You probably never heard of Charles Finley. He would have wanted it that way. Finley was president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association, but to some, he was Jackson Ward. After he died late last month, more than 300 people, including much of the city's brass, filled the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church for his funeral.
I was a white newcomer in Richmond's most historic black neighborhood, the home of a generation of former slaves as well as the nation's first female bank president, Maggie Walker, Richmond Planet Editor John Mitchell and a host of others who built a thriving community out of nothing but grit and determination. I felt a little out of place, but Finley put me at ease. He made it clear that my opinion was valued. I considered him a friend and mentor.
Finley never sought the limelight. He was happy just to get things done. I'm not sure I ever saw his name in the paper.
Finley was born on the Fourth of July in Winchester. He had lifelong passion for music. Graduating from high school at 16, he attended the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music for two years before transferring to Virginia State University to earn a master's degree in public school music education. One of his first jobs was to found the band program at Colonial Beach High School. In 1970, he became the band and choir director at Charles City High School. He went on to work 30 years as an assistant superintendent with the Virginia Department of Education.
After retiring, Finley served on many boards and commissions and committees, but he may be remembered for his personal qualities more than his accomplishments.
The crowd at his funeral spoke volumes about the man. Some 50 of his Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers attended. Former co-workers from decades past were there. So were his new friends from the neighborhood association. Politicians who sought his advice paid tribute. All said the same thing: Finley was a good friend and a patient listener who never let his ego get in the way of getting something done.
His proudest achievement was the resurrection of Jackson Ward, but his fingerprints are all over the city in ways most people will never know. But the-powers-that-be who beat a path to his door know. So, too, do the people he helped and befriended along the way.