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Longtime civil rights activist honored in Woonsocket
Josephine "Josie" Byrd is a pioneer for the Black community in the city and the state...
The Community Care Alliance (CCA) officially named the building at 245 Main Street in Woonsocket the Josephine Byrd Community Services Building during a dedication ceremony on Tuesday, in honor of Josephine "Josie" Byrd's decades of civil rights activism and advocacy on behalf of disenfranchised individuals and families, and her ongoing public service in Woonsocket.
"Those of you that know and love Josie know that she's all about community," said Benedict Lessing, President and CEO of CCA. Lessing was emceeing the event and there were around 100 people in attendance. "She's been about community since she moved to Woonsocket in the sixties. She was intimately involved in the civil rights movement and civil rights activities here in the city. She has always been trying to make this a better place for Black people, a better place for everyone that lives in this community. She and her family were instrumental in founding St. James Baptist Church. Faith has always been a big part of Josie's life. She was, as you will note from the write-up, my assistant, but I would like to say that she was more of my advisor."
As noted in the biography made available at the event, Josephine Byrd was born to a sharecropper family in the rural south. Today “she is an octogenarian, and a pioneer for the Black community who has made Woonsocket, Rhode Island her home and, through her work, a better place for 63 years.
“When Josie arrived, Woonsocket was noted for industrial manufacturing, and Josie worked, making everything from pot scrubbers to tennis shoes to designer sneakers. In 1969 when the Uniroyal Footwear Company closed Josie received a severance allowance and the opportunity to go to a school of higher learning for retraining. That is how Josie earned her business certificate. At that time, Black people 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 at A.T. Cross, advancing from clerk to secretary for the Quality Control Manager, a role she held for 23 years.
“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. She is beloved by staff and community members alike, many of whom have gratefully received her words of wisdom and encouragement.”
"I really feel as if we've reached a point where we need a thousand more Josie Birds," said Lessing. "And so we dedicate this building to her today because she's a model. She's a model for what we should strive to be in terms of compassion, in terms of empathy, and in terms of community. We are very pleased to dedicate this building to Josephine Byrd."
Speakers at the event included Reverend Jeffrey Thomas, St. James Baptist Church and Board Chair of Community Care Alliance; David Cicilline, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, Former United States Congressperson, and former Mayor of Providence; Family member Pam Williams, who provided historical information about the family; and Garrett Mancieri, Woonsocket City Council member, presenting a special citation to Josie on behalf of the city.
As a teenage girl, "I wasn't excited about coming to Woonsocket," said Josie, taking her turn at the microphone. "I came here on January 1st, 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. 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 ... 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 probably I probably would've got caught up not knowing which corner to turn on."
Speaking about her past advocacy, Josie was forthright.
"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," said Josie. "I was on the committee pushing for the first Black policeman in the City of Woonsocket and that didn't happen until the eighties. 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.
"I found the job with a purpose for my life's journey, caring about and helping people in need," said Josie, describing her work at the CCA. Josie still takes on work at CCA, providing scheduling for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.
In 2003, Josie received the Paul Dempster Award for helping the homeless - the highest award offered by CCA; in 2023 she received the Appreciation Award for 20+ years of service and commitment to advocating for the social and human needs of Woonsocket citizens. Josie has received many other awards in the community for her social involvement, advocacy, and activism.
Josie stands on the shoulders of her mother and other domestic workers who have cared for the needs of others. "We're our sisters' and brothers' keepers," says Josie. 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.