By Gino Blefari:
This week my travels found me starting Monday at home with an early morning Berkshire Hathaway Energy call followed by my typical WIG calls with the team. On Tuesday I attended team meetings and on Wednesday I drove the 160 miles from Los Altos to Fresno, California for the Guarantee Real Estate all-company sales meeting at the brokerage’s Fig Garden office. I had lunch with the home office management team then returned north for a total of 320 miles driven within a 12-hour time frame. The enthusiasm and energy of the Guarantee Real Estate agents and leadership team made it worth every mile.
Throughout the month, these Thoughts on Leadership posts have featured Black leaders whose work and wisdom changed the course of history. One of the things I like the most about my blog is getting all the responses and different stories that come back because of the topics I’ve shared. This blog post is a direct result of two of those responses.Read more: Thoughts on Leadership: Celebrating Black History Month Innovators
After writing about Rosa Parks last week, Rod Messick, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty, responded with a book recommendation: “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Home” by John Meacham.
John Lewis, as Rod explained, was known during the Civil Rights Movement as the “Boy from Troy.” Coincidentally, Rod grew up in Troy, Alabama and didn’t know about Lewis’ connection to his hometown until recently. Rod said he knew of John Lewis as a Civil Rights leader who was attacked on the bridge at Selma, as a congressman from Atlanta but not until the end of Lewis’ life did Rod realize that Lewis grew up mere miles from his own home.
“You see there was no civic pride in the ‘70s and ‘80s around being the home of John Lewis,” Rod told me. “We had a major thoroughfare named after George Wallace but no recognition of John Lewis.”
All that changed in 2020 after Troy University – a school that in 1957 denied John Lewis admission because of the color of his skin – named a building after Lewis.
Soon, the town of Troy began to learn about the amazing life of the human rights activist and advocate for non-violent change. Finally, John Lewis got the long-overdue recognition he deserved. It’s also worth noting that despite his initial rejection by Troy University, Lewis never held any spite or hatred for the school. He chose forgiveness, and even visited the Troy University campus in 1989 to receive an honorary doctorate. He returned in 2006, after Troy University awarded Lewis with the Hall-Waters Prize for his memoir, “Walking with the Wind.”
Gladys West is another Black leader whose legacy was brought to my attention by Helen Cocuzza of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach, REALTORS®. She shared with me that Gladys West developed the GPS technology most of us use daily today.
West was born in rural Virginia on October 27, 1930. As her Britannica biography notes: “In her community the only clear options for a young Black girl’s future were continuing to farm or working at a tobacco-processing plant.”
But West’s penchant for learning took her somewhere new, and after she graduated valedictorian of her high school, West was offered a full scholarship to Virginia State College. She graduated in 1952 with a degree in mathematics then received a master’s degree in mathematics. In 1956, the U.S. Naval Proving Ground hired West to work in the weapons laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia. She was the fourth Black employee in the entire organization, and she quickly earned a reputation for solving complex mathematical problems by hand. Her work eventually led to a satellite that was programmed to create computer models of the Earth’s surface, and it’s this model (and subsequent updates) that allows GPS systems today to make accurate calculations of any location on the planet.
So, what’s the message? Like Mary W. Jackson, Gladys West was once a “hidden figure” of history, but the more we have these conversations about Black leaders like Jackson, like West, like Lewis, the more we can be sure their stories, contributions and legacies will never, ever be forgotten.