Strong Men and Women in Virginia History

Throughout the state, African American men and women have overcome difficult obstacles to enrich their communities, better their lives, and pave the paths for future generations. Erma L. Freeman, Gregory L. Robinson, Tyrone Foster, and Janet H. Days all have had exemplary careers, with achievements ranging from over 20 years of service on the Bristol Police (Foster) to launching the James Webb Space Telescope (Robinson). Read on to learn more about their lives and why they were honored in 2024 as Strong Men and Women of Virginia., opens a new window

Dr. Erma L. Freeman, Firsts in Dentistry

Erma Freeman became the first African American woman to graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) School of Dentistry and went on to run her own dental practice for decades. Growing up, Freeman’s family was impoverished, and they could rarely afford dental services. She first visited a dentist at the age of 21, opens a new window because of a toothache that gave her severe pain. Her path to VCU’s School of Dentistry proved long and difficult. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the late 1960s in biology and first worked as a high school teacher, opens a new window in Lynchburg, Virginia. She received an invitation from VCU to enter its School of Dentistry in 1973, after she had taught for four years.  

Attracted to dentistry by its flexible work hours and generous income, Freeman faced a challenging environment in which to obtain her degree. VCU’s dental faculty at the time was comprised entirely of white men, and there were very few students in the program who were African American or female. Freeman felt, opens a new window that she was “constantly in a jar on display for everyone to see” during her time there.1 Despite the stressful environment, Freeman prevailed and graduated in 1977, going on to open a private dental practice in Ettrick, Virginia, opens a new window, which operated for 20 years. After the Ettrick practice closed, she worked as a dentist for the Virginia Department of Corrections for another 13 years before retiring. She became the first African American woman to serve on the Virginia Board of Dentistry in 1993, opens a new window. Since her retirement, she continues to serve as an ambassador in promoting careers in dentistry to African American youth. 

Gregory L. Robinson, NASA Program Director

Gregory Robinson has prospered over a long scientific career at NASA, ending with his time as Program Director, opens a new window for the James Webb Space Telescope from 2018 to 2022. Despite a life so exemplary it led to the stars, Robinson did not dream of working at NASA as a child. He was born the son of African American sharecroppers in Danville, Virginia, and attended segregated schools until 1970, opens a new window, then got a full scholarship to Virginia Union University with the help of his football skills. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering via Virginia Union's dual degree program, which required his transfer to Howard University., opens a new window

During his time at Howard, Robinson first became interested in working at NASA. Robinson said, opens a new window of his interest in spaceflight, “Once you walk through the gate and get started, the bug bites you fast and the bug never stops biting.”2 Webb started his career at NASA in 1989 and became a manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center, opens a new window. Later, he worked as the deputy director of the Glenn Research Center, opens a new window and was NASA’s Deputy Chief Engineer from 2005 to 2013. He capped his NASA career by successfully launching the Webb Telescope in a massive operation that required the cooperation, opens a new window of nearly 20,000 people in 29 states and 14 countries. After he telescope launched and began transmitting images from space, Robinson retired from NASA. He currently works as a lecturer at Columbia University, opens a new window.

Tyrone Foster, Sheriff of Bristol

Tyrone Foster has served as sheriff of the City of Bristol, Virginia, opens a new window, since his election in 2022. This is his first term as sheriff, but his call to service has taken many forms, from a career with the Bristol Police Department, starting in 2000, to serving on the Bristol City School Board from 2008 until he became sheriff. Raised in the 1960s while Virginia was still segregated, Foster graduated from Bristol's Virginia High School, opens a new window in 1976, opens a new window with a dream of joining the Air Force, to be followed by a career with the Virginia State Police. Instead, he started working in an Electrolux factory while playing basketball for his college scholarship.

Foster was employed by appliance manufacturer Electrolux, opens a new window for more than 20 years. He was finally able to realize his dream of a law enforcement career in 2000, when a position with the Bristol Police Department opened. He worked in a variety of positions for the Bristol PD, including detective, crisis negotiator, and senior gang investigator. He was also elected to the Bristol City School Board in 2008, opens a new window, and was named president of the Virginia School Boards Association in 2018, also earning the organization’s Award of Distinction., opens a new window  Serving as the first, opens a new window African American sheriff of Bristol, Foster has enriched his community by working with police and fire chiefs to improve public safety and promoting programs to help eliminate youth drug use.

Captain Janet H. Days, Commanding Officer of Naval Station Norfolk

Captain Janet H. Days is the first African American female CO of the Norfolk station and has had a long and distinguished military career. Days is an alumnus of Old Dominion University, opens a new window (ODU), graduating in 1999, and went on to earn a masters in business administration from the Naval Postgraduate School. Over her time in the Navy, she served on several ships, including the U.S.S. Forrest Sherman, U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and U.S.S. McFaul. Days became Executive Officer of Naval Station Norfolk in September 2021, opens a new window and was promoted to serving as the station’s Commanding Officer in February 2023. 

Days has received many awards over the course of her naval career, including the Legion of Merit, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, among others. When she assumed command, opens a new window of Naval Station Norfolk, she became the first African American CO in the 106-year history of the base. A featured speaker at ODU’s 2024 commencement, opens a new window exercises, Days strives to be a role model to all women interested in military careers. She says that the importance of her career is “to show young ladies–not just African American young ladies–that the opportunities you get are all based on hard work.”3


  1. “Personality: Dr. Erma L. Freeman.” Richmond Free Press. July 9, 2019. Accessed May 2024.
  2. Treisman, Rachel. “How the Son of Sharecroppers Helped Send the World’s Most Powerful Telescope to Space.” NPR Morning Edition, July 15, 2022. Accessed May 2024.
  3. Garvey, Joe. “ODU Alumna Becomes First Black Female Commanding Officer of Naval Station Norfolk.” ODU, February 3, 2023. Accessed May 2024.