Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fochia Wilson, Kentwood, LA icon, forged lasting legacy

"The life of Mrs. Fochia Varnado Wilson is to be commended by not only Kentwood, but all of humanity who lost an historian, educator, community leader, and educator,"  shared genealogist, Antoinette Harrell.  On Saturday, March 27, 2010, Ms. Harrell was instrumental in helping the community to celebrate the life of Mrs. Wilson at the Women's History Event held at the Amite Branch of the Tangipahoa Parish Library in LA.  364 days later on Saturday, March 26, 2011 Mrs. Wilson departed this life.

Screen shot of obituary of Mrs. Fochia Wilson at

The daughter of Maggie and DeWitt Varnado born on May 9, 1923, Mrs. Wilson was a Depression Era graduate of Tuskegee University.  Previously from Rose Hill, Mississippi, she was a student, Home Economics educator, and former principal of Kentwood Elementary now known as O. W. Dillon Elementary named after Oliver Wendell Dillon, former.

Read about the history of O. W. Dillon which was once "The Tangipahoa Parish Training School, founded in 1911, was the first "county training school" in the entire South." See also Oliver Wendell Dillon - The Tangipahoa Parish Training School, by the Dillon Family.  See a memorial to the late Mrs. Verde Powell Dillon, wife of Oliver Wendell Dillon written by Mrs. Wilson while principal of Kentwood Elementary.

Mrs. Wilson was the first in her family to go to college.  She spoke of the excitement in her family about preparing to go to Tuskegee University in Alabama (formerly Tuskegee Institute:

All that spring, Mama was talking about Tuskegee, and I was talking about Tuskegee. And there was a period of time that they weren’t talking about Tuskegee too much. But I never gave up. . . . My daddy said, "Well, I’m going to put in more cotton, and I’m going to plant an extra couple acres. Whatever that yield, we’re going to use that money for going to school." One day my daddy came home with a trunk. And I knew then he had faith enough to know that I was going to be able to go to college. And then the university had sent an itemized list of things that you were to bring--galoshes, umbrellas--I never had seen galoshes before! My daddy had gone and bought galoshes for me and brought them back. I was the first one in my family to go to college. When he brought the galoshes, I don’t think I slept the whole week. I was so proud of my galoshes. And I studied my list and my checkoff. Whatever he get, I put it in that trunk.
Louisiana Voices--Fochia Wilson, Tangipahoa Parish
Mrs. Wilson later studied at Columbia University and received her Masters in Education degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

The following is a article telling about the 2007 O.W. Dillion High School Class of 1956 Reunion  from the African-American News and Issues Volume 12, Issue 2, (, TEXAS’ Widest Circulated and Read Newspaper with a Black Perspective.  The article written by Ms. Bianca Bless includes a photo of the class of 1956 and a more recent photo including teacher, Mary Tuffley Smith-teacher, and Fochia V. Wilson-principal:

Screen shot of 2007 O.W. Dillion High School Class of 1956 Reunion article
 More news of Mrs. Wilson' achievements from Kentwood Ledger clippings:
As a high school teacher, she taught food and sewing classes, sponsored clubs and student trips for many years.  After teaching numerous girls to be “young ladies”. In  1973 she was appointed as principal of Kentwood Elementary School, formerly Dillon Memorial High School.  She was honored as “Principal of the Year”.  She also served as a member of the Tangipahoa Parish Library, The Southeaster Louisiana Reading Council. 

Mrs. Wilson almost single-handedly raised money to pay for the computerization of the Kentwood Elementary Library. She is extremely supportative of any program, which will help educate the children in her charge and give them a better start in life.

“ I am a firm believer that schools exist for pupils; therefore, I envision my task as principal to offer the best possible environment conductive to learning. It is my belief that the school library should foster the enrichment of children’s lives-intellectually, personally, socially and culturally through reading and other activities of the library said Mrs. Wilson.

Mrs. Wilson has been a pioneer in many programs, which emphasize reading and the use of the library. Kentwood Elementary School became the first automated library in Tangipahoa Parish and it serves as a model for all other libraries in the parish. 

Because of Mrs. Wilson’s commitment, the Kentwood Elementary library is utilized to the maximum and provides unlimited service to its patrons.

Mrs. Fochia Varnado Wilson, former Principal of Kentwood Elementary School, was initiated into the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa on January 23, 1992.

(Extracts from Kentwood News Ledger clippings)

Success with Sweet Home

Mrs. Wilson was the founder and curator of Sweet Home African American History Museum and coordinated the Sweet Home Folk Life Days Festival.  It was through the pioneering efforts of Mrs. Fochia Wilson  that the Sweet Home community became open to preserving and sharing their heritage.

Sweet Home African American History Museum, Mrs. Portia Wilson.  Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

“The key to the African American community was placing the project leadership in the hands of Ms. Fochia. When she is in charge, the information floodgates open. Through both earned trust and gained respect, the African American community of Sweet Home cracked the window and let us in,” explains Sharon Calcote, Louisiana Office of Tourism.  See Sweet Home Folklife Days.
“We were told we were unique. We didn’t know we were unique,” explains Ms. Fochia Varnado Wilson, a former school principal who is the Sweet Home Museum curator and a respected community matriarch. “We were ashamed that we were brought up the way we were. We were embarrassed because we were poor. Then we learned that these things—the things we know—and the things we do—are special. And we want to pass them on to our younger generations so they don’t die out with us.” Sweet Home Folklife Days.
"We lost a jewel.  Mrs. Fochia Wilson had a tremendous passion for reading.  She knew her ancestors had been deprived and she new the importance of not only reading but also recording your history through writing.  I did not have the pleasure of being taught by her, but I have met many who love and respect her.  She helped to change so many lives."

"The people of Kentwood do not disconnect from the appreciating their elders.  They do not forget poineers like Mrs. Fochia Wilson nor from whence they have come.  Until the day she died, she was still working in the vineyard.  I have met so many historians in the past three years of my life, and they have taught me so much.  We must continue to uplift, embrace, and carry on  the legacy of Mrs.Wilson," said Antoinette Harrell who believes that we need more special collections to preserve the history hidden in dusty attics, barns, and basements.

 More links

Photo of Mrs. Wilson at Kentwood Ledger on Facebook 

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