By Debbie Adams
Gerri Reynolds Wade is a birthright member of the federally recognized Rappahannock Tribe of Virginia. Wade’s native name is “Singing Heart Woman,” which means “songs of my soul.” She is a musician who enjoys singing and playing piano.
She served as Chief Executive Officer for the Virginia Tribal Educational Consortium, founded in 2019 by Tribal leaders from the seven federally recognized tribal Nations across Virginia to create a non-profit Tribal Education Agency, “to build the leadership capacity of our Tribal Nations to support academic excellence, cultural awareness, and historical accuracy.”
Previously Wade served as Vice President for the Developmental Disabilities Ministry at HopeTree Family Services. She retired from this job that she loved after 18 years. She also retired from Roanoke City Schools as a principal, after a career in administration for Loudoun County Schools. If you have children who have attended public schools in Virginia, she has impacted their lives with her work as the sole Virginia American Indian representative for writing the Virginia 2015 SOLs for Social Studies.
Wade spent the morning of Nov. 8 sharing stories about her life and family with the members of Circle 3 at Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church. She was invited as guest speaker by Janice Carter, her friend for over four decades. They were teachers together in Danville, where Wade was named “Outstanding Educator.”
In her presentation, Wade addressed Rappahannock tribal history, including state and federal recognition, family heritage, American Indian education in Virginia, and cultural traditions including dances, faith, food, and pow wows. She was speaking only for her tribe as every tribe has its own traditions.
Wade earned her Bachelor’s degree in Music & Elementary Education from Averett University, her Master’s degree in Education, Curriculum & Instruction, and Administration & Supervision from the University of Virginia. She also earned endorsements in Educational Leadership
& Administration from the College of William & Mary, and in Urban Education & Leadership from Harvard.
That’s quite an impressive resume from someone who was denied basic public school education by the state of Virginia due to her ethnicity.
Wade is one of four children of Llewellyn B. and Dorothy Elkanahr Johnson Richardson. Llewellyn was one of 14 children who grew up on a farm in Essex County. He later became a farmer and lumber mill owner in Caroline County. Because they weren’t allowed to attend public schools, tribal members taught one another in tribal schools they established. Dorothy followed in the footsteps of her mother in that they both taught in the American Indian schools in Caroline County. Her father, Assistant Chief Samuel E. Johnson, owned a sawmill and farmed the land they lived on.
While much is known about segregation and African Americans, especially in education, understanding of how Native Americans received even fewer rights in schooling may not be commonly known.
In 1924, Virginia’s General Assembly supported Dr. Walter Plecker’s proclamation that all Virginians must be classified as “white” or “colored,” and passed the “Racial Integrity Law” which stated that in matters of births, marriages, and deaths, the Bureau of Vital Statistics recognized only two races – white and colored. In essence, people of Native American descent did not exist. School options became “white” or “colored,” with American Indians classified as “colored.” They were not accepted by either. Thus, tribal schools were opened with families paying out of pocket for teachers and textbooks, as counties refused to fund them. Until the late 1950s most tribal schools did not go beyond seventh grade. That’s when Gerri Wade’s father’s formal education ended, although she said he had an amazing “mathematical mind.” He did develop ways of learning with his children when they did homework. Through determination and intelligence, he became a landowner and businessman. During the 1960s, families like the Richardson’s were left with their children being bused 20 miles away to African American schools.
Wade’s mother “believed in the power of education.” She ensured that her own children received topnotch educations in private schools, as it was denied in public schools. Wade attended Walsingham Academy in Williamsburg, one brother attended New York Military Academy, and one Charlotte Hall Military Academy, and her sister attended Marymount in Richmond. All have advanced degrees with grandchildren earning advanced degrees in architecture, engineering, music, medicine and two with a Ph.D.
“She rubbed off on us,” Wade says.
Wade hopes one day to write her mother’s biography. It is clear from her presentation that her mother is her hero. “She was a force to be reckoned with, a woman of faith and quiet determination, a cross cultural ambassador, a strong woman, forward thinking, and ahead of her time– a true role model.”
When American Indians were denied accurate birth certificates, Richardson took it upon herself to visit the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics in the 1970s. The director listened to the facts of the plight of Virginia Indians. She went home with six accurate birth certificates for her family. “That took moxy,” Wade said. The director encouraged her to have others get their vital records corrected.
She wasn’t content with righting the wrongs for her own family. She put her efforts into changing the inequities of society for all Virginia Native Americans. Wade said that Richardson was a woman of deep faith who intermingled her tribe and that faith.
Richardson is well-known throughout the state for what she accomplished through sheer determination and persistence. She served as representative for the chief and as treasurer for the tribe for 57 years. She appears in a photograph in 1983 with Governor Chuck Robb and members from other tribes when state recognition was attained.
“She was diplomatic, but not afraid of controversy,” Wade said. “Her efforts and deeds were done out of love with no desire for praise or recognition. She was selfless; her life’s work was done faithfully, humbly, and lovingly.”
In 1965, when Native Americans were finally given the right to vote, that voting took place at the home of the Caroline County registrar. Wade said, “We were not liked; the registrar didn’t like us, and registration took place in his home.” That didn’t deter Richardson– she showed up and quietly exercised her right to vote.
“It was not cool to be an American Indian early on,” Wade says.
Wade dressed in her unique custom-designed Native American “regalia” for the presentation at Thrasher, wearing a buckskin (deer) dress adorned with fringe and beads. She noted that it was “hot and heavy” and not worn except on special occasions. She also explained that the regalia is not a “costume” and that it is disrespectful to copy American Indian attire on occasions such as Halloween.
There is symbolism in the design of her regalia, and her dance shawl and prayer fan– the Circle of Life, and the colors of red (representing success), yellow (knowledge and happiness), black (the Final Harvest and reflection), and white (peace, purity, and wisdom). Because her mother’s father was assistant chief, there is purple for royalty in her jewelry. The hawk feathers in the fan are from a bird repository where the animal died a natural death.
She wears the regalia for specific celebrations, in pow wows and dances. Now an elder, she gathers with other elders at the front for pow wow grand entry.
Wade shared brief history of American Indians living in Virginia some 17,000 years ago (before the arrival of the European “squatters,” she joked). There was no written language, but they did use symbolic drawings. Women did the everyday work, while men were hunters, fishermen, warriors, and members of the “moccasin telegraph” spreading news to other tribes. American Indians in Virginia did not live in teepees. Rappahannocks lived in longhouses.
In the 1600s there were up to 21,000 Native Americans in different tribes in the state. In year 2000, that dwindled to only 11 state recognized tribes as they were forced off their lands over the centuries.
As for the SOLs, Wade believed there was too much emphasis on Western tribes and wanted “To get us in” the Virginia SOLs. She “didn’t get as much in” as she wanted, but that may change as the Social Studies curriculum is now up for review and public input.
Wade has been active in tribal affairs over the years as a tribal representative and speaker. She has served as emcee for tribal building dedication, as an education committee leader, as a director for social events and fundraisers. She participated in Native dance demonstrations and a pow wow in Gravesend, England. She also authored a curriculum for Native presentations for grades K-8 in 18 schools. She was a guest speaker for George Mason University’s series on “Pocahontas: The Legacy, Myths, Realities, and Relevance,” which was not an accurate depiction of Virginia Indians.
As for what’s on the horizon, in addition to the biography of her mother, Wade would like to write children’s books from her view as a Virginia Indian.