Gloria Barbour, a longtime Martinsville library employee, was the featured speaker at the Patrick County Historical Society’s recent annual meeting. Barbour captivated her audience during the event that was held in the Patrick County Museum, located in the same building as the public library.
A Virginia native, Barbour, and her family moved to West Virginia for her father to work in the coal mines. Barbour remembered visiting family in Patrick County each summer. Going to Patrick County was an adventure for her.
While there, Barbour thought it was exciting that African-American children went to a one-room schoolhouse. She usually stayed with her great-great-grandmother, Dicey Prillman Conner, who was born into slavery on the Prillman Plantation in Rocky Mount. Before Emancipation, Conner gave birth to her white master’s child.
Barbour’s family moved to Woolwine when she was 13 years old. Shortly after returning to Virginia, Conner moved in with them.
Barbour explained that her grandmother never freely spoke about her life in slavery, but later in life, dementia brought those traumatic memories to the front of her mind. Barbour remembered that her grandmother used to sit on the front porch and when her mother would pull into the yard, her grandmother would run and hide, begging them not to tell her master. Conner passed when she was at least 102 years old, never having seen a doctor.
Around the time Barbour’s family returned to Virginia, Patrick Central School opened to provide a high school education for African Americans. The one-room schoolhouse for Black children only taught through the seventh grade, and African-American students had to go to a different county if they wanted to continue their education. Barbour graduated from Patrick Central and chose to send her children there until the school closed, rather than send them to Patrick County High School. She explained that at the time there were many people against school integration, and she wanted to protect her children.
Throughout her life, Barbour has faced discrimination, but she remembered West Virginia as having fewer restrictions. She said, “I never remember the white and black thing in West Virginia. The first time I took my husband back to West Virginia after we had been married for a few years I said, ‘When we get to Powtan (Powatan) you can sit beside the white man and drink your beer.’ He was afraid but did it anyway.”
Working at JD Bassett Furniture Company, she remembered seeing signs for white and Black toilets. Eventually, Barbour attended and graduated from National Business College. At the time, Black people were not allowed in the public library, but her teacher, Mrs. Patterson, went with her to get a library card, which she still carries. After owning and operating a successful beauty shop for 12 years out of her home, Barbour eventually went to work for the Martinsville public library, where she recently retired.
At the end of her talk, Barbour pointed out several family pictures she brought with her to the meeting. As she displayed each picture she said, “Through all of the past I see no colors. I have one of the most blended families around.”
The largest picture was an artist’s rendering of a photograph of Dicey Prillman Conner toward the end of her life. Barbour’s life may have been scarred by the effects of slavery, but she never let discrimination stop her from enjoying life or pursuing her dreams.
The Patrick County Historical Museum is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. Books, maps, and a few other items related to Patrick County history are for sale at the museum. Curator Kayla Webb also offers additional hours by appointment only. Please call the museum at (276) 694-2840 to make an appointment.
Interested in volunteering or becoming a member? Please contact the museum by phone during operating hours or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Board members of the Historical Society were featured on the local Be Real podcast on November 14. The episode will be posted on the YouTube channel @berealthepodcast, on Thursday, November 16.