After more than a decade of research and writing, a Winston-Salem native has published a history of African American "firsts” in the area dating back to 1763.
African American Firsts of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County North Carolina: Pioneers Who Greatly Impacted This City, This County, This Nation and the World was published in 2021.
It all started in the North Carolina Room, which was also the basement of the old Central Library.
Chenita Johnson, who is now the vice president of the Winston-Salem African American Archive, joked that she spent so much time in that room people thought she worked there.
But one day, in 2006, she realized they didn’t have what she was looking for — a singular place to go for information about local Black history.
When she spoke to the research librarian about it, he suggested she put it together herself. Johnson laughed the idea off at first but was encouraged by her mother to take on the challenge.
She spent about 12 years digging through file cabinets of old newspapers, interviewing people, and writing it all down. Johnson said this was a “labor of love,” but also "a blessing.”
“Some of these things would have just stayed dormant. I mean, people would have known them, but they would have known them in silos,” she said. “But there was nothing that brought this information together to show that African Americans truly, truly did something in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, North Carolina.”
Johnson knew some of the history already, but said there were a lot of people she learned about through her research. People like Spurgeon Ellington, a Tuskegee Airman born in the city in 1919, and Selma Burke, who studied at Winston-Salem State University and created the Franklin D. Roosevelt portrait that is now found on the dime.
Johnson said she hopes the book will help readers understand the great impact of African Americans in this community.
“The children that are in this county right now, I really believe if they could know the foundation of where they are, and who did what, and how important that is to what you're doing now, and that you can do the same but better, I think that that vision, and that understanding would help a lot of the youth in our city and our county,” Johnson said.