By Cory L. Higgs
The year 2020 marks 150 years since the ratification of the 15th amendment and the 100th since the 19th that allowed women’s suffrage. Though these amendments were adopted over a century ago, one local woman will tell you, “there is always room for improvement.”
Annie Hylton, or as many call her “Miss Annie,” is one of the area’s rare gems. Her career with Patrick County Schools and a lifetime of teaching gained her the admiration of many she met.
Long before Hylton started her position in the school division, and before she ran for a seat on the county school board, she endured a less welcoming era.
Hylton was born and raised in Patrick County “many moons ago,” she said. Her family was agrarian and lived on the land, they were hard-working folks according to her. Hylton said her father was always a stickler for education and pushed her and her siblings to do the best that they could in school.
“I grew up on a farm where my father was a sharecropper. Dad had no money, he had six children, a wife, and a mother to take care of, but he made it work,” she said.
Hylton recalled her father pushing her and her siblings to get a good education, especially the girls, so that “we could take care of ourselves.”
Her father’s motto of having a good head on your shoulders led her to pursue a career in education. Hylton devoted much of her life to being an educator in some capacity throughout her career. She said she taught in Patrick County for 33 years, and upon retiring, she taught for an additional few years in Stokes County, N.C.
“I taught there for two years, bringing the number up to 35 (years), and I thought to myself it’s time to hang it up, hang it all up,” she said, chuckling as she added, “and that didn’t exactly work.”
Hylton said planned to pursue a job as an activity coordinator at the Blue Ridge Nursing Home, where she stayed for four years, but in true fashion, she was far from done.
She then obtained a position at the Patrick County Library, working in children’s programming, and after securing that job, continued to balance the two workplaces for a while before saying to herself, “hey, why are you doing this? you are getting too old” she said with a hearty laugh.
She then turned her primary focus to the library and the children’s programming, where she stayed for 17 years while balancing it with her service on the Patrick County School Board.
“I said after I retired, I wasn’t going to do anything, and I got to thinking about it and thought to myself ‘maybe I’ll run for a county office,’ and I ran for the board of supervisors,” she said.
Hylton remembers her campaign and losing to her opponent by a ‘marginal number.’ After that defeat, she decided to have a go at the county school board.
“I think it was against Rickie Fulcher, and I went up to the courthouse and got all my paperwork in order to run, and that’s what I did,” Hylton said. “I was elected in 2007 and took office in 2008.”
Hylton held her position on the school board for 12 years until her retirement in 2019. She also recently retired from her position at the library.
Now she says, “I need a job,” with a sense of humor and wit. “I’ve been around the block and back again.”
In the meantime, Hylton said she is catching up on her reading and her beauty sleep.
“I feel blessed,” she said.
Throughout her careers, she also has seen the county evolve.
Hylton said she can remember a time when her political career path would have been something she could have only dreamed about.
“It was something that was thought never to be possible. Some of the only opportunities available to Afro-American women were domestic jobs. I did some domestic work to make some money in college, and I didn’t particularly like it” she said.
The job market was not the only place Hylton said she experienced a lack of opportunity and rights. The idea of seeing a woman — let alone an African American woman — in politics was unheard of at the time. Even obtaining a job in fast food or in a restaurant was a stretch for a woman of color, Hylton said, adding that she recalled growing up and living in a Patrick County much different from the one we know today.
“I remember not being able to eat in restaurants or enter some buildings,” she said. When asked if her family could have attended school board meetings, she had to take a long hard brainstorm session before she said: “I guess we could have. We didn’t face racism that wasn’t already prevalent. There were certain places you couldn’t go, and certain things you couldn’t do. You couldn’t go in stores or shops; you couldn’t go into a restaurant to sit down and have a meal,” she said, “it has changed considerably since then, though.”
Even though the 15th Amendment was passed generations before Hylton’s birth, the scars of the war and the opposition from it were left behind. From the conception of the 15th Amendment, legislators installed and enforced laws that suppressed the freedoms it granted. The years of struggle came to a head in the 1960s with the emergence of the civil rights movement. Hylton remembers these days and said she remembered being hopeful that a positive change was on its way. “I was optimistic because I knew there had to be a breakthrough somewhere.”
Hylton said she grew up with these harsh facts of life and had the opportunity to see them chipped away with time. But even with the changes, she said there was a long road to a perfect society.
Recalling when she graduated from college, Hylton said she could only procure a job as a domestic worker under the then societal norms. She remembers applying for jobs as far away as New York City, N.Y., seeking a career outside of domestic work.
“You were never sure you’d ever get a job. You had to do farming or domestic work,” she said.
When she was a young woman, Hylton said there were little to no opportunities for women in the local government. However, she says the market is opening up more with the passing day and allowing for more women, especially women of color, more opportunities to enter into politics.
“I think it’s always a good idea to have women in all positions of not only government but the entire job market,” she said, “it’s time for women to be involved and represented.”
As of 2019, data shows women are moving into areas that were once male-dominated. In Virginia, legislators have seen a steady increase in female representatives over the years. In 2019, 28.9 percent of all legislators in the United States. Women serving office in the state of Virginia comprise 24 percent of female legislators, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website. Of that number, women of color represent a small percentage.
One thing is certain, according to Hylton. She had her fair share of “proving herself” against her male counterparts to be considered equal.
“It’s like that song, “It’s A Man’s World,” she said, adding “I’ve seen women struggle over the years to prove their equality to men.”
Although she has seen the area change drastically in her lifetime, and has experienced more in her life than most, Hylton said she is blessed to be where she is today.
However, she is looking forward to seeing what the next generation does, Hylton said, and added that she wants to see a more motivated youth take charge and get the job done.
“I hope people get along better and get on the same page,” and to keep working toward common goals, said Hylton. “There is always room for change.”