Chesterfield supervisors Jim Ingle (left) and Chris Winslow (right) unveil a sign with Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker's family during Friday's dedication ceremony.
A voracious reader and prodigious author even in his later years, Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker’s name will be connected to Chesterfield’s future Enon Library building in perpetuity following a ceremony Friday morning formally dedicating the new facility in honor of the civil rights icon.
“I think the library is a very fitting host for this event because libraries are about diversity of perspective and thought, learning and challenging ourselves, and helping our community become a better place,” said Carolyn Sears, assistant director of Chesterfield County Public Library.
Dr. Walker, who relocated to Chester with his wife, Theresa Ann, in 2004 following his retirement from the ministry and lived there until his death at age 89 in January 2018, made a profound, enduring impact as one of the leaders of America’s civil rights movement.
The grandson of a former slave, Wyatt Tee Walker was born Aug. 16, 1929, in Brockton, Massachusetts. He attended Richmond’s Virginia Union University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics, graduating magna cum laude. After receiving a Master of Divinity degree from Virginia Union’s School of Religion in 1953, he accepted a position as minister at Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg.
He also served as president of the Petersburg chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and as state director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and helped found the Virginia Council on Human Relations, a biracial group working for desegregation.
In 1960, Dr. Walker and other African Americans protesting segregation were arrested and jailed after entering through the “whites only’’ entrance of the Petersburg Public Library to check out a biography of Robert E. Lee. It was the first of 17 times he would be arrested for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
“In natural Alpha fashion, Brother Walker stood ready to fight the oppression of his people. The symbolic nature of his name being raised on this public library is an intentional reminder of one of his first moves to stand for civil rights for Black Americans,” said Dr. Tyren Frazier, president of the Chesterfield-based Rho Iota Lambda chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, of which Dr. Walker was a member.
Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker's daughter, Patrice Walker Powell, takes a photo of the information panels that have been posted inside the Enon Library with biographical information about her father.
Dr. Walker is best known for his tenure as chief of staff to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the same period (1960-64), he joined the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and worked as its first full-time executive director.
In 1961, Dr. Walker and Theresa Ann volunteered as Freedom Riders in an effort to enforce the Interstate Commerce Act, which declared that segregation in interstate transportation facilities was illegal. Freedom Riders often faced arrests and violence as buses crossed state lines or as riders disembarked in southern states where the law was not being enforced.
“This [dedication] is personal to me,” said Chesterfield County Administrator Dr. Joe Casey, noting that his mother participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. The march culminated with Dr. King delivering his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, calling for an end to racism.
“Today is my mom’s proudest moment,” Casey added. “She said, ‘Shake as many hands of people with the name Walker as possible.’”
Several members of Dr. Walker's family attended Friday’s ceremony, including his daughter, Patrice Walker Powell, and son Robert Walker. The event also was streamed live on Chesterfield’s Facebook page for friends and family who couldn’t be there in person.
“On behalf of our whole family, we thank all of you who made this wonderful tribute possible,” said Dr. James Holley, Dr. Walker’s nephew.
After leaving the SCLC in 1964, Dr. Walker went to work as a marketing specialist for the Negro Heritage Library, becoming its president in 1966. In that role, he carried out part of the library’s mission to convince schools to include the views, experiences and contributions of African Americans in their curriculum.
"There are many who would say, as we stand here 60 years later, that goal has not been fully realized. But this honor is a bold and important step toward recognizing and maintaining focus on that need,” said Cynthia Hudson, a member of the executive committee of the Virginia NAACP. “If we are inspired by this honor today to know who Dr. Walker was and just how much his work has meant to the cause of racial and social equity in the world, if we’re inspired to learn more about what he and others of his era have contributed to the collective American experience, we’ll all be grateful for it … and may we be so inspired.”
William McGee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Central Virginia chapter, speaks at Friday's dedication.
Dr. Walker went on to become the senior pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem, New York. He also formed the International Freedom Mobilization, a movement to oppose apartheid and racial injustice in South Africa, then helped supervise South Africa’s first fully representative elections in 1994 -- which resulted in Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first post-apartheid president.
Following his retirement from the ministry in 2004, Dr. Walker continued to write and give interviews and served as a key historian for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“In 1982 he wrote a book about gospel and social change titled, ‘Somebody’s Calling My Name.’ Well today, we’re calling the name of Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker in gratitude as we dedicate and name the future Enon Library building after a man whose life and body of work honored all humanity,” said Chris Winslow, chairman of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors. “Let all who enter this space come in a spirit of gratitude for this profound man, a great Chesterfield citizen who helped right the course of America’s ship.”
Dr. Walker received more than 100 awards and citations for his work in human relations and civil rights. He was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site; was named one of the “Greatest Black Preachers’’ by Ebony magazine; and received the “Keepers of the Flame’’ award at the African American Church Inaugural Ball during inauguration events for President Barack Obama.
Even so, William McGee, a Chesterfield resident and president of the SCLC’s Central Virginia chapter, recalled that Dr. Walker’s public profile was lower than other civil rights leaders of his era because “he was doing work in the background.”
“He was getting the job done,” McGee said. “I often talk about walking in the footsteps of giants. Wyatt Tee Walker was one of those giants. I had the privilege of walking in his footsteps and hearing him.”
“Although there will never be another Wyatt Tee Walker,” added Bermuda District Supervisor Jim Ingle, “we can all commit to carry on his legacy of hope, respect and kindness toward others. We look forward to the new Enon Library building bearing Dr. Walker’s name in the near future. Thank you for being here to honor a man of great courage and faith.”