For the past 12 years, the Black History Month Lecture has brought leaders to VCU who are making an impact in the African American community. Past speakers include Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, and Tom Burrell, founder of the largest marketing firm in the United States owned by African Americans.
This year, one local leader will explain why Girl Scouts are more than their much-anticipated cookies.
On Feb. 4, current CEO of the Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Viola Baskerville, will present “A Century of Strides: African-American Girl Scouts and the Pursuit of Equality in Virginia.”
When asked to speak at the 12th annual Black History Month Lecture at VCU, Baskerville said she decided girl-scouting would be her topic, because the organization played a part in African American history nearly 30 years before the Civil Rights Movement.
“It started right here at Virginia Union University, with the first African American Girl Scout troop in the South, 1932, the Depression,” Baskerville said. “The audacity of a group of black women to say we want black girls participating in girl-scouting because it aligns with our community values.”
A Richmond native, Baskerville started attending school shortly after the Supreme Court decided to desegregate schools under Brown v. Board of Education. When she attended the College of William & Mary for her bachelors degree, Baskerville was one of six African Americans in her class.
After graduating, Baskerville received a Fulbright Fellowship to study women’s literature in Bonn, Germany. When she returned to the United States, Baskerville earned a law degree from the University of Iowa College of Law. Baskerville said there was pressure on her to succeed in school, for she knew she was setting a new standard.
“Everybody was looking at you, so that if you didn’t do things just right, you were somehow speaking for a whole race of people,” Baskerville said.
In 1994, Baskerville served on the Richmond City Council and was later elected as Vice Mayor of the Council. Elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1997, Baskerville served until 2005 when she became the first African American woman to pursue the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
Former Virginia governor Tim Kaine appointed Baskerville as secretary of administration after she placed second in the Democratic primary. At the time, Baskerville was the only female African American cabinet head in the administration. By holding public office, Baskerville said she hoped other African American young women could see it was possible to become a leader in the community.
“A lot of times, if girls or young women don’t see people who look like them actually dare to do these things, they don’t dare because they don’t see it as something that could be done,” Baskerville said.
After Kaine’s term ended, Baskerville retired from the political arena. Still, she wanted to make an impact in the local community. Baskerville said her role as CEO seemed natural because she was a Girl Scout herself at a younger age.
“In those days, for young black girls, there was the choice of singing in the choir, playing an instrument, (dancing) or girl scouting,” Baskerville said. “I couldn’t dance, I was already taking piano lessons and singing in the choir, so girl-scouting fit right in.”
Yuki Hibben, Assistant Head of Special Collections and Archives in the VCU Libraries, helped arrange the current Girl Scouts exhibit in the James Cabell Library. Hibben worked with Baskerville to select images of past Girl Scout troops to use in the lecture. Hibben said Girl Scouts is an organization that promotes qualities all families want to instill in their daughters.
“The main focus (of the exhibit) is on leadership and self-sufficiency,” said Hibben. “But Girl Scouts is also about friendship, teamwork and doing things together.”
Scheduled to run until June, the exhibit covers the history of Girl Scouts from 1913 to the current day. Items presented include original Girl Scout uniforms, as well as scrapbooks and official badges. Hibben said the library has a rich collection, in terms of types of materials.
“We have the actual meeting minutes from the time when the first African American troops were formed,” Hibben said.
A former Brownie Scout herself, Hibben said the exhibit connects women’s history with the chronological context of Girl Scouts and their impact as a group worldwide.
For Baskerville, Black History Month is more than just analyzing the past. She said the next step is understanding what past events can tell society about the future of African Americans.
“Black history for me today means black future,” Baskerville said. “But not to (ignore) the past because in examining the past you really understand where your roots are.”
The Black History Month Lecture will take place Feb. 4 in the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts from 7 to 9 p.m. Those who want to attend can register for free at support.vcu.edu.