Virginia Wyman has a deep passion for black history, culture and the struggle for racial equality. It shapes her community engagement and contrasts with her childhood in a privileged white household in Seattle’s Broadmoor neighborhood.
Her mother, the late Helen Marie Ryan Wyman, was known for hosting fundraisers for the arts, and Wyman has found a role for herself in supporting writers, historians and artists who deal specifically with black culture and experience.
She’s especially proud of starting the V. Ethel Willis White Endowment at the University of Washington Press. White, who was African American, was the governess for Wyman and her four older siblings, another mother to them. The endowment, which Wyman created with her sister Deehan and the family’s foundation (the Wyman Youth Trust), supports the publication of works by African Americans or about black history or culture.
Wyman is one of those people who go about helping to construct the world they want to see with a nudge here and a dollar there, and a good example everywhere.
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For years I’ve been seeing Wyman’s name on lists, usually because she’s serving on a board, or donating to a favorite cause or otherwise playing a role in the community. She has a range of interests, but a special passion for the African-American experience.
I wondered if that might have come from her relationship with White, who cared for Wyman and her four siblings in their Broadmoor home. (“I had three loving parents,” she told me.) But Wyman, 64, told me that, growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, she had no awareness of the discrimination, segregation and inequality around her, and White never discussed that with the children, even shielding them from the ugliness.
But Wyman was fascinated with the Black Panther Party and started reading about it, which led to other books — history, music, biographies.
I first met her about 20 years ago at Blackbird Books when it was still in business on Capitol Hill. I was researching a story on its owner, Joseph Antoine-Zimbabwe, and she was a customer and friend. That’s when she told me about being hooked on books by and about African Americans. Last week she showed me her collection and told me she bought so many books Antoine-Zimbabwe joked she must be eating them.
We spoke at her home in Seattle’s Central Area last Friday. It’s a big, airy house across the street from one of her sisters, and she was in the middle of a move to a smaller house next door.
Her shelves have local books and books about heroes of the South African freedom struggle.
She pointed out a cluster of books about the Panthers, and said, “Huey Newton was a genius.” She touched a book about Martin Luther King Jr. and said she likes to read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
She said Newton wasn’t trying to anger people, but he wanted to do something for himself, his mother and his community, and he had a plan. Part of it was reactive, she said, making the streets safe for black people, and part of it was proactive — the breakfast program and free medical clinics. “He was trying to solve problems,” she said.
She believes we’d be a lot further along toward a fair society if he and other black leaders had been allowed to carry out their programs without government subversion or violence.
“I’m not a revolutionary,” she told me, “but I appreciate the truth. I’m not political, but I don’t run from the truth.” If something’s not right, she said, you have to speak up.
Wyman isn’t shy about speaking her mind, but she mostly leads by example. If she’s organizing an event she makes sure the invitation list isn’t just white people, for instance. And she’s found many ways to lend a hand to causes she supports.
She is a charter member of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History; she befriended and helped the late Mayme A. Clayton, who assembled one of the largest collections of black books and artifacts in the country; and she’s a member of the Association of African American Museums.
Wyman is also on the board of BlackPast.org, the history website created by University of Washington history professor Quintard Taylor. She hosted the first fundraiser for BlackPast at her private supper club, The Ruins, on Queen Anne, which she founded with her late husband, Joe McDonnal.
She summed up her approach to community involvement years ago in a speech when she was presented a leadership award from what was then the Northwest AIDS Foundation.
Wyman said nothing succeeds without the support of lots of people. “If something wonderful is going on around you, support it,” she said, because in the end we are all pieces of a larger puzzle.
She continues to make our puzzle more complete.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com