Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

A true community hero is honored in Woonsocket

Black matriarch Josephine Byrd has a building named in her honor

Photo by Richard Asinof

Josephine "Josie" Byrd, who was honored by having a building named after her in downtown Woonsocket.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/17/23
It is a big story when a Black woman has a building on Woonsocket named in her honor, a narrative about decades of civil rights activism, cultural diversity, and labor history.
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WOONSOCKET – On Wednesday, July 19, at 2 p.m., there will be a news conference to celebrate the arrival of The Dignity Bus, which had been purchased by the Woonsocket City Council, and is being hyped as “OUR win!” by Valerie Gonzalez, a member of the Woonsocket City Council.

But the true community victory occurred on Tuesday, June 27, when Josephine “Josie” Byrd had a building named in her honor in downtown Woonsocket, at 245 Main St., by the Community Care Alliance.

The naming of a building after a Black woman, a matriarch of the Woonsocket community, speaks volumes about the cultural diversity and industrial workers that too often gets left out of the narrative.

“This honor is given to Josie for decades of civil rights activism and advocacy on behalf of disenfranchised individuals and families and her ongoing public service in Woonsocket,” according to the brochure accompanying the ceremony.

The narrative of Josie’s life story is one that should be celebrated as part of Woonsocket’s rich, diverse cultural and labor roots – she had worked for both Uniroyal Footwear Company and A.T. Cross, making her way from the assembly line in the mills to the front office.

Under the headline, “The Great Josie Byrd,” the brochure provided a sense of her story of survival: “Born to a sharecropper’s family in the rural south, octogenarian and pioneer for the Black community, Josephine Byrd [Josie] has made Woonsocket her home and a better place for 63 years.”

The brochure continued: “When Josie arrived, Woonsocket was noted for industrial manufacturing, and Josie worked, making everything from pot scrubbers to tennis shoes and designer sneakers.”

In 1969, the brochure continued: “When the Uniroyal Footwear Company closed, Josie received a severance allowance and the opportunity to go to a school of higher learning for retraining, and that is how Josie earned her business certificate.”

At that time, the brochure explained, “Blacks were not allowed in the front office, and Josie had to persist in seeking secretarial work when raising her family required that she go back to work in the mills. In 1974, Josie was finally hired by A.T. Cross, advancing from clerk to secretary for the Quality Control manager, a role she held for 23 years.”

The brochure’s narrative continued: “In 2000, Josie was hired by Family Resource Community Action as the secretary to the CEO, Benedict Lessing, who continues as the CEO of Community Care Alliance today.”

Purpose for my life’s journey
Josie, the brochure said, “is beloved by staff and community members alike, many of whom have gratefully received her words of wisdom and encouragement. Josie described her experience: “I found the job with a purpose for my life’s journey caring about and helping people in need. We’re our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers,” she said.

Josie is one of 16 children, married for 50 years to the late Richard Byrd, and mother of three children – the late Rodney Byrd, Ryan Byrd and Jeanne Byrd Adams – and has five grandchildren.

Her own story, in her own words
At the ceremony, Josie took hold of the microphone and shared her story, in her own words, as reported by Steve Ahlquist.

As a teenage girl, Josie began, “I wasn’t excited about coming to Woonsocket. I came here on Jan. 1, 1960, and there was snow on the ground. I had never seen snow like that before. Cold. I just got sick and didn't want to get out of bed, I just wanted to stay under the covers. I didn’t even want to look at the snow.”

Josie continued: “My brother-in-law brought myself and Jesse to school for the first day. I walked into the school and I saw nothing but white people. I had come from a segregated school in the South. We’re talking culture shock.”

But, she said, “I learned how to integrate because I did a spur-of-the-moment integration into the system. I’ve come a long way because now I see people. When I walked into that school that day, I didn’t see people. I saw white people. But today I see people. I see God’s rainbow that he hung in the sky, all the beautiful colors. It was by the grace of God that we did come to Rhode Island, because some of the other big cities I probably would’ve got caught up not knowing which corner to turn on.”

Forthright about advocacy
“Woonsocket has not always been friendly to Black people. We had to protest for fair housing. We had to fight for Black policemen on the force, and I got my first Black city elected official elected with an error in our brochure and $1,200,” she said.

Josie continued sharing her story, as reported by Ahlquist: “I was on the committee pushing for the first Black policeman in the City of Woonsocket, and that didn't happen until the 1980s. Martin Luther King’s birthday - I was at the Capitol building in Providence, making sure that it became a holiday in Rhode Island. So I’ve done some stuff.”

Whose story gets told?
No doubt there will be some hoopla attached to the arrival of The Dignity Bus in Woonsocket, to be utilized as a stop-gap housing mechanism for those city residents who are at risk of becoming unhoused.

David Cicilline, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, attended the ceremony honoring Josephine Byrd, on Tuesday, June 27.

The next day, on Wednesday, June 28, Gov. Dan McKee, who did not attend the naming of the building in Woonsocket for Josephine Byrd, did choose to attend the grand opening of the Boys & Girls Club Woonsocket Clubhouse.

There is no word on whether or not Gov. McKee or Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos has been invited to attend the news conference for The Dignity Bus on Wednesday, July 19. Or, if David Cicilline, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, one of the principal funders for The Dignity Bus, has been invited to attend the news conference on July 19.

Cicilline was not included in the email sent out by Valerie Gonzalez on Thursday evening, July 13. It is also not clear if Josephine Byrd has been invited to attend the news conference.

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