Family Foundation: Inspired by her ancestors, Venessa Edmonds has impacted thousands through her work and service

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Venessa Edmonds slowly walked the sidewalks surrounding the site where Gordon Bibb Elementary School, where she attended second and third grades, once stood.

“It was challenging, but my family prepared me for it,” the now 62-year-old Edmonds said. “I went from a school where everyone looked like me to a place where I was one of three Blacks in the class.”

In the late 1960s, at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, Edmonds, a 7-year-old second grader, left the familiarity of an all-Black Rosenwald School in Hartselle for an integrated class at Gordon Bibb.

“It was my father’s idea that I go to Gordon Bibb so if there was any type of situation, he could have been there in five minutes because he worked close by,” Edmonds said. “I wasn’t scared because I was reared that people are people no matter the color of your skin and that we all had value and we were all made in God’s image. That’s the lesson I try to share with children and adults now.”

It is the lesson she learned from her godmother Carrie Tate Lewis, the principal of the Rosenwald School in Cedar Lake, from her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, from her aunts and uncles, and from Athelyne Celeste Banks, a lifelong educator and the first Black female principal in Decatur City Schools.

It is the lesson she learned growing up in the community of Cedar Lake, which sits south of the Beltline and includes Central Avenue, Dustin Avenue, Linnet Street, Marr Avenue, Main Avenue and Ray Avenue.

Created 32 years after the end of the Civil War, Cedar Lake represented a cultural and societal experiment for former slaves and freedmen. On Nov. 14, 1897, an article about the community titled “Negro Colony in Alabama: An English Literary Woman’s Plan to Solve the Race Problem in the South” appeared in the New York Times.

“I always tell people that before there was Providence (the heralded multi-use development in Huntsville), there was Cedar Lake,” Edmonds said. “It was a close-knit community. The hub was the school and the three churches. Everyone worked together and cared for each other. If you wanted to succeed, you had the backing of the community. There were no excuses.”

Through her career in workforce development and on-the-job training programs, serving on the boards of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, Decatur City Schools Foundation, United Way of Morgan County, Celebrating Early Old Town in Art, Cedar Lake Improvement Association and Tennessee Valley Historical Committee and volunteering with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Volunteer Center of Morgan County and Community Free Clinic of Decatur-Morgan County, Edmonds has shared those values of determination, fortitude and self-worth with thousands.

One of those people was Angela McLemore.

Now a 47-year-old nurse practitioner with Decatur Morgan OB-GYN, McLemore met Edmonds when, as an 18-year-old mother of a 2-year-old son, she walked into the employment office looking for a job. She had no resume and no skills – she thought.

“I felt like I was worth less than a penny. When Venessa asked me if I had worked before, I told her I had been a cashier. I still remember the joy I felt when she said, ‘That’s a skill.’ She helped me create a resume. It was short and sweet, but it had a skill on it. Venessa gave me a floppy disc with the resume on it and I kept slinging it around listening to it inside. I was so proud of that resume,” McLemore said.

The hour McLemore spent with Edmonds changed her life.

“She made me feel like I had the ability to be whatever I wanted to be. She saw what I couldn’t see in myself. When I walked out of that office, I knew I had value,” McLemore said. “I think sometimes people like her go unnoticed. They are just faces in the crowd, but they have touched so many lives.”

Edmonds, who retired in 2019, dismissed the praise, instead pointing to those who influenced her.

There was her father, who worked at Goodyear, pastored in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and who, along with her uncles, served in World War II. There was her mother, who graduated from Alabama State. There was her Uncle Henry and her Aunt Rose who were educators in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement. There were her grandparents and great-grandparents — pillars of the community. There was her Aunt Mary, who graduated from Alabama A&M University and taught in Chicago.

“When I look at how my ancestors defied all the obstacles they encountered, I had no excuse,” Edmonds said. “They instilled in me that I was just as smart as anyone else, that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to and to not allow other people to ascribe to me who they thought I was.”

She recalled a story about her Aunt Mary, a distinguished and elegant woman.

“She had just graduated from college and was home. A car pulled slowly through the neighborhood. The driver rolled down her window and asked my aunt if she was interested in cleaning her house. Aunt Mary said, ‘I’m not interested in cleaning your house. I’m trying to find someone to clean my house. Are you interested?’ That’s how I grew up, to, regardless of what people say, recognize who I was and not compromise that,” Edmonds said.

Edmond graduated from Austin High, attended Alabama A&M, earned a master’s degree in education, and completed additional training at the University of Michigan and Kennesaw State University.

Outside of her career, Edmonds’ influence extended to serving as national director for youth for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, as the chair of the diversity committee of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, as a member of Delta Sigma Theta public service sorority, as outreach leader at Alabama Fork Cumberland Presbyterian Church and as organizer of job fairs to connect ex-offenders with work opportunities.

“People ask me why I do everything I do. I know no other way. It was what I saw as a child,” Edmonds said. “If I am able to do it and I feel that it will impact somebody’s life for the positive and if it’s within my power to do it, I will do it. I want to make a positive impact on anybody that I can.”

That includes taking time to speak to and read to students at area schools.

“As a child, I don’t ever recall having an African-American come and speak to my class, as if there was no one qualified to speak,” Edmonds said. “To me it is so important for students to see individuals who look like them who come in a professional manner that they can look at and go, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’”

For her work in the community, Edmonds received an award from the Decatur-Morgan County Development Association for outstanding community service and the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce’s Athena Leadership Award.

“Venessa’s level of compassion and civic engagement not only in this area but also in north Alabama is outstanding,” said the Rev. Wylheme Ragland, who has been acquainted with Edmonds for over 30 years.

Along with continuing to serve the community, Edmonds, a music lover, hopes to find time to learn the piano. Edmonds credited Johnnie Horton, Romana Humphrey, Marvalene Moore, Clara Kee Johnson and Lovie Ford, her first African-American teacher in Decatur City Schools, for instilling in her a love for music.

“I took piano lessons for several years growing up and can find middle C. One of my goals when I retired was to learn to play the piano. I just haven’t had any time,” Edmonds said.

A fourth-generation Cumberland Presbyterian, Edmonds’ purpose and mission in life stems from Proverbs 31: 8-9. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” She also lives by the saying, “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on Earth,” by the late Shirley Chisholm, who, in 1968, was the first Black woman elected to Congress.

“We need to realize we are all human beings and we were all created in God’s image,” Edmonds said. “That’s what I want every little girl and every little boy, no matter what color they are, to realize. They are created in God’s image and because they are created in his image, they have value. Could you imagine how wonderful the world would be if everyone was functioning where God called them to be?”