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Top 10 famous individuals from Virginia

Yes, Luke Skywalker went to high school two hours north of Charlottesville

<p>The stories of all of our Virginia predecessors are important, but the most fascinating ones are of the famed.&nbsp;</p>

The stories of all of our Virginia predecessors are important, but the most fascinating ones are of the famed. 

As the typical mid- to late-semester buzz emanates through Grounds, it feels all but necessary to be focused on the here and now. However, it’s undoubtedly more fun to take a look at the people from the “here and back then” — the history of those from Virginia. The stories of all of our Virginia predecessors are important, but the most fascinating ones are of the famed. Take a deep dive with me into the histories of some famous Virginians.

1. The one-dollar founding father and two fellow U.S. presidents

The founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all grew up in Virginia — Washington near Fredericksburg, Jefferson along the Rivanna River and Madison in Orange County. All three of these future U.S. presidents grew up on Virginia plantations, and each of their iconic homes — Mount Vernon, Monticello and Montpelier — are accessible to the public today. 

2. Arthur Ashe — tennis legend and civil rights champion 

Arthur Ashe, the first Black man to win a major title in the sport of tennis, was born and raised in Richmond. When he wasn’t in Richmond, he trained under the mentorship of Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson on a clay court at his home in Lynchburg. Here, both Ashe and Althea Gibson — fellow trailblazer as a Black female tennis player and 5-time major champion — crafted and refined the fundamentals of their play. Ashe won three singles majors during his career, with one win each at the Australian Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

3. The Barber Twins — from Scott Stadium to the NFL

NFL stars and identical twins Tiki and Ronde Barber’s roots lie in Roanoke, Virginia. The brothers started their football careers as Cavaliers on the Virginia football team. Both earned ACC accolades and had highly successful runs with Virginia before they were selected in the 1997 NFL Draft. During their time at the University, they both studied at the McIntire School of Commerce and were members of the IMP Society. Tiki and Ronde both stayed with the teams they were originally drafted to, the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for their entire professional careers.

4. Louisiana Purchase expeditioners Lewis and Clark

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the explorers who famously mapped the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, were from Albemarle and Caroline Counties, respectively. The two first met in 1795 during their time as U.S. Army officers, and they cultivated a long-standing friendship despite their contrasting personalities — Lewis is said to have been much more impulsive than the methodical Clark. While the two continued their service in the army into the 1800s, Clark’s commission was that of first lieutenant following his earlier resignation as captain. Nonetheless, close friend and comrade Lewis continued to call him his “co-captain,” cementing their lifelong partnership. 

5. Hidden figures

Though only Mary Jackson was a native to Hampton, Virginia, all three “hidden figures” — Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan — worked in the West Area Computing Unit at the Langley Research Center of NACA, predecessor to NASA, in Hampton, Virginia. Jackson led as NASA’s first Black female engineer, while Johnson’s calculations led to the success of Alan Shephard’s Mercury 7 suborbital flight in 1961 as well as Apollo 11’s return to Earth in 1969. Vaughan was NACA’s first Black supervisor, and she later became an expert FORTRAN programmer — she taught herself and her staff the programming language. How do you like that, CS majors?

6. Booker T. Washington, the influential educator and reformer

Booker T. Washington, one of the leading African American intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century and founder of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, was born enslaved in Franklin County, Virginia in 1856. Washington and his mother moved to West Virginia upon the release of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, where Washington initially worked at salt furnaces. Washington always had an eagerness to learn, and slowly, he was granted opportunities to attend school. Among his many accomplishments — which include his service as a leading Black educator and his highly regarded writings, the most famous of which is “Up From Slavery” — Booker T. Washington was the first African American individual to be invited to dine at the White House in 1901.

7. The Tale of Two Marks — one Avenger, one Jedi

Both Mark Ruffalo and Mark Hamill — the Hulk and Luke Skywalker, respectively — spent parts of their childhoods in Virginia. Ruffalo lived in Virginia Beach as a teenager. He attended Lance Middle School in Wisconsin, where he competed in wrestling — truly manifesting the Hulk — and First Colonial High School, where he acted for the Patriot Playhouse. Hamill’s military family moved around the country, including to Virginia for a time. Hamill attended parts of elementary, middle and high school between the cities of Williamsburg and Annandale — along the way,  Hamill evolved from youngling to Padawan to Jedi Knight. Next time you watch “A New Hope” in your dorm here in Virginia, remember that Luke Skywalker has origins in this very state.

8. Comedians Wanda Sykes and Jason Sudeikis

The stand-up comedian, actress and writer Wanda Sykes spent her earliest days in Virginia. She was born in Portsmouth and lived in Virginia until her family moved to Maryland when she was in the third grade. More recently, Sykes was in Richmond earlier this month for her “Please and Thank You” tour. Funny-man, creator and titular star of hit-show Ted Lasso, Jason Sudeikis was born in Fairfax, Virginia and lived in the state for a few years before moving to Kansas — which is also where Ted Lasso is from in the show. I’d like to think that some Virginia spirit is infused into Ted’s character, too.

9. Moses Malone, an NBA great

Moses Malone, former center for the Utah Stars and Philadelphia 76ers and one of the 50 greatest NBA players, grew up an hour and a half away from Charlottesville in Petersburg, Virginia. The varsity player led his high school basketball team, the Petersburg Crimson Wave, through undefeated seasons during his final two years and clinched back-to-back Virginia state championships. Malone was the first basketball player to play professionally directly out of high school — he only attended a day and a half of college classes before accepting a five-year contract with the Stars. Next time you go to cheer on the men’s basketball team, you may likely be watching at least one future NBA player.

10. Oliver W. Hill, attorney at law

Oliver Hill was an African American attorney and civil rights activist best known for bringing Brown v. Board of Education to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hill was born in Richmond, grew up in Roanoke and attended Howard University for law school. Hill then settled back in Richmond and became the leading attorney for the NAACP in Virginia. He led many legal challenges to Jim Crow, the most famous of which was Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County, one of the five cases that comprised the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision.


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