Monday, February 9, 2015
Setting the Record Straight: Virginia Proctor Powell Florence
First, here's a little bit about the life of Virginia Proctor Powell Florence. Virginia was born in October 1897 in the Wilkinsburg area of Pittsburgh. Her life is notable because she was the first black female to receive a degree in library science. Virginia graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1919 and then applied to the Carnegie Library School (now the University of Pittsburgh's School of Library & Information Sciences). Her acceptance into the program was no small feat.
After her graduation in 1923, she went on to work in high schools located in Brooklyn, New York; Washington, DC; and Richmond, Virginia. Her husband, Charles Wilbur Florence, was also from Pittsburgh and received a master's degree in education, pursued a doctorate at Harvard, and was president of Lincoln University in Missouri. What a couple! The family papers of Charles & Virginia are located in the University of Pittsburgh Archives.
Wikipedia and other sources indicate that Virginia's parents both died in 1913 when she was a teenager and that she went to live with her aunt. After searching for her parents' death certificates on Ancestry.com to see what caused her to lose both parents in the same year, I discovered that the information was incorrect.
Virginia did go to live with her aunt (in her grandmother's household) since she can be found there in the 1920 census. But her widower father was still alive and living with his brother. Edward Powell lived until July 1945, and was buried in Homewood Cemetery. Virginia's signature appears on his death certificate as the informant.
I couldn't find his wife Caroline at all in the PA death certificates for 1906-1963. Since it makes sense that she might have been buried in the same cemetery as her husband, I searched Find A Grave for a Caroline Powell. There was a match in Homewood Cemetery with the death year of 1904. FamilySearch has Pittsburgh death registrations from 1870 to 1905, so I searched there and found a Carrie Powell who died in 1904. Her age, maiden name of Proctor, and Wilkinsburg residence matched. The record indicates that she died of pneumonia when Virginia was only 6 years old.
I'm not sure where the 1913 story came from, but I'm glad I checked the facts. It's important to get the story right, even though the dates of her parents' deaths are a small part in the life of a remarkable woman.