On May 31, 1967 Thelma Atkins-Riley became the first African American to graduate from Greensville County High School. She was recently recognized by Emporia Mayor Mary Person for her long list of accomplishments, including her extensive community service to improve the quality of life in Emporia-Greensville.
Whether it’s volunteering long hours at the Community Youth Center, building homes with Habitat for Humanity or other service projects in Emporia-Greensville, most local residents will run into Atkins-Riley on more than one occasion. She is known as a go-to person that others seek when they need something done.
Atkins-Riley, the daughter of the late Annie Idell Harrison-Atkins and the late George Edward Atkins, Sr., was raised in Washington Park by her grandparents, the late Peter and Annie Harrison. Her grandparents molded her into the individual that would eventually take a difficult step into Greensville County history.
Nearly 54 years ago, in the fall of 1965, Atkins-Riley proved she had the faith and courage to step out of her comfort zone and began a new chapter in Greensville County.
“The ploy to deprive Blacks the opportunity of an equal education by implementing the Freedom of Choice Movement, was used by some of the school systems to bypass integration of public schools,” she said. “Therefore, the challenge was handed down to the youth. I accepted that challenge, and like a champion, I went along with other members of our NAACP Youth Council. Our daily struggles of fighting feelings of despair, being fatigued from endless exposure to white hostility, and having to endure condescension and insensitivity, has proven to be worthwhile in ending racism in the Greensville County School System.”
The mayor discussed Atkins-Riley’s achievements in Greensville County and said that on Aug. 1, 1992 Atkins-Riley was inducted into the Virginia State NAACP Civil Rights Hall of Fame for her contribution to the Freedom of Choice Movement.
On Sept. 6, 1997 she was presented the Trailblazer Award and featured as a contributor to the S.W. Tucker Civil Rights Handbook the Civil Rights Journey of Virginia. When Person completed her presentation all in the City Council Chambers applauded Atkins-Riley for her accomplishments.
Atkins-Riley earned the titles of RN, BSN and MAEd by continuing her education and headed the Practical Nursing Programs and was the Nurse Aide Educational Programs Coordinator at Southside Virginia Community College. She is also a retired professor from SVCC. Back in 1965 there were some who told Atkins-Riley she would never even make it to college.
“Although that period of my life was far from having fun, and learning and sharing cultural differences, I made it,” Atkins-Riley said. “I can favorably look back over that period of my life as a positive learning experience and a period of growth and strengthening. The color of my skin is not a determining factor in achieving excellence. I was told by my white teachers that I would never go to college. “Just take Typing and Home Economics so you can get a good job after high school’, they would advise. Little did they know of my determination, and little did they know of my God.”
Atkins-Riley serves as a Deacon at Salem Baptist Church and is proud of her sons Michael and Shawn Riley, and daughters in-law, Rachel and YuVonda Riley.
Her work as president of the Community Youth Center has recently brought the site’s swimming pool unto detained it is now the only public swimming pool in the County.
The mayor quoted Atkins-Riley as she finished her presentation, saying, “A few words of wisdom that I have learned along the way-- “The pain will subside, the legacy will fade and the struggles of life will continue. But through persistence, commitment, collaboration, cooperation and striving for excellence you can and will succeed. To my young folk -- It’s your turn, Step up to the plate and don’t let anyone dictate your future. You hold the key to your future. Dream big and never give up!