Ann Woodford is on a quest to “make the invisible visible.”
The succinct mission statement combines her lifelong efforts to ensure that all people have access to opportunities for success, while working to reveal and preserve the history of African-Americans in the western North Carolina mountains.
Best known today as a historian, Woodford is actually a Renaissance Woman. She is an artist, entrepreneur, economic developer, and community activist.
“If you take the time to lift people up, there will be no time left to put people down,” she said. “I do all I can to help somebody as I walk along, so my living will not be in vain.”
A native of Andrews, where she grew up in the Happytop community, Woodford attended the one room – one teacher, Andrews Colored/Negro Elementary School through 8th grade. Due to segregation, Woodford moved to Asheville, NC, where she attended Allen High School, a girls’ boarding school. Graduating with honors, she attended Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, where she graduated cum laude in 1969 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
Woodford initially moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where she worked with The Young Life Campaign and the Pittsburgh public school system. She subsequently became a flight attendant and lived in New York City until her marriage in late 1970, when she moved with her husband to Columbus, Ohio.
In 1972, while working in a management training program with a department store, Woodford found customers constantly asking for African-American-themed greeting cards. When she contacted a several leading manufacturers, she was told there was no market for such a product. In response, she founded Purelann, Inc, a new company named in honor of her parents, Purel and Margaret Ann Miller, to produce African-American-oriented playing cards, stationary, and dolls.
Woodford moved to Los Angeles in 1982. As an artist/designer, she continued to create works of art and crafts which were marketed through E&A Global Enterprises, a firm she co-founded with the actress Esther Rolle.
In 1992, to help care for her mother who was suffering from cancer, Woodford returned to North Carolina for good and quickly became a trailblazer in the mountains. She served as the Cherokee County Arts Council Director, the Andrews Chamber of Commerce Director, and was the first African-American to work in local government in Cherokee County, serving as the County Planner.
Through her economic development work at the Chamber, she saw first-hand the need for a local initiative to help open opportunities for people of color. So, in 1997, she brought together other African-American women active in their community to establish One Dozen Who Care, Inc. (ODWC),
For more than two decades, the non-profit community development corporation has been building bridges between races, developing entrepreneurial opportunities and facilitating leadership opportunities for women and youth in far western North Carolina. Open to anyone, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or age, programs include computer training and professional skills development for all ages, youth training initiatives, and annual dinners honoring senior adults for their community service.
Woodford’s work as the ODWC executive director sparked a passion for local African-American history and the people who had lived it.
“We wanted to make sure that we honored our heritage,” she said.
For five years, Woodford traveled the mountains, interviewing and photographing for When All God’s Children Get Together: A Celebration of the Lives and Music of African American People in Far Western North Carolina, a book published in 2015 that traces the rich and diverse history of African- American families and institutions in the seven western North Carolina counties.
“The story of African-Americans in this part of the state is really a collection of stories,” she said “These are the stories of our work lives, churches, schools, teachers, and preachers. And they are stories of the lifestyle we had and how the black sports figures helped to bring down the barriers between the races when schools were integrated.”
Today, Woodford enjoys telling those stories in presentations to audiences throughout the region. Her theme is “Making the Invisible Visible.”
In addition to her work as a historian, Woodford continues to celebrate African-American history through her paintings, which are in remembrance of her father, grandfather, and other family members whom she often refers to as forgotten farmers, cowboys and community builders.
“In our region it feels like barriers are being brought down and people are working together better,” Woodford said. “It’s been an exciting journey, an adventure, for me to go out and talk with people about something that was very bad for us that has turned into much better days.”
— By Katelynn Patterson