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Women’s History Month: A Salute to 15 Trailblazers from Newport News

Yes, we all know that Newport News was the birthplace of Ella Fitzgerald – often referred to as “The First Lady of Song” – and the Tony Award-winning Pearl Bailey. Yet did you know that we have many other history-making women who aren’t household names?  The following Newport News women have carved a path for future generations of female politicians, entrepreneurs, and educators – and we’d like to salute them all during Women’s History Month!  


Carrie Riggins Brown

Carrie Riggins Brown, a teacher and community leader in Newport News, led the effort to acquire Joseph Thomas Newsome’s historic Queen Anne house and transform it into a museum honoring his legacy as an attorney, journalist, and civic leader. Today that home is The Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center on Oak Avenue at 28th Street. Carrie and her husband lived just two doors down from the Newsome house. After she died in 1997 at the age of 84, Carrie left her estate to the Newsome House Foundation. Five years later, her former home on 28th Street became the Cornelius and Carrie R. Brown Education Center, which houses the Newsome archives.


Marie Steen

Born and raised in Newport News, Marie Steen was living in Brooklyn when she joined the U.S. Army to serve as a Signal Corps Telephone Operator, or Hello Girl, in 1918. World War I ended before her group sailed for Europe, but the Hello Girls are considered the first women soldiers in the Army … and Marie was the only member from Virginia!


Inettie Banks Edwards

Though she was born in South Carolina, Inettie moved with her family to Newport News in 1923 at age 6. After graduating from Huntington High School and earning degrees from Talladega College and Columbia University, she taught school in Newport News for 38 years, retiring in 1978. Known for her love of education and her civic involvement, Inettie tutored children well into retirement, established two scholarship funds, and belonged to dozens of community organizations. She was the first woman chair of the Newport News electoral board and a founding member of Gethsemane Baptist Church. Inettie died in 2013, just shy of her 96th birthday. 


Helen Mae Crafford

Helen Mae Crafford came from a long line of educators. Her father served as a school superintendent until his death in 1909.  Her mother, grandmother and grandfather were all teachers, which made her career in education a natural for her. She was principal of the “new’ Denbigh High School of 1909. And did you know that Crafford Road was named in honor of the family?


Maria Whittaker Curtis

Maria Whittaker Curtis was the matriarch of Historic Endview during the antebellum period. She was married to Capt. Humphrey Harwood Curtis, with whom she had 11 children. After Lebanon Christian Church was destroyed by Federal forces during the Civil War, Maria sponsored its reconstruction. 


Norvleate Downing-Gross

Norvleate Downing-Gross moved to Newport News after graduating from college and marrying Dr. Ernest Downing. Her passion and dedication to the community ranged from serving on a number of local committees to congressional delegations on housing, social services, equal opportunity, minority relations, policing, and recreation. Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center was named in her honor.


Ethel M. Gildersleeve

From 1920 to 1964, Ethel M. Gildersleeve was a teacher, dean of girls, and assistant principal at Newport News High School. As a fitting tribute to her legacy in education, Gildersleeve Middle School is named in her honor.


Montague Weisiger Harwood

Montague Weisiger Harwood served from 1890 to 1894 as the first woman principal in the city's public school system, at the 28th Street School. She later established her own private girls’ school, called the Newport News Female Seminary, which operated from 1894 to 1902 in the 200 block of 29th Street.


Mary Sherwood Holt

One of the first two women elected to Newport News City Council, Mary Sherwood Holt served as a Councilwoman for three terms. She was also the chairperson of the Centennial Commission, established to commemorate the city’s 100-year anniversary.


Elizabeth C. Madison

Dedicated to the improvement of education in rural Warwick County, Elizabeth C. Madison helped start the Warwick Courthouse school, where she served as teacher, principal and administrator. She was also instrumental in bringing hot meals and transportation to the rustic one-room schools of her time, one of which was located in her own backyard, circa 1912.   

Queen Esther Marrow

A soul and gospel singer and songwriter, Queen Esther Marrow was born in Newport News in 1941. She began her career at 22 when she was discovered by Duke Ellington. She played Auntie Em on Broadway in The Wiz and has performed for U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.


Hazel R. O’Leary

In the mid-1990s, Hazel R. O'Leary was appointed by President Bill Clinton as U.S. Secretary of Energy. She was the first woman and first African American to hold that position. From 2004 to 2013, Hazel served as president of Fisk University, a historically black college and her alma mater. Born in 1937 in Newport News, Hazel attended school in the city for eight years before moving to New Jersey.


Lavinia Marian Fleming Poe

Born in Newport News in 1890, Lavinia Marian Fleming Poe was the first African-American woman to pass the bar examination in the state of Virginia. She was subsequently the first African-American woman admitted to practice law in Virginia, where she continued to practice well into the 1960s.


Kathryn Marston Ware

A trailblazer who worked outside the home in the early 1930s, Kathryn Marston Ware worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helping farmers get back on their feet during the Great Depression. Later, she became the first female elected to the board of supervisors for Warwick County.


Elton C. Weaver

As a Red Cross volunteer at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation during World War I, Elton served as a Motor Corps driver transporting in her ambulance hundreds of patients, service personnel and war brides between ships and military camps. Because of her steadfast commitment to the local war effort, she was nicknamed “Old Reliable.”


We hope you enjoyed learning about the strong, courageous women from Newport News who have played a vital role in our history. Happy Women’s History Month!