The Virginia Zoo Celebrates Black History Month

The Virginia Zoo has been celebrating Black History Month by highlighting important Black historical figures and moments throughout the month. Check out the stories we covered below and what they mean to some of our staff:

The first Black zookeeper

Mary Wilson was the first Black Senior Zookeeper at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. She started her career in 1961, at a time when most women that worked as zookeepers predominantly worked with smaller animals. However, Wilson had the opportunity to work with larger mammals such as gorillas, big cats and elephants. After 38 years at the zoo, she retired in 1999 and sadly passed away in 2020 from COVID-19. Two otters at the Maryland Zoo were named in honor of her: Mary & Wilson.

The first Black female millionaire in the U.S.

Madam C. J. Walker made her fortune off a homemade line of hair care products tailored to Black women. Walker was born named Sarah Breedlove to parents who had been enslaved, and her own experience with hair loss inspired the creation of the “Walker System” of hair care. 

“I admire Madam C.J. Walker for becoming the first Black female millionaire in the U.S,” Niya Rodgers, Assistant Guest Services Manager at the Virginia Zoo, said. “She was self-made, a talented entrepreneur and marketer, and this achievement holds significance for many, especially Black females, who find inspiration in her resilience and groundbreaking contributions to business and empowerment.”

The architects of Black Wall Street

O.W. Gurley was a wealthy Black landowner who is commonly referred to as the founder of Greenwood, the district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was once known as Black Wall Street. Gurley was born to freed slaves and became a serial entrepreneur who purchased land and buildings in Tulsa and provided loans to help other Black people start their own businesses. 

J.B. Stradford similarly shared Gurley’s dream of making Greenwood a thriving business district for Black people in Tulsa. Also the son of a slave, Stradford grew up to become a lawyer and real estate investor. He built the Stradford Hotel in Greenwood, a luxury establishment that was considered the largest Black-owned hotel in the country during its time.

“From being the direct descendants of slaves to becoming some of the wealthiest men in America at that time, Gurley and Stradford’s stories entail both the downsides and triumphs of being Black,” Marcus Jordan, Director of Amenities at the Virginia Zoo, commented. “They were completely self-made, and their story is a testament that you can do anything you set your mind to, though obstacles will stand in your way.“ 

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a time of social and artistic explosion in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, making the area a “Black cultural mecca” according to the History Channel. This rise of Black expression through literature, music, stage performance and art in Harlem began in the 1910s and lasted through the mid 1930s. 

“One of my favorite moments in Black history is the Harlem Renaissance,” Mya, a Goat Yard Attendant at the Virginia Zoo, expressed. “It was a time when Black people could showcase their feelings through art and have it be heard and perhaps acknowledged. It was a time of empowerment. So many figures from this period are timeless and also inspirations for myself and others I know.”