedridden,” she said. “I’ve lived my life and I’m proud of it.”


Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, https://www.journalnow.com

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